Altar Cloth Returns Home to Germany after 70 Years3 min read

During the fighting in World War II, the Karl Zeiss Optik plant in Jena, Saxony (Thuringia) was bombed. A Lutheran Evangelical church nearby was also badly damaged.

Woodrow Anderson, lovingly referred to as Woody, was a young American soldier at the time. He was part of a mechanized artillery outfit following close behind the front lines.

When Woody came to the church near the Zeiss factory and saw that it was without a roof, he went inside and found an altar cloth, intact. He thought his mother might like it to place upon her buffet, so he mailed it to his home in Missouri. Many years later, he presented this cloth to Atonement Lutheran Church in Dearborn, where he would sometimes worship with his wife.

After the war, Thuringia was in the Russian occupation zone behind the iron curtain. When the occupation ended, members from Atonement, Dearborn contacted the president of Zeiss, who promised to help with the repatriation of the altar cloth, but nothing came of it. Recently, the church contacted the German Consul in Detroit. Here is the correspondence exchanged with Fred Hoffman, Honorary Consul of Germany for Michigan:

“We devoutly hope that the Jena house of worship has been rebuilt during the years that have passed. It would be our pleasure to return this parament to its rightful place. We appreciate your assistance and whatever you can do to help make this possible. I believe it would be a publicity opportunity to strengthen relations between the two countries.

The cloth itself seems to be made of white satin. It has a gold fringe along its entire length. In the center is a large, red sun with the dove of the Holy Spirit rising against its face. To each side are extensive embroideries featuring grape vines, leaves, and grape clusters, as well as wheat stalks and heads, plus what appears to be Luther’s Rose. It is obviously handmade and perhaps 14 ft. long. The altar upon which it lay must have been an impressive one indeed.

Perhaps, after all these years, the timing is right to repatriate the altar cloth at this time of the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation.”

Consul Fred Hoffman, in turn, contacted the Mayor of Jena, and things started to gain traction. Matthias Bettenhaeuser, Head of the Mayor’s Office, wrote:

It would be a great honor and a very special gesture of reconciliation if you, Mr. Hoffman, would bring back the altar cloth that found its way from Jena to the U.S. in the spring of 1945. Indeed the Kollegienkirche, the church closest to the former location of the Carl Zeiss factory, was destroyed badly in the end of the war. Today, the ruins are integrated in a new building which hosts the university museum. Also relatively close is the city church, St. Michael, which was only partly destroyed and reconstructed.“

And so they made arrangements for Hoffman to hand the cloth over. On Sunday, May 31, 2015 Hoffman attended the service at Atonement, Dearborn. The whole ceremony was a most moving moment for all in attendance. The German Counsel spoke at length about the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and how much it was being featured in the “Lutherlands. The Detroit Free Press had a reporter at the ceremony who said that their editor was extremely interested in this story.

The altar cloth is now on its way back home after 70 years. On June 8, there will be a ceremony before the entire Bundestag in Berlin, in which the altar cloth will be formally repatriated and the letter from Atonement, Dearborn will be read by Consul Hoffman. This is part of the kick-off for the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. St. Michael‘s church in Jena will receive the cloth and will be represented in Berlin by Dr. Mathias Ruess, Senior Pastor of St. Michael‘s Evangelical Church in Jena; Dr. Uwe Becker, Head of the Department of Theology at the University in Jena; and Matthias Bettenhaeuser, Head of the Mayor’s Office.

To see the article by the Detroit Free Press, click here. For pictures of St. Michael’s church in Jena, click here.

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About the Author

Roger Kohtz, Chairman of Elders at Atonement, Dearborn, was for 39 years a teacher, organist, and choirmaster at Atonement. He and his wife June remain at the congregation he served for so many years and are committed to the ministry among their core congregation, as well as the large Middle Eastern community and the urban society that surround the parish.

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