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Berlin landmark of WWII is in dire need of benefactors

The Kaiser Wilhelm church, which was bombed during the war, faces closure unless $6 million is raised for repairs.

September 14, 2008|Crystal R. Reid | Associated Press

BERLIN — The jagged silhouette and smashed spire of Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church make it one of Berlin's most familiar symbols of World War II bombing. But it's in desperate need of repair, and a campaign to raise funds to fix it has fallen short of its goals.

Instead of being torn down or repaired, the half-ruin that became known as the "Hollow Tooth" was left standing as a reminder of war's destructive force.

But experts warn that its crumbling walls could become a danger to the more than 1 million visitors a year who stroll through its wrecked splendor.

Although the stones underwent restoration about two years ago, moisture is still seeping into cracks, which require round after round of sealing to keep the rocks from expanding and, ultimately, tumbling down to the street or the shattered remains of its foyer.

Wolfgang Kuhla, head of the memorial church management board, said a particularly cold winter might have structural consequences that would force the church to close to visitors by spring unless $6 million is raised for restoration work.

"If we have a very strong winter with very intense changes of temperature, there's certain risk" that the tower could get worse, he said. "We would have to start the renovations to avoid real danger."

The campaign to save the church began in November with a donation of 500 pounds, then about $1,000, from Charles Jeffrey Gray, who flew on British bombing raids over Berlin, though not on Nov. 3, 1943, when the church was hit.

His contribution attracted media attention in Britain and Germany, where about $740,000 was gathered, along with a pledge by the Berlin Senate of about $2.2 million, and a donation of nearly $15,000 by Hertha BSC, a Berlin-based professional soccer club, from the earnings of its fan shop.

But restorers say they're only about halfway to the sum they need to keep the church open.

Gray said he has tried collecting money in Britain, specifically from the remaining members of his RAF 61st Squadron and an association of bomber veterans.

"They all pleaded poverty," he said.

Some were dubious about the effort, noting it was Germany that started World War II.

But Gray said: "I thought since the people of Berlin wanted the tower to remain as a symbol of the futility of war, that they were right not to have pulled it down."

The church was built in the 1890s to honor Kaiser Wilhelm I, the first German emperor.

Gerd Mueller, 52, was born after the war ended and believes the building should be restored outright but not as a monument or war memorial.

"I find that horrible," he said, noting that Germany has too many reminders of darker times. "No other nation lives in the past like we do."

But Hannelore Weise, walking with her sister and brother-in-law through a nearby courtyard, said the church is beautiful and should remain so.

"You look at it, and it is thought-provoking," she said.

Kuhla said that to the younger generation, "it's a meeting point and it stands for the thrilling city of west Berlin."

On its steps stand market stalls for fruit, food and souvenirs. And in a nearby courtyard, street entertainers dazzle bystanders with acrobatics set to thumping techno beats.

And the fundraising continues. An EBay auction to climb the tower is drumming up interest, and soon 12 artists from around the world will paint portraits of the church for a Sept. 22 auction by Christie's in Berlin.

And for about $150, donors can sponsor a crack in the masonry and get their name on the wall once restoration is completed.

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