- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 18, 2001

DRESDEN, Germany For more than 50 years he cradled the image in his mind. It was always with him, in his dreams, in his heart.
The image was of a cathedral, an 18th-century baroque cathedral with fairytale spires and a bell-shaped dome, topped with a golden cross and orb. The Frauenkirche rare and beloved symbol of Dresden where Bach had once played the organ. He could close his eyes and picture it, towering over the Elbe, sumptuous and strong, the most dazzling sight he had ever seen.
And he could picture himself, as a boy, watching from the hills of Saxony as British and American bombs rained down, reducing the cathedral and the city to rubble, killing tens of thousands of people.
Through war and peace, he dreamt of it, at universities in Germany and later in the United States. It stayed with him as he became one of the world's leading scientists, dissecting the structure of the human cell, gathering prize after prize. And when Gunter Blobel was finally awarded the most prestigious prize of all the Nobel prize for medicine in 1999 he carried the image with him to Stockholm.
There, at age 63, Dr. Blobel shared his dream with the world.
They gave him a check for nearly $1 million. And then they listened in amazement as he told them what he would do with the money.
He would spend it on the cathedral in his mind. He would rebuild it. A half-century after it became dust, Gunter Blobel would use his newfound wealth to give the Frauenkirche back to the world.

An 8-year-old refugee
Dr. Blobel was 8 the first time he saw the Frauenkirche in the winter of 1945. His family was among the hordes of refugees who swarmed into Dresden from the east, fleeing the advancing Russian army. They were heading to relatives in Saxony, where they would live on a farm until it was safe to return.
It was the first time the boy had ever seen a city. He was enchanted.
Stone cherubs grinned from overhanging gables. Satyrs peeked from fountains and rooftops. The winding cobblestone streets seemed to have surprises tucked around every corner: courtyards and arches and palaces. And towering over it all, the mighty Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady), the 200-year-old Protestant cathedral with its dark sandstone dome. The "Steinerne Glocke" it was called the Bell of Stone.
"It was such a happy city," Dr. Blobel said. "Such an easy city to fall in love with."
One week later it lay in ruins.
Dr. Blobel remembers the roar of the RAF Lancasters and the American Flying Fortresses as they firebombed Dresden on Feb. 13 and 14 one of the most controversial Allied operations of World War II. He remembers the yellowish-brown cloud that hung over the city for days, and the bewilderment of adults who wondered why Dresden had been targeted. It was a cultural city of no military significance a city crowded with refugees.
He remembers the stench of death.
And the Frauenkirche: All that was left were two stumps of walls rising from a mountain of rubble, the broken statue of Martin Luther lying on the ground.
"Even as a child," Dr. Blobel said, "I thought it seemed so sad."
For years the ruins of Dresden stood as a symbol of the insanity of war, immortalized in Kurt Vonnegut's novel "Slaughterhouse Five." Every year on the anniversary of the bombing, the people of Dresden would hold all-night candlelit vigils at the Frauenkirche. (On the Internet, see The Friends of Dresden: https://www.tradenets.com/fod/)

Project takes shape
It wasn't until 1989 with the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the fall of communism that people began to talk seriously about rebuilding the Frauenkirche. Other buildings the Semper opera house, the Zwinger, the Hofkirche (Roman Catholic cathedral) had been rebuilt. But the Frauenkirche was special. More than any other building, the Bell of Stone had dominated the city skyline. More than anything else, its absence symbolized for Dresdeners all they had lost.
The talk of rebuilding filtered to New York City, to a cluttered office in Rockefeller University overlooking the 59th Street bridge, to a snowy-haired scientist with memories and a dream and a plaster model of the Frauenkirche on his desk.
"It was like a call," Dr. Blobel said. "And I had to answer the call."
The call made far more headlines in his native Germany than it did in the United States, where Dr. Blobel lives. In America, it was hard to convince people of the importance of rebuilding a cathedral especially a German cathedral, especially one destroyed by Allied bombs.
Dr. Blobel doesn't talk much about growing up under communism, other than to denounce its architecture the drab, prefabricated buildings that sprang up in the Dresden suburbs. He fled as soon as he was old enough, defecting to West Berlin, earning a medical degree at the University of Tubingen.
Eventually, he followed his oldest brother to the United States where he also earned a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He now runs the Laboratory of Cell Biology at Rockefeller University and is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator.
Even as a young scientist, Dr. Blobel startled the academic world with his discoveries, mapping a "ZIP code" for proteins in the cell work that influenced research in cystic fibrosis, Alzheimer's and AIDS. Dr. Blobel's research also contributed to the development of a more effective use of cells as "protein factories" for the production of important drugs. His lab attracted students from around the world.

Blending science, culture
"In Gunter's lab you learned so much more than science," said Sandy Simon, a former student and a close friend. "Opera, art, architecture Gunter has such a breadth of knowledge about so many things and such passion."
Dr. Blobel would stride through the lab in his white coat, hair swept high off his forehead, three English setters yapping at his heels. Be imaginative, he would exhort his students. Be creative. Search for inspiration from beautiful things.
"The structure of the cell is like the structure of a beautiful building," he would tell them. "There is beauty in both, in the building blocks, in the lines, in the proportions."
And sometimes, after long hours peering through microscopes, the scientist would describe the most beautiful building of all. And he would tell them about his dream.
Dr. Blobel's students moved on, and many became famous scientists in their own right. But they never forgot their professor. And when he won the Nobel in 1999, they matched his gesture with one of their own. They organized a science symposium, one that drew scientists and former students from all over the world. From Baltimore and Beirut and Beijing they came, to Dresden, to share their science and understand their professor's dream.
"To understand Gunter," said his brother Reiner, "you have to start here."
He was walking down a narrow street in Freiberg, a medieval castle town 25 miles from Dresden where the family moved after the war. Here, Dr. Blobel, the fifth of eight siblings, cultivated his love for science, and for the arts. He sang in a boys choir at the cathedral, played on the grounds of the castle, explored the abandoned silver mines in the hills.
"He was always the dreamer of the family," Reiner said.
These days, the dreamer is a celebrity in his hometown. When local officials heard of the science symposium, they threw a party in his honor, awarding him an honorary degree at the University of Freiberg, and inviting visiting American professors to the celebration.

Floodgates of memory
Dr. Blobel seemed both humbled and thrilled as he strolled through town, surrounded by academics and townspeople and family, his white head bobbing above everyone else's, his voice louder, more animated, his eyes shining.
See, he cried, pointing to a small house where the poet Novalis lived. Moments later he stopped outside the house where the great organ builder Silbermann lived. He ducked into a side street to admire the intricate wooden carvings on a 200-year-old ceiling. He gazed back at the town square to admire the lines of gabled houses that surround it.
Breathlessly, infectiously, he talked. He never stopped. He told them about the organ concert they were about to hear. He told them about August the Strong, the 18th-century Saxon leader whose love of architecture inspired the building of many of Dresden's most beautiful buildings. He told them about the Frauenkirche and the need to raise more money to rebuild it.
Dr. Blobel talked about everything except why he has devoted so much energy, taken so much time away from his life and his lab, to rebuild a cathedral.
In Freiberg, as in Dresden, that is the last thing he needs to explain.
Dr. Blobel will say only that his family suffered like everyone else during the war. His eldest sister was killed in a train bombing. His family was displaced. But Dr. Blobel refuses to dwell on these things, saying his family survived better than many others.
Those around him do reflect on the deeper meaning of the restoration, on the complicated emotions and historic sense of guilt and responsibility that spurs much of it.
"It's important to remember what happened," said Ingrid Groeber, a high school classmate of Dr. Blobel whose mother and brother were killed in the bombing. "It's important to forgive, to take responsibility, to rebuild. It is good that Gunter is using his fame to try and foster that feeling."

Ghosts at the party
Still, there is only so much healing that rebuilding can accomplish. The previous night, in the restored Semper opera house, Mrs. Groeber had thought of her mother and brother.
"And I thought if only they could see me now," she said sadly. "The building is here again, but they aren't."
Others in the United States took up the cause of the Frauenkirche: Frank Wobst, a banker in Columbus, Ohio, whose family survived the bombing hiding in a basement; Carl Wolf a New York doctor whose grandparents were from East Germany; John Schmitz a Washington lawyer with German ancestors and government connections.
But few have devoted the time, or emotion, that Dr. Blobel has.
He set up a fund-raising foundation, Friends of Dresden, made ties with similar groups in Germany and in Britain, attended fund-raising events on both sides of the Atlantic.
Sometimes the scientist wonders how much more he can give. He feels uncomfortable at the amount of time away from his wife, Laura Maioglio, and his lab. He'd like to go to the opera more, and to museums the way he used to.
But then another check comes in, another gesture of reconciliation is made. In England, a craftsman son of one of the bombers creates an exact replica of the golden orb that melted during the inferno. In Poland, a Jewish community donates money for cathedral stones. In the United States, a retired staff sergeant who was a radar operator on a B-17 during the bombing, writes a poem about the raid. He mails it to Dr. Blobel with a check for $1,000.
Acts of reconciliation have occurred in other ways, too. Concerts at the site of the Frauenkirche have raised money for the rebuilding of the city synagogue, destroyed in a Nazi pogrom in 1938. Dr. Blobel himself donated $100,000 of his Nobel money to the synagogue, even though the Jewish population, which numbered 5,000 before the war, now amounts to just 300.

Target date 2005
"There has to be a Jewish culture here again," Dr. Blobel said. "It is right that the rebuilding of the synagogue takes place alongside the rebuilding of the Frauenkirche."
Dresden streets still bear scars of the bombing: a melted copper arch, gutted gables, broken-winged cherubs. But signs of renewal are everywhere. Cranes dot the city skyline. Monuments are being restored. Dust blankets the historic district.
In the center, under an enormous network of scaffolding and tarps, the columns of the Frauenkirche are being rebuilt. Already work is beginning on the 12,000-ton stone dome, using the same building methods that were used two centuries ago. Original stones, salvaged from the rubble, are also being used.
High on the scaffolding the scientist surveys the work.
He peppers the architects with questions. He regales the scientists who accompany him with descriptions of the work. He gazes over his city and tells them how it once looked, as it was painted by 18th-century court artist Bellotto his depictions so faithful that they are being used to guide the restoration.


Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide