The bell tolls for the paternoster | Germany | News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 02.06.2015

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The bell tolls for the paternoster

"Our elevator, who art (not yet) in heaven, hallowed be thy name." Germany was once a sanctuary for the paternoster. Not anymore, says federal law: It's outdated and dangerous. But it won't go without a fight.

In the Federal Republic of Germany, there is an almost unimaginable vigor with regard to removing hazards from public spaces, such that it is essentially unthinkable for anything unsafe or out of the ordinary ever to happen in or around them.

This goes for public transportation (the doors in the U-Bahn only open when the train has reached a complete stop), for sidewalks and roads (a crack in the pavement on a path near my apartment in Cologne has been blocked off for weeks to protect bikers from accidental injury), and last but not least, building security (just ask anyone who has ever built anything here - you'll probably get a novel about security measures and regulations that had to be respected).

Germany's almost insane attention to public safety is one of the chief reasons why the survival of the paternoster remains baffling. As far as elevators go, don't get me wrong: the paternoster is the ultimate in cool. It is smooth and awesomely retro, but that doesn't relieve its very real life-threatening potential. I can distinctly remember the first time I saw one. I thought something had gone astray. I watched the box on the right go up, and the box on the left go down. It felt like if I stepped into the one on the left I would fall into the River Styx. If I stepped into the box on the right, well, I would be crushed. I needed to go up, so I had to get into the box on the right. So I watched it go by maybe three, four times, and then I just hopped on.

A smooth ride

I was at the State Transport Ministry in Düsseldorf, one of the oldest government buildings in the capital of North-Rhine Westphalia, the most populous of Germany's 16 federal states. And I was seriously in awe. I needed to get to an interview, so I couldn't ride for too long. But I would be lying if I said I didn't take at least a few trips - both up and down - before I went on my way.

No buttons, no waiting, no awkwardness with fellow passengers (there's only room for two), no bull. That is honestly what I felt when I used this wonderfully outdated elevator.

If I went back to the Transport Ministry in Düsseldorf today, however, I would need a certificate that allows me to use the paternoster.

According to the latest version of industrial safety regulations published by the Federal Labor Ministry (for the blazing literature, please #link: here#) in Berlin, "Personenumlaufaufzüge" (literally translated, "people-circulating-elevators") can now only be used by people who have proven that they know how to use them. In a word, visitors to the 240 buildings where paternosters are in operation in Germany will have to use the stairs.

Petitions up and running

How this is going to be checked remains unclear. At the Transport Ministry in Düsseldorf on Tuesday, the paternoster was turned off. There wasn't capacity to check that people who hadn't been trained to use the elevator weren't using it. This could be the case for a lot of buildings were paternosters are in use.

Should elevator licenses be issued? This was already tried - incidentally - at the main building in Frankfurt's Goethe University in 2011. After four months of forcing students and professors to present elevator passes, the licenses were thrown out - and warning signs were put up in their stead.

By the way, this is not the first time that paternosters have been threatened in Germany. The last time federal legislation was passed with regard to person-circulating-elevators in 1994, it was quite clear that they were to be abolished in 20 years time; that is, 2014. And then Germany's states protested. The upper house of the German parliament, which comprises the heads of the federal states, stepped in and overturned that law, allowing their use to the present day.

That atmosphere of protest is still alive today. Petitions have already been started in the three western cities of Wuppertal, Duisburg and Oberhausen. And if political action is of no avail, there will always be a religious alternative. Supporters of these elevators can always pray. In the end, paternoster is Latin for "Our Father," aka, the Lord's Prayer.

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