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A spiritual journey

Special to The Times

“Those are precious.”

Precious? The objects I’m peering at are charred and pitted chunks of sandstone that look as though they’ve been retrieved from a fire pit -- because they have.

This is the Frauenkirche in Dresden, an elegant historic Protestant cathedral, and the charred stones signify something precious indeed.

On Feb. 13, 1945, British and American planes began bombing this city in eastern Germany. About six square miles of Dresden -- three times the area of West Hollywood -- were obliterated, including the Frauenkirche. The number of dead could never be calculated definitively because there were so many refugees in the city, but estimates run from 25,000 to as many as 135,000.

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Dresden was not the first cathedral city devastated during World War II. In November 1940, German bombers zeroed in on Coventry, in the British Midlands, damaging more than 50,000 homes and destroying all but the walls and spires of St. Michael’s Cathedral.

Coventry finished a new cathedral in 1962, and 30 years later Dresden started rebuilding the Frauenkirche.

Remarkably, the British city made a point of helping the German city.

Few places are so singularly devoted to reconciliation after war, so willing to do the hard work of rebuilding, to sing the song of forgiveness. Dresden and Coventry long had much in common. Both are historic European gems -- with castles, churches, cathedrals, museums, priceless artworks, colorful legends and mind-boggling treasure. They became involuntary brethren crippled by war. Now they are twin symbols of peace. And their two cathedrals are paired light posts of human possibility.

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Visiting them is a unique spiritual journey. As I learn the structural and spiritual significance of the Frauenkirche’s charred stones, I feel slender threads of yearning and kinship around me.

Some travel experiences are so unexpectedly intense that, unbidden, they bring tears to my eyes.

This is one.

ORIGINAL PIECES

My volunteer guide, the docent who is explaining the church’s reconstruction to me, radiates warmth. I’m in Dresden by sheer happenstance, and I’m learning of this place’s resurrection as he tells me of it. No doubt he can see the effect on me.

“These burned stones are pieces of the original altar we were able to rescue from the ruins,” this grandfatherly, white-haired guide says. “You can see them throughout. As much as possible, we laid them back in their original spots.

“That’s why they’re so important. They represent the past and the future. Despair and hope.” He beams.

They also represent the vision of one remarkable man.

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The morning of Nov. 15, 1940, Coventry parish provost Dick Howard walked into the ruins of the historic St. Michael’s, a medieval monument that had been hit during German carpet-bombing raids the night before. The church had caught fire, and the roof collapsed.

Near the altar, Howard stumbled on a charred piece of roof beam and, picking it up, inscribed in charcoal on the 570-year-old stone wall two plain words:

“Father Forgive.”

Thus began a quest to turn the ruins of war into a catalyst of peace, a mission that has spread from this simple stone alcove around the world.

Two more charred beams were formed into a cross by a stonemason and placed on the altar.

The ancient roof nails were collected and, after the war, fashioned into crosses sent to Kiel, Dresden and Berlin.

The St. Michael’s parish dedicated itself to fostering peace. The city of Coventry joined hands with Stalingrad (now Volgograd), Russia, inventing the sister-city movement. The Dresden ties grew into a full partnership in the early 1990s. All that, because Dick Howard was moved toward healing rather than hate.

LEARNING THE STORY

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His original charcoal inscription, which could not have long withstood the persistent rains of the British Midlands, has been reset in brass lettering embedded in the stone. A replica charred-wood cross stands slightly askew on the altar.

I’ve come to Coventry -- I was compelled to come to Coventry -- to complete my own understanding of the story of the two cities.

A few unobtrusive plaques and memorials, including a sculpture of two human figures embracing, dot the grounds of the Coventry ruin, which is still open to the sky that rained destruction. A clutch of graceful yellow flowers tickles the foot of an entryway pillar.

On a mild May morning, with clouds chasing momentary braces of sunlight, standing before Howard’s legacy, I still cannot fathom the why.

Not why war. This is clearly no place to ponder the meaning of war. Instead, I wonder what quality led Howard to foster forgiveness.

