Cruising down the Rhine from Bonn to Koblenz on a lazy afternoon, the twin towers of Remagen bridge rose like black ghosts through the treetops on the west bank, making me sit up with a start. We were about 22 miles north of Koblenz .
“Hey, what’s that? “ I asked a fellow traveler, “Is it something worth seeing?”
“If you’re interested in relics of war, it certainly is,” he said, “Or else why would Eisenhower say it was ‘worth its weight in gold’?”
I got off at Linz and hailed a taxi.
“The Remagen Towers please,”
“Oh! The Peace Museum ? Not a very exciting stop for a tourist,” he tried to dissuade me, “I can take you to more interesting places.”
I could understand his reluctance. It was this very bridge that brought the American Army into the German heartland on March 7 th 1945 . The Bridge Security Company had been captured, and the Commanding Officer bolted down a tunnel on the east bank, deserting his post. The Wermacht Communique on the following day called it the “Shock of Remagen.”
Today the towers on the west bank have been converted into a Peace Museum . A plaque in the hall says, “Let us everyday work for peace, with our minds and with our hearts. Each one should begin with himself.”
It echoes the sentiments of the Officer who led the attack. He was an American of German descent, and his success brought him recognition. But it left a bitter taste in his mouth. “There is no glory in war,” he said, “May be those who have never been in war find that certain glory which never exists. Perhaps they got it from the movies or comic strips.”
More than 250,000 Germans were taken prisoners and incarcerated in Prisoner of War Temporary enclosures between Remagen and Kripp.
The Peace Museum lives up to its name. Its tranquil ambience belies its gory history. Atop the twin towers, the American and German flags flutter and flap in the breeze like old friends. At the entrance is a metal sculpture which says “Healing through Love.”
It is a place of pilgrimage for old soldiers. The Museum has an attractive display of pictures, documents and exhibits which recount the history of the bridge and its destruction. They bring to life pictures that depict the tragedy of war. Many soldiers both German and American, have donated their personal souvenirs and photographs. The exhibits are labeled both in German and English, and wherever necessary, relevant incidents have been described at length.
Inscribed on a plaque on one of the western towers is a verse that reads,
“Constructed for the war, destroyed by war,
Here fought the soldiers of two great nations,
Here died the heroes from near and far.”
Ironically, the funds for the Peace Museum came from the sale of stones retrieved from the support pilings of the bridge that were demolished in 1976. Left with a mountain of stone and debris, the resourceful Mayor of Remagen Peter Keurtan, offered them for sale as souvenirs of the Battle of Remagen. Bits of stone along with a certificate of authenticity and the seal of Remagen, were packaged and sold at US$ 25/- per piece. It brought in more than DM 100,000.
Just a few kilometers away is the Chapel of the Black Madonna. This is an octagonal cement platform with an umbrella shaped canopy. The brass plaque set in the foundation tells us that the chapel is dedicated to the German POWs who were held captive in this area between Remagen and Kripp. A candle burns perpetually, and a wreath is placed by its side every day by the Municipality of Kripp . The black Madonna is in a cage-like box mounted on one wall.
The Madonna is the creation of an ailing POW Professor Adolf Wamper, who sculpted it in clay and loam, even as he was dying of malnutrition and diarrohoea. It was preserved in the parsonage at Kripp. Because the clay became brittle and started to crumble, it was treated with Flaxoil which made it black in colour. When the chapel was built, Mayor Keurtan requested the priest to install it in the chapel.
Alongside the chapel stands a stark wooden cross. Three flags are planted beside it, representing the Rhine valley, the village of Remagen and Germany . Even in the late afternoon, many veterans of World War II from different countries, some alone, some with their families, knelt around the chapel, praying for that elusive thing called Universal Peace. I knelt there too, recalling what the late Anwar Sadat had once said,
“There can be hope only for a society which acts as one big family, and not as many separate ones.”