Cold War Espionage, Handbell Style

Jul 8, 2019

A prestigious handbell choir from Gotha, Germany, is touring southwest and central Ohio this July. The choir hails from a church where theologian Martin Luther - a leader in the Protestant Reformation - preached not once but four times; a church where Johann Pachelbel - yes, the Pachelbel famous for his "Canon in D" - was once the municipal organist.

However, the choir wouldn't exist if not for a church in Dayton, Ohio, and its brave choir members who stealthily drove the instruments behind the Iron Curtain.

It was 1987 and Pastor Larry Hoffsis, his wife and other church members were in a Volkswagon van loaded with cases of shiny new handbells approaching the border between West and East Germany, Hoffsis clutching the paper that would allow them to pass from the free West into the communist East.

"As we were approaching the Iron Curtain," Hoffsis recalls, "I read one more time the permission slip to import these bells and I was aghast when I read 'Permission granted to import one set of handbells.' ... We had two."

Fortunately the border guards didn't know how many bells constitute a set, and after determining the instruments weren't weapons or contraband, allowed the van to pