“The man who fears to be alone will never be anything but lonely, no matter how much he may surround himself with people. But the man who learns, in solitude and recollection, to be at peace with his own loneliness, and to prefer its reality to the illusion of merely natural companionship, comes to know the invisible companionship of God. Such a one is alone with God in all places, and he alone truly enjoys the companionship of other men, because he loves them in God in Whom their presence is not tiresome, and because of Whom his own love for them can never know satiety.”
June 2016. I am traveling the Autobahn toward Berlin with our daughter Katie. We left our hotel in Braunschweig this morning after a five-day reunion with Ernst Heimbs, Jr. and his family. After traveling thirty miles, I see the familiar sign “Helmstedt/Marionborn.” A visceral discomfort rises from my gut as I remember that I passed through here several times in 1966, transporting Heimbs Coffee to West Berlin.
This was Checkpoint Alpha. I remember passing the welcoming sight of American and British soldiers. The freight truck entered an intimidating space of high fences, watch towers with flood lights and East German soldiers with machine guns. We stopped the delivery truck beside the inspection yard. Guards opened the back of the truck to inspect the coffee, as I entered the building to present invoices and my passport.
After the guard gave the OK sign, we proceeded on the Autobahn through the German Democratic Republic, 115 miles to West Berlin. There would be a rest stop halfway to Berlin, where we stopped for coffee and a snack and to relieve ourselves in the woods. That is where the Communist East German tick embedded itself in my leg. I removed most of it when I arrived in West Berlin, but the bug would become an ongoing source for night fevers.
As Katie and I passed the still standing guard towers into Unified and Free Germany, I saw another sign designating the old check point Alpha as a memorial to those dark days of division and the Wall.
Fifty years ago, June 1966, I arrived in Braunschweig. A family friend secured a summer job for me with her cousin Herr Carl Heimbs, as a way of enhancing my study of German.
When I arrived on June 24th, I was enshrouded within a cloud of deep despair. My application for postulancy to begin the process toward priesthood in the Episcopal Church had been denied. I had been dismissed from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles for misconduct: I had stolen books from the University library. I lost my full-tuition scholarship. This trip had been planned for the past six months. I arrived in a north German town where I seemed to be the only one around who spoke English. Twenty years previously, October 15, 1944, British RAF Bomber Group Five destroyed ninety percent of the medieval historic heart of Braunschweig. The city was still in ruins with the scars of a violent war. My life was in ruins.
Herr Heimbs reserved a room for me at the local YMCA (CVJM Gesamtverband), a tiny space with a bed, card table, chair, and a wash basin sink. It reminded me of the monastic cells at Mount Calvary Monastery in Santa Barbara. I had rarely been alone like this. I usually had a roommate, at home with my brother or in the dormitory at USC.
My return ticket was for mid-September, three months distant. In this town I had never heard of, I had no access to TV, radio, or telephone. I was planted in this strange place. The Dark Spirit was strongest at night, reminding me of the damage I had done, the hurt I had caused, and the possibility that when I returned, I could be prosecuted and sent to jail.
I woke up at 6am every weekday for work, walking downstairs to the dining room. White jacketed waiters brought a soft-boiled egg, wonderful fresh brotchen, Heimbs Kaffee and juice.
Every morning seemed to be misty and dark, as I walked toward the Oker River, which surrounded the medieval center of the city as a protective moat. Walking past the ancient water mill, I strolled up a path through the park, near the burned-out ruins of Alfred Löbbecke’s mansion. The city was coming to life, with clouds of diesel smoke from delivery trucks and Mercedes automobiles. To this day, when I smell diesel exhaust, I am walking through the morning mist in Braunschweig.
Arriving at the loading dock of the coffee factory, I found a blue work apron, climbed three flights of stairs, and opened the heavy metal door into the coffee roasting room. The minute I opened that door, warm air heavily scented with the smell of freshly roasted coffee brought my senses alive.
