Brutally murdered in 1954 at the age of 11, Brigitte Irrgang was later named a Catholic martyr. Now, over half a century later, her memory is being kept alive with a new, multilingual oratorio.
Brigitte Irrgang was only 11 when she was attacked and murdered more than six decades ago. But since her death, a chapel and a monument have been erected in her memory and Pope John Paul II named her a Catholic martyr. The latest honor is a new oratorio to commemorate her short life and its tragic end.
"Brigitte. Musikalisches Leuchten" (Brigitte. Musical Beacon) premiered in Brigitte's home town of Loitz in northeastern Germany this past weekend, with subsequent performances in Greifswald and Berlin.
It was "born as a little idea five years ago," said her younger brother Peter Irrgang, a Catholic priest, as a small congregation gathered for the third performance in the St. Matthias Church in Berlin on Sunday. "Brigitte's life is a very complex subject, and it is better communicated with art than with text. There is a great deal of light in the darkness. She had enormous lust for life."
Composed by Nikolaus Schapfl, the oratorio was commissioned by the Friends of Brigitte Irrgang Association. It is divided into seven scenes symbolizing the seven lamps of the Apocalypse and unites elements of folk and church music in a contemporary classical style. It was performed in a mixture of Latin, Czech, German and Slovak by the award-winning Czech choir, Permonik.
Brigitte's family expelled after World War II
Born in 1943 in a German-settled area of Slovakia, Brigitte Irrgang was the fifth of six children and the only girl. Her parents were both teachers and devout Catholics. After World War II, ethnic Germans living in Eastern Europe became a target for anger and violence.
Though Brigitte's family had lived in the region for centuries, her parents were forced to flee west in 1946. They settled in Loitz in Western Pomerania, not far from the city of Greifswald in what would become East Germany.
Her father became a headmaster and the family lived on the school grounds. They continued to practice their faith in defiance of the German Democratic Republic's anti-religion communist regime.
Brigitte was described as "the sunbeam of Loitz" because of her joyful and caring nature. Her teacher said she was "passionate about everything good and beautiful, always ready to help, pure in her desires and ambitions, hungry for knowledge and seeking catharsis of the soul."
But, her brother Peter says, Brigitte was far from prim. "She was feisty - she played football with the boys."
Brutal assault and murder
Shortly before she was to be confirmed, Brigitte chose Maria Goretti, who was canonized in 1950 as a virgin-martyr, as her patron saint. Two weeks before her confirmation, she went out early one evening to buy flour, butter and sugar for her mother.
On the way back, she was sexually attacked. Though she fought back bravely, she was strangled to death just meters from her home. Her murderer was swiftly arrested.
The people of Loitz were devastated. Brigitte was widely admired and loved for her maturity, honesty, thoughtfulness, warmth, intelligence, diligence and deep religiousness.
The priest in Loitz wrote a detailed report on her tragic story in 1955, in which he referred to Brigitte as a virgin-martyr and compared her with Maria Goretti, who had suffered a similar fate. Though the East German regime had banned construction of any new churches, it granted permission for the Maria Goretti chapel to be built in Brigitte's memory in Loitz.
Family fled west for the second time
Brigitte's family fled to West Germany in 1958, but the citizens of Loitz continued to tend Brigitte's grave and honor her memory. Her name was added to a registry of 20th-century German martyrs by Pope John Paul II in 1999.
In Loitz, a memorial to Brigitte in the shape of a granite sphere, topped by a crystal ball with a diamond at its center, was inaugurated on the 50th anniversary of her death.
In 2011, the Friends of Brigitte Irrgang Association was founded to keep alive her memory. It financed the oratorio by Schapfl, who is best-known for his opera "The Little Prince."
Though its subject matter could make for mawkish listening, the oratorio contains humor and joy. In one scene, the young Brigitte sings a mischievous witches' song - in another, there is fun and laughter with her school friends.
It is also varied, with soloists and choir in a wide range of constellations. The Permonik choir, accompanied only on an electronic keyboard, added acting and choreography for a lively performance.
Where will the oratorio go from Berlin?
Peter Irrgang said the Friends Association funded the first three performances, but now needs others to take up the baton. "We have some interest from Munich," he said. "I hope very much that comes to fruition."