The idyllic, 700-person village of Herxheim am Berg sits among rows of green vineyards in Rhineland-Palatinate, its 1,000-year-old Protestant church rising above as the one, proud landmark.
But the church, like many surviving old buildings in post-war Germany, has a direct link to the country’s Nazi past – only this one is still visible.
The St. Jacob church’s bell still bares the Nazi-era inscription: “All for the Fatherland, Adolf Hitler”, right above a swastika.
And this is creating some division within the town, German media reported on Wednesday.
“The bell should be detached,” argues 73-year-old retired music teacher Sigrid Peters, who occasionally plays the organ at the church and first complained to local newspaper Die Rheinpfalz last month.
But the town mayor and pastor see things differently, arguing that it is historic.
“Something like this should not happen anymore,” said mayor Ronald Becker of the Nazi past. He also spoke out against simply removing the inscription on the bell.
“When something functions well, why should you change it? Any change to the bell could harm the sound.”
On top of that, a new bell is estimated to cost €50,000.
The bell was first brought to the church with two others in 1934 as the so-called “police bell”, intended to warn of fires and later of air raids. When the two other bells were melted down in 1942, the police bell with the swastika remained hanging.
St. Jacob Church in Herxheim am Berg. Photo: DPA.
After two new church bells were brought to the church in 1951, the “Hitler bell” continued to ring with them in the church.
“A vexation for all is that bells were also misused,” said pastor Helmut Meinhardt of Hitler’s regime. “But from the view of the church community, I would not say that we should stop using the bell.”
Bell expert Birgit Müller argues that the Herxheim ringer is a “rarity” and that she knows of no other bell with a swastika.
But the organ player, Peters, says she objects to how the bell is still used without acknowledgement of its inscription.
“It is the spirit of it that has an effect,” she said. “It is not okay that a child can be baptized and there is the bell, ringing with the inscription ‘All for the Fatherland’.”
Peters added that many couples in the area get married at the church “and they don’t know anything” about the bell.
Local historian Eric Hass believes that the bell should be left in the tower as a sort of memorial.
“We are in fact considering installing a memorial plaque,” Hass said.
Bell expert Müller also argues that the bell should be placed under monument protection, pointing out the the iconic Cologne cathedral also has stones with swastikas.
“If these were taken out, the cathedral would have to be reconstructed.”