Within a pile of hundred-pound burlap sacks of green coffee beans, I looked for chalk numerals, codes for the type of beans. I had to learn the European numerals for 1, 4 and 7. I found the right sack, and dragged it toward a large steel grate in the floor. Ripping open the sack, I carefully poured the green beans down into the grate.
I rushed downstairs with the empty burlap bag to the next floor, where I managed eight machines. I attached the bag to a machine. The beans were guided into the machine, where a photo-electric cell image of a “perfect bean” matched the beans flowing through that machine. An occasional rush of air ejected a bean of poor quality, which flowed into a big red bucket. I had to keep a close eye on the eight machines so that each sack of processed beans did not spill over on to the floor. That did happen and the Kapitan/floor manager blasted me with his anger. I emptied the rejected beans from the buckets into a large steel barrel. These beans were sold every Friday to the U S Army of Occupation.
I checked the numerical markings on the sack of processed beans, tied it off securely. Soon, another worker carried the heavy sack to another steel grate. There was a recipe for which type of beans mixed with other beans, effecting the market grade of the final product.
A rush of hot air grabbed the beans and moved them through an extensive network of steel pipes hanging from the ceiling throughout this floor of the factory. This was the unique Aeotherm roasting system invented by Herr Heimbs in 1954. The green beans circulated through an indirect heating air stream, roasted gently, avoiding the hot metal parts. Floating in this hot air, the beans roasted evenly from the outside in. The normal roasting process in the USA involved heating the beans on a hot steel plate. “You Americans burn your beans on those hot steel plates,” remarked Herr Heimbs. The Aeotherm process continues to this day, which is why Heimbs Kaffee is the gourmet coffee of Germany and I believe to be the “world’s best cup of coffee.”
If you were drinking coffee in America in 1966, the best taste you could have might be canned Yuban brewed in a cone filter. 1966 was when Peet’s Coffee opened its first store in Berkeley. Peets would tutor the founders of Starbucks in the art of making fine, European style coffee.
On the other side of my machines were large tables, where more green beans were hand-sorted. All the people seated there, working carefully and chatting, were persons disabled from the violence of the war. Herr Heimbs was intentional about hiring as many disabled persons as he could.
10 am. A friendly waiter in a white service coat brought me a silver platter with a kannchen of fresh coffee, a cup, and a brown paper bag, which had a sandwich of German rye bread with thick local butter and liverwurst, made for me by Herr Heimb’s housekeeper. Coffee was also delivered to my workmates sorting the coffee beans. My supervisor was Herr Schmidt, about six-feet-four, erect, blond, blue eyes. He must have been a soldier in the Wehrmacht because he shouted orders to us like a military officer.
At noon, all the machines stopped, and we all walked downstairs to the huge dining hall. As I walked toward lunch, everyone was saying to one another “mahlzeit”, which is “have a good lunch.” This was my main meal of the day: always a soup or salad, main dish of meat, vegetables, potatoes and dessert. I found myself sitting most often with students from the Technical University, who received free lunches. They would not speak much English with me as everyone was intent on improving my German. A colorful mural filled the main wall of the dining room depicting a Prussian calvary charge in the Franco-Prussian War.
Tuesday and Thursday afternoons there was a solemn procession of some of the company management toward the Probzimmer, where coffee beans would be tasted, and orders made. One day, Herr Heimbs invited me to join them. I walked into a long, narrow room with glass windows and doors. Small envelopes of coffee samples from plantations in South America and Africa lay on the table. Each was opened and individually poured into a small roasting machine, ground, placed in a small beaker with filter, and lukewarm water poured through. A cup of coffee for each sample formed a line on the table. We dipped our spoons into each cup, sucked in the liquid with some air, and let it roll around in our mouth. We spit the sample liquid into a large spittoon in the middle of the room. No one spoke. Each person had a note pad to record reactions to what they tasted. At some point, with consensus, decisions about future orders were made, which could be an order of many hundreds of pounds. All the raw coffee came in through Bremen.
After a few weeks, I felt more at home here. It was a friendly place, where the workers seemed to be well paid and valued.