He made his choice during England’s darkest days. Hitler’s armies had seized much of Europe, and Britain’s opposition looked futile.

Howard could not have known how things would turn out. Picking a path of peace was certainly far from obvious.

After the war, leaving the ruins as they were, the people of St. Michael’s parish built a new cathedral next door, a modernistic concrete and stained-glass hall that was dedicated in 1962.

At the greeters’ desk, I ask directions of a compact, brisk elder whose name tag says “Hazel Hedland.” Just before I head off to the sanctuary, it occurs to me she might help answer my question. Did she know Provost Howard?

“I did,” she replies. “His wife worked with me at this desk for years.”

“So can you tell me what led him to make the choice he did? Trying to build forgiveness out of the ruins of war at a moment of such despair. It seems incomprehensible.”

She considers this question for a moment, as if I were asking her to explain rain.

“Well,” she says, as matter-of-factly as a seamstress choosing a thread, “he was an incredibly kind man. That’s just who he was.”

POSTWAR YEARS

After the war, while Coventry rebuilt, the Frauenkirche remained in ruins for almost 50 years. Locked within the communist shackles of East Germany, the city lacked the energy and the money to rebuild significantly.

It wasn’t until 1990 that Dresden began to pick up the pieces. An international group, the Society to Promote Reconstruction of the Frauenkirche, began drawing support from around the world.

In the United States, Friends of Dresden included David Rockefeller and Henry Kissinger. In Britain, the Dresden Trust included the bishop of Coventry.

Today, the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) has been painstakingly rebuilt in its original Baroque glory, in its original location in the heart of Renaissance Dresden. It was rededicated in 2005 after nearly 13 years of work.

Now it practically shimmers. Ornate gilded statues and fillips contrast with the spare sandstone of the altar and pillar bases. A 4,790-pipe organ is resplendent in the nave. In the dome almost 90 feet above, pastel-hued paintings depict the four evangelists of the New Testament. Anything recognizable was rescued from the pile of rubble in 1993 -- 2,000 original altar pieces alone -- and what could not be reused was re-created.

Not only did citizens of Coventry help raise the money to rebuild the Frauenkirche, but they also sent talismans from their own ruined church, completing an act of reconciliation.

This is the part of the story about which the church docent becomes most animated as he relates it to me.

“There” -- he points behind the altar -- “is the cross of nails Coventry sent us. It’s from the ruins of their cathedral roof.” This artifact is an angular, unadorned crucifix like none other I’ve ever seen. It was created by Alan Smith, whose father was one of the bomber pilots in the 1945 raid.

“And up above, on the steeple outside, is a star that was given to us by Britain.”

“Were you here?” I ask him, but he misunderstands the word.

“Yes! I went over to Coventry,” he tells me, eyes alight.

“No, I mean here. In 1945?”

His face stills, like a momentary stoppage in a stream. He gives a slight nod, then renews his smile.

“War is no good. Not for anything. So much waste.

“But look what we have now.”

RETALIATION?

The tides of European history have swept human blood back and forth between this place and that, between conflict and congress, for centuries. Understanding it is a lifetime venture.

Debate persists about what happened to Coventry and Dresden. Why did German bombers take out the cathedral when the factories of Coventry were nowhere near? It was the only British cathedral reduced to rubble during the war.

And did Winston Churchill order the destruction of ancient Dresden in retaliation? There was no military target within miles.

In Coventry and Dresden, there are parallels and layers of meaning that lend texture and depth to the experience of being here. Each is a smallish city -- 300,000 and 500,000 residents, respectively. Both cities are ancient capitals of Europe, places of power whose pasts lend weight to the present.

Dresden was one of the two capitals of August the Strong, a Saxon king who ruled northeast Europe in the early 1700s; here, he amassed a fabled treasure and put it on public display in the Green Vault, the first such “museum” on Earth.

The Green Vault, reconstructed and reopened just last year, has a collection that makes the jewels in the Tower of London look like trifles.

Coventry, meanwhile, was the de facto capital of England during the Wars of the Roses (1455-84); Henry VI’s court often sat in St. Mary’s Guildhall, just across the lane from what was St. Michael’s, in the late 1400s. And both cities birthed 20th century automobile industries.

Each city’s beloved church reflected a populist beginning: Frauenkirche was built by the Lutheran citizens of Dresden at their own expense to remind the Catholic August that although he was king, he did not rule their souls.

St. Michael’s was just a parish church until it gained cathedral status in 1918.

I love old European cities where cobblestone lanes lead between centuries-old buildings, where kings and cardinals trod in royal robes beneath Northland rains, where someone you might meet at dinner can trace his ancestry back 22 generations. These marvels of European travel are intrinsic to Dresden and Coventry.

There are places where people still nurture feuds 700 years old, which I have encountered firsthand in Eastern Europe. And there are innumerable spots around the Earth at which visitors can tread the fields -- Gettysburg, Pa.; the Normandy beaches of France; Auschwitz, Poland.

But in Dresden and Coventry I could not find, not in even one person, bitterness about the past or even the usual mild resentment tourists engender in places famed for dark deeds not of their own doing.

German tourists occasionally come through Coventry these days; occasionally, they are former Luftwaffe pilots. “I was leading a tour group from Germany a few years back, and several of the visitors asked, ‘Did we do this?’ ” says Roger Bailey, a local history guide. “Turned out a couple of them were pilots who had taken part in the 1940 raid. They said they came to let go of the bad memory.”

And how do Coventry residents feel about that?

“The war was a long time ago,” a street vendor tells me amiably, wrapping up a sandwich for my lunch in the Spon Street Farmers Market.

Actually, it wasn’t that long ago.

Standing where something happened allows a thoughtful traveler to absorb some sort of understanding. Proust said the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.

The new Coventry Cathedral now is the home of the Community of the Cross of Nails, dedicated to international reconciliation; parishioners hope to open a world center devoted to forgiveness and peace in 2012. Their challenge to visitors is that we taste a bit of the same ourselves.

“It all goes back to that one man at that one moment,” Roger Bailey tells me. “Dick Howard decided this was the right thing to do -- forgive -- and he changed our whole outlook on what happened here.”

Today, in both Coventry Cathedral and the Frauenkirche, visitors can join in a ceremony of reconciliation and prayer. At Coventry, the prayer hinges on Dick Howard’s two simple words:

“Father forgive -- the hatred which divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class.

“Father forgive -- the covetous desires of people and nations to possess what is not their own.”

Coventry Cathedral literature describes the parish’s experience in the simplest of terms: “We are a community of ordinary people who have been shown something extraordinary.”

They have, indeed. All they ask of the rest of us is that we stop by and take a few moments to pray for peace, and to forgive.

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Planning this trip

THE BEST WAY

From LAX to London, Air New Zealand, American, British, United and Virgin Atlantic offer nonstop service, and Northwest and US Airways offer connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip fares start at $471. From LAX to Dresden, Germany, Lufthansa offers connecting service. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $481.

WHERE TO STAY

Dresden

Kempinski Hotel Taschenbergpalais, 3 Taschenberg, Dresden; 011-49-351-49-12-0, www.kempinski-dresden.de. A sublime restored palace with high ceilings, sumptuous furnishings, an ideal central location and a vast gourmet breakfast buffet. Doubles begin in the off-season as low as $280.

Four Points by Sheraton Konigshof, 2 Kreischaer Strasse, Dresden; 011-49-351-873, www.starwoodhotels.com, is in the district of Strehlen, about eight miles from the airport. Doubles from $86.

Steigenberger Hotel de Saxe, 9 Neumarkt, Dresden; 011-49-351-438-60, www.steigenberger.com. Right in the historic city center. Doubles begin at $126.

Coventry

Coombe Abbey, Brinklow Road, Binley; 011-44-2476-450-450, www.coombeabbey.com. A historic property in the countryside about 15 minutes from central Coventry. It has rambling rooms, seemingly endless passageways, magnificent gardens and novelties such as bathrooms accessed by stairs offset from the bedroom. Doubles begin at $190, including breakfast.

The Abigail, 39 St. Patrick’s Road (off Friars Road); 011-44-24-7622-1378,

www.abigailuk.com. A guesthouse in the heart of Coventry. Includes breakfast. Doubles from about $91.

Menzies Leofric Coventry, Broadgate; 011-24-7622-1371, www.menzies-hotels.co.uk. Five minutes from St. Michael’s. Doubles begin at $126.

WHERE TO EAT

In Dresden, more than a dozen restaurants in and near the city center specialize in Saxon cuisine, which is a bit spicier than classic German cooking; the quintessential dish is sauerbraten made with a dark, aromatic raisin sauce.

Coselpalais Grand Cafe & Restaurant, 12 An der Frauenkirche; 011-49-351-496-2444, www.restaurant-dresden.de. One of the spiffiest Saxon purveyors. It’s in a glistening yellow reconstruction of a 1760 palace. Specialties include Saxon sour beef, pheasant breast with bacon, and venison goulash. Dinner for two runs about $100.

Radeberger Spezialausschank, 1 Terrassenufer; 011-49-351-484-8660. Housed in a tiny, atmospheric building perched along the Elbe River at the foot of the city walls. Specialties include Saxon potato soup, knuckle of pork and sauerbraten. Dinner for two is about $50, depending on your consumption of the tavern’s namesake Radeberger beer.

In Coventry, as in much of the Midlands, it is much easier to find Asian and Indian cuisine than traditional British fare.

Turmeric Gold, 166 Spon St.; 011-44-24-7622-6603, www.turmericgold.co.uk. At the edge of the medieval city center. This award-winning Indian restaurant spans the breadth of subcontinent cooking. Especially interesting are the Balti-style curries, a Midlands specialty in which each curry dish is prepared to order in its own wok. Dinner for two about $30 to $60.

TO LEARN MORE

German National Tourist Office, (800) 651-7010, www.visits-to-germany.com. Also see Dresden Tourist Information, www.dresden-tourist.de.

Visit Britain, (800) 462-2748, www.visitbritain.org. Also see www.visitcoventry.co.uk.

On travel.latimes.com

Dresden’s twinkling Striezelmarkt, storm clouds over Theaterplatz, the altar amid the ruins of Coventry’s St. Michael’s Cathedral. These and more photographs at latimes.com/dresden and latimes.com/coventry.

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DRESDEN & COVENTRY

From warfare to common ground

1938: Nazis destroy Semper Synagogue in Dresden.

July and August 1940: Small German air raids on Coventry kill several dozen people in this heavily industrial English city.

Nov. 14, 1940: The German Luftwaffe bombs Coventry in a 10-hour raid. About 60,000 buildings are damaged or destroyed, including the 14th century Coventry Cathedral. Nearly 600 people are killed.

April 8 to 10, 1941: Coventry is bombed again during the Easter week raids. Scores are killed.

Oct. 7, 1944: Dresden is bombed in a daytime raid.

Jan. 16, 1945: Dresden is bombed again.

Feb. 13 and 14, 1945: British and American forces lead a bombing raid on Dresden that creates a firestorm. Tens of thousands are killed. Some sources suggest the total was more than 100,000, but those may be inaccurate.

Feb. 15, 1945: Frauenkirche, or Church of Our Lady, collapses.

March 2, 1945: Dresden rail yards are bombed.

April 17, 1945: Dresden rail yards are bombed again.

1956: Dresden and Coventry enter a sister-city relationship.

1969: Novelist Kurt Vonnegut’s darkly humorous “Slaughterhouse-Five” is published; it draws on his experience as a prisoner during the Allied bombing of Dresden.

November 2004: A concert in Berlin, hosted by Queen Elizabeth II, raises money for the reconstruction of Frauenkirche.

Feb. 13, 2005: Cross of nails recovered from Coventry Cathedral is given to the Frauenkirche. It is made by Alan Smith, the son of one of the men who led the raid on Dresden.

October 2005: The baroque dome of Frauenkirche again dominates the skyline of Dresden.


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