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COVID: Another 'Silent Easter' in Berlin

April 2, 2021

One Protestant pastor has watched, powerless, as over half of the residents of the Berlin nursing home in his parish lost their lives during the pandemic. This Good Friday, there will be no sermon. 

Candles and musician with a COVID mask
Good Friday will be a time to remember the lives lost to COVID in the care homeImage: Thomas Jeutner

There is one conversation Thomas Jeutner cannot get out of his head. Last year, he spoke to an exhausted care home worker about the threat posed by the coronavirus pandemic and the dramatic events unfolding. 

"I don't believe in God," the young caregiver told him. "But I pray for everyone who lives here and has COVID that they survive." 

Jeutner was briefly wordless in recalling that statement. "That was basically a profession of faith," he said. 

Thomas Jeutner is a Protestant pastor in downtown Berlin. The internationally famous "Chapel of Reconciliation" at the Berlin Wall memorial belongs to his parish. The 60-year-old also cares for the people in the "Domizil am Gartenplatz," (the garden square residence), an in-patient care facility a few minutes' walk away. 

The private care home has 63 beds and is one of more than 15,000 nursing homes in Germany. And it is one of the many facilities that was badly hit by COVID-19 in 2020. 

In this small idyllic island in the middle of a quiet residential area, more than half of the residents died last year. Coronavirus was not the cause of death for all of them — but they all suffered because of the pandemic. 

Thomas Jeutner talking to people outside his church in summer 2013
Thomas Jeutner is a well-known pastor in downtown BerlinImage: DW/H.Kiesel

'Almost needed to evacuate' 

We have all grown accustomed to the daily death rates shown in statistics, but it is hard to see the people behind the numbers. 

"We were on the verge of being evacuated by the army," explained Ute Goede, the facility's director. For many weeks, the elderly were confined to their single rooms, where they received individualized care. Almost all the staff fell ill and temporary workers had to be hired. 

Goede, 57, also got COVID and was sick for three weeks. "I've never been that ill in my life. It was tough," the qualified nurse said. 

"For about a week, I don't even know what was happening to me." Even today, she has a lung problem. She does not know if she could still work as hard as she did before: the long hours and physical strain. Many employees could not — and they left last year. 

"They couldn't take it anymore," she said. 

'Deep grief' 

Goede said she has a close bond with each of the residents. Every one of them needs round-the-clock care and more than half have dementia. Goede explained that there was an oppressive mood during many weeks of quarantine — and a shared "deep grief" felt by all. 

"On January 4, the first vaccination was given to the residents and staff," she recalls. Since then, the situation has improved. Now the home is considered COVID-free. 

A few weeks later, the home held a memorial service in the dining room. Music was played on the cello and piano, and the director read the names of the 32 people who had died. Photos were shown. Twelve candles were lit for the 12 months of 2020. It was a simple moment of remembrance 

At one point, Jeutner read aloud from Psalm 23 of the Bible. 

"Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil." He remembers that some of the elderly residents who knew the verses by heart and were speaking along began to grow quiet at that point. 

"They had now had a taste of the 'shadow of death.' They all knew what it meant," Jeutner said. 

Care home residents gathered in the dining room
The home held a memorial service in the dining room for the 32 people who had diedImage: Thomas Jeutner

The clergyman also came to the house frequently during 2020 to comfort the dying and bless the deceased. 

"I found it harder than usual to make visits to the home," he admitted. "The unfulfilled expectations I saw in their faces, that depressed me. There's just no way of wiping that away." 

He also saw elderly people who were "very patient, very persevering as they longed for visitors, for their relatives to be able to come. That was the hardest thing." 

Jeutner described scenes of relatives standing at the large window of the house to take a look inside, waving. On one occasion, a group of kindergarten children came to sing standing outside. 

No Good Friday sermon 

But again and again: death. The psalm verse of the valley of darkness is one of the texts with which the Church usually commemorates the suffering and death of Jesus. 

The pastor thought of it once more when he began preparations for Good Friday, the day in the Christian calendar when Jesus was crucified. He is moved by this loneliness of the people he has worked with in the last year, of all the death he has seen. 

And he remembered Jesus' word in suffering on the cross: "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me." 

During the pandemic, many people went through so much alone. "That's a very dark thought on Good Friday," Jeutner said. 

He was struck by the caregivers' concern for dignity and respect throughout. 

"This is not a computer screen workplace, this is based around human-to-human encounters," he said. "They spend their lifetime being with other people." 

Maybe Jesus would be a geriatric nurse if he were around today, he added, working on the wards, part of the care teams. 

Jeutner is sad and increasingly skeptical about how people live in care homes. 

"There's no way back, there's no getting out," he observed. "We accompany people until they get out of there through the funeral home." 

The question remains whether the last year has affected how he will preach this Easter. The question is moot: Jeutner is not allowed to preach at all on Good Friday because of COVID restrictions. But many of his congregation want to come to church during those days. 

"We will open our churches for a silent retreat. And worship outdoors on Easter Sunday. We will be there, as believers and optimists and fellow sufferers. But there's really no need for words. Just being there is what is the most important. They will be silent days." 

This article has been translated from German.

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Deutsche Welle Strack Christoph Portrait
Christoph Strack Christoph Strack is a senior author writing about religious affairs.@Strack_C