I walked home through more drizzling rain and dark clouds. As I walked away from the factory, the heavy feelings of loneliness and despair returned.
Instead of returning to my room/cell at the CVJM, I made a habit of visiting St. Andreas Church, a thousand-year-old Romanesque Basilica next door.
As I approached the side door, I looked up to see ancient gargoyles that spit out rainwater from the gutters high above. Delicately carved images decorated the high outside walls: the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt, the crucifixion of Jesus, and the martyrdom of St. Andreas. Construction of the thousand-year old basilica was funded by affluent, disabled local merchants. Two high bell towers marked the west entrance. One tower was the highest church tower in Germany for centuries.
Visiting the church dozens of times in the weekday afternoons, I never saw another person inside. I walked up toward the high altar and sat for an hour every day. In 1944, all that remained of this church after the Allied bombing were charred walls. The roof and interior were gutted; the colorful medieval stained-glass windows exploded. By 1966, the church had been restored with new roof and plain glass windows, but most of the interior decoration built up over a thousand years was gone. There was a strong smell of new cement and a hint of burnt wood.
The Dark Spirit spoke frequently: “You are a thief, a liar, a complete disappointment to your parents. You lost your scholarship. You have been kicked out of the University, and even the church does not want you. This is who you really are, do not fool yourself otherwise. Your life as you wanted it to be is over.”
Another Spirit urged me to look around for a prayer book to center myself. I found one, opened it to the psalms. The text was in the old, formal German, “thee” and “thou” of Martin Luther’s translation. I found some psalms that I already knew, used some of the German words to get me on the right track. This is what I found:
Psalm 51 from Luther Bible 1545
Schaffe in mir, Gott, ein rein Herz und gib mir einen neuen, gewissen Geist.
Verbirg dein Antlitz von meinen Sünden und tilge alle meine Missetat.
Laß mich hören Freude und Wonne, daß die Gebeine fröhlich werden, die du zerschlagen hast.
Psalm 51 NIV
Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
As I read the German words out loud, the distance between the original composer and my own soul collapsed. This was my psalm crying out from this empty place.
Frequent night fevers began a week after the East German tick infected me and lasted for several months. The fever would rage at night, soaking the bed sheets. I was in my Purgatory; I yielded to the painful muscle aches. This was my punishment. I did not have the sense to seek a doctor.
As I look back on this difficult time fifty-five years ago, I can see God’s benevolent presence. My life had crashed, and I had come to a unfamiliar, foreign land. Communication back home could only be through letter writing: very thin onion paper that folded into an envelope for air mail. But in Braunschweig I would find seeds of hope and consolation that would set my heart in openness to whatever awaited me when I returned to California.
Within these summer months that I spent working and living in Braunschweig, most of the time I felt like a zombie, with Novocain injected in my brain. But there were two times when I did come alive for a while. One was my work in the factory among friendly people and that wonderful incense of roasting coffee.
I was also revived on Sundays. I met Herr Heimbs at his home parish, St. Katherines, for the 10am Gottesdienst. I waited for him outside of the church. When he arrived, he was treated like a revered patriarch. We sat together in his pew as we prayed the liturgy. So many of the hymns were songs I remembered from the Episcopal Church, but we were singing the original German setting, composed for example by Bach.
After Church, Herr Heimbs drove me to his home, a mansion on Fallersleber Tor beside the Oker River. There was a splendid Sunday dinner with wine. I had to learn to pray the Grace in German from my heart.
Herr Heimbs always took a nap after this mitagessen. His son Ernst Heimbs, Senior, brought me to the local airport with his wife and daughter. We drank a curious but refreshing German summer drink: Berliner Weisse mit Shuss, Weissbier mixed with raspberry juice. Weissbier on its own is very bitter and dry. We watched wide-winged gliders take off and land. Underneath the wings of each glider was the bright red and black logo for Heimbs Kaffee.
One Friday morning, Herr Schmidt and I drove a freight truck load of coffee to West Berlin and spent the weekend. On Sunday morning, I walked up Friedrichstrasse to Checkpoint Charlie, the famous Cold War crossover point into East Berlin. If you saw the 1963 film The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, with Richard Burton, the East Berlin I was visiting looked like the backdrop to that movie. I left West Berlin, which seemed like a lively, Technicolored world, walked through the intimidating gauntlet of East German border guards, into a stark black and white world of war ruins and empty streets. I walked up Friendrichstrasse, before the war a densely populated, busy urban neighborhood. It was now a street devoid of buildings. As I came closer to Unter den Linden, I saw the spire of St. Mary’s Church, my destination for the 10am Gottesdienst. I entered the church to an organ prelude, found one of the last empty seats at the very back. The church was packed. The people sang the hymns with fervent, energetic voices. I knew I was in an East Berlin Church in a Communist Country where religious participation was discouraged. Remembering worship at St. Catherine’s Church in Braunschweig, the hymns were slow and ponderous. Most of the parishioners were senior citizens. But here at St. Mary’s, faith and worship were lively, the congregation multigenerational. After the service, I spoke with the pastor.
“Why is it that a church in East Berlin is packed and alive with worshippers, while churches in West Germany are half-empty?”
The pastor responded, “One reason, I think, is that most of the churches here in Berlin were destroyed in the war. The East German government is not interested in restoring churches. So, the ones that remain are indeed packed with people.”
A young man seemed to be waiting for someone outside of the church. He saw me, walked up and began talking right away. He noticed my accented German, asking if I was English or American, then continued in his own, clear English. He was very friendly and walked with me, offering information about the area. We walked down Unter den Linden, just in time to witness the changing of the guard at the Neue Wache, the Memorial to the Victims of Fascism and Militarism. The Friedrich Engels Guard Regiment goose-stepped to music from a military band, reminding me of old newsreel films of marching Nazi soldiers.
I asked my new friend
“The soldiers seem very much like the soldiers of the old German Wehrmacht.”
“Yes, that is true. Here in the GDR we kept a style of uniforms like the old German uniforms and some of the Prussian military traditions continue. This is a highly disciplined army.”
I was being careful in my questions and responses, as he could be a plant from the Stasi, the Ministry for State Security, one of the most repressive secret police organizations to have ever existed. If he asked me to exchange my Deutschmarks for a generous ratio of East German marks, which is highly illegal, I knew it was a trap. But he did not.
I wanted to see the famous Dom/Cathedral. He guided me to the location. We entered the main door, walking into a ruin. The high domed ceiling over the altar had collapsed in the war bombings. Pigeons flew in and out; a huge heap of debris lay where the high altar would have been.
My guide brought me to the Pergamon Museum nearby. We entered a vast collection of middle eastern antiquities. One encounter took my breath away: a three-story high colorful blue and gold ceramic tiled ceremonial Ishtar Gate from Babylon of the 5th century BC.
We had lunch in the cellar of the East Berlin Rathaus. My friend said he was a university student and he told me about his childhood in the ruins of postwar Berlin. He hoped to visit the West some day.
At the end of our time, he walked back with me to Checkpoint Charlie. It was sad to say goodbye, with an awareness of that Wall that separated us. He gave me his address but cautioned me to be careful what I said in a letter, because all mail is inspected and read by the Stasi. I did write to him soon after, but never heard from him again.
Saturdays were a break from work, as I spent the day walking the city. Founded in 861, Braunschweig was ruled by the powerful Henry the Lion, married to the daughter of King Henry II of England. During the Middle Ages, Braunschweig was an important trade center and a member of the Hanseatic League.
The center of the city, surrounded by the Oker River, was a picturesque, quintessential Medieval German town, with narrow streets lined with the largest ensemble of half-timbered (fachwerk) buildings in Germany until 1944. The bombing gutted much of the physical history of the town, but I could still discover stunning survivors of the firestorm.
I visited the five sectors of the medieval town: Altstadtmarkt, coal market, wool market, Hagen Market and the St. Magnus Quarter. The latter still had a few remaining fachwerk buildings from the sixteenth century. Each quarter had a specialty market and a thousand-year-old central church.
Braunschweig was an early supporter of National Socialism. A coalition of local merchants and politicians facilitated Austrian Adolf Hitler’s qualification for German citizenship, giving him a civil service appointment. As a German citizen, he became a candidate for German Chancellor. The Dom/Cathedral was turned into a National Nazi Shrine and the former Ducal Palace became a SS officers training school.
When I worked on genealogy recently, I discovered a family connection to Braunschweig. All my relatives come from Sweden. My mother’s father, Abel Burman, was a graduate of the Swedish Royal School of Music, piano construction. He came to Braunschweig to work for Steinweg Pianos, later moving to New York City to build pianos for their sister company, Steinway.
I also discovered that my 19th generation cousin was Magnus II “Torquatus”, Duke of Braunschweig-Luneburg-Wolfenbüttel (1328-1373).
I made several bicycle trips to Riddarshausen, a Cistercian monastery five km. out of town. The Imperial Abbey was founded in 1145. The architecture is simple and utilitarian, with limited iconography. That austerity must have changed after the Reformation because the pulpit and baptistry are outstanding examples of ornate woodwork.
Surrounding the monastery are ponds that support a bird sanctuary.
The monks left after the Reformation; the Abbey is now a Lutheran parish church. Side chapels have the names of dozens of local citizens who died in the bombing of 1944. Herman Goering had a hunting lodge here.
After six weeks I noticed that the night fevers were going away as well as the haunting voice of the Dark Spirit. One afternoon in Riddarshausen, sitting on a bench shaded by ancient elm trees, beside a lagoon where hundreds of birds took off and landed on the green-blue waters, a deep feeling of solace and peace settled within me. I realized that after the catharsis of these weeks, Braunschweig had become a foundational spiritual home to me, preparing me to walk into the future of God’s grace.
The weeks went by as work in the factory and visits with the Heimbs family lifted my spirits. On my last day of work, I visited Herr Carl Heimbs in his large corner office. As I entered, I noticed an elderly woman in a silver suit sitting in a far corner. I sat in a chair facing Herr Heimbs at his desk, presenting to him a set of Kennedy silver coins. Tears came to his eyes and he held my hand in a lingering handshake.
He stood up, in that erect perfect Prussian posture, guiding me toward the lady sitting in the corner. She stood up and smiled.
Herr Heimbs said, “I want you to meet my dear friend, Ihre Konigliche Hochheit, (Her Royal Highness) Herzogin (Duchess) Viktoria Luise von Preussen.
I bowed, kissed her hand, as was the protocol, and these words blurted out of me;
“Ich habe viel uber Ihre Vater gestudiert.” I studied a lot about your father.
I had never heard of the Herzogin/Dutchess until that moment. But to help me, she gave me a thick copy of her new book, My Life as the Daughter of the Kaiser, telling her life story as the only daughter of Kaiser Wilhelm II.
She married Herzog Ernst August of Braunschweig in 1913 in Berlin, the last royal event in Europe before World War I, which began a year later. In the book are several pictures of that royal wedding. Princess Viktoria Luise was the Princess Diana of her time. At the wedding dinner, I could see in the photograph the Czar of Russia seated next to her and the King of Great Britain across the table: the Kaiser’s cousins and grandchildren of Queen Victoria.
For the next fifteen years, I sent birthday cards to the Herzogin every September and she always sent me a new photograph and personal letter. Her husband had died ten years before we met. In 1966, Herr Heimbs was her protector and close friend.
After a side trip to visit family in Stockholm, Sweden, I returned to California. USC confirmed that I could not return to school but decided not to prosecute me. I sold my car to pay for damages. A week later, my Uncle Dr. John Trever, got me in the back door of Baldwin-Wallace College, Berea, Ohio, my final year of college, and a new life chapter.
I returned to Braunschweig again in 1975 with Janice, in 1980 to research an article for the Jesuit Magazine America, and 1981.
The trip to Germany and Braunschweig with daughter Katie in 2016 was a fiftieth-year reunion for me at Heimbs Kaffee and with the Heimbs family. I never thought I would return. With great joy I embraced Herr Carl’s grandson, Ernst Heimbs, Jr, his colleague Grete Wallner, his sons Heiner and Peter, and several of his grandchildren. I visited the coffee factory again, which the family had sold. I walked with Katie, Ernst, and Grete through the modern factory. The wonderful smell of freshly ground coffee still filled the space. The eight machines I managed in 1966 had been replaced by one computerized automatic machine.
Ernst had a medical issue at the time and could not drive. Katie and I took him to his favorite country inns outside of Braunschweig. We passed through a farming village where Ernst lived as a youth during the war. It was here that he witnessed the bombing of the city in 1944 and the horrific firestorm.
Katie and I continued on the Autobahn to Berlin, this time to experience a unified city. I brought her to the Cathedral, which had been in ruins when I visited in 1966 and 1975. The majestic building was now completely restored in golden splendor.
As I sat in a pew in the Cathedral, remembering my journeys in Germany over the past fifty years, I opened another prayer book to Psalm 116:
Psalm 116 (NIV)
1 I love the Lord, for he heard my voice;
he heard my cry for mercy.
2 Because he turned his ear to me,
I will call on him as long as I live.
3 The cords of death entangled me,
the anguish of the grave came over me;
I was overcome by distress and sorrow.
4 Then I called on the name of the Lord:
“Lord, save me!”
5 The Lord is gracious and righteous;
our God is full of compassion.
6 The Lord protects the unwary;
when I was brought low, he saved me.
7 Return to your rest, my soul,
for the Lord has been good to you.
8 For you, Lord, have delivered me from death,
my eyes from tears,
my feet from stumbling,
9 that I may walk before the Lord
in the land of the living.
10 I trusted in the Lord when I said,
“I am greatly afflicted”;
11 in my alarm I said,
“Everyone is a liar.”
12 What shall I return to the Lord
for all his goodness to me?
13 I will lift up the cup of salvation
and call on the name of the Lord.
14 I will fulfill my vows to the Lord
in the presence of all his people.
15 Precious in the sight of the Lord
is the death of his faithful servants.
16 Truly I am your servant, Lord;
I serve you just as my mother did;
you have freed me from my chains.
17 I will sacrifice a thank offering to you
and call on the name of the Lord.
18 I will fulfill my vows to the Lord
in the presence of all his people,
19 in the courts of the house of the Lord—
in your midst, Jerusalem.
Praise the Lord.[a]
Dear Fr. Brad, I savored each paragraph. Thank you so very much for sharing. Solitude is not easily attained for me but when I experience solitude and Communion with Christ Love Light, I am saddened when that time is interrupted. Mountaintop Grace translating to Valley Grace is a discipline for me which takes much effort. Peace,Pam Sutt
Dear Father Brad,
Your story is deeply moving, the slow and uncertain movement from despair to fragile hope. It is striking how central the sacred spaces are to recovering a sense of inner voice, and safe strangers. The value of work, of being useful, and the value of good meals, prepared to feed the work of the body and soul. I can’t think of a more interesting work at that time of roasting coffee in a gentle way, releasing the nuance and value of this everyday boon to our mood and efforts.
Your journeys are shared in such detail that they evoke the detail in my own, help me stop and reflect, and connect with the kindnesses and remembrance that help me sustain my own efforts and journey.There is a still small voice, greater than my own that centers me and helps me return to alignment with myself, others, and all that is outside of me, pulling me away from my value, and supporting my value. You are a certain conduit of that centering. Thank you and Jan and Katie and Eric for sharing your experience with all of us. You make such a difference.
On a dreary rainy day, your message of hope is welcome. What a metamorphosis! Thank you, Father Brad. Sandy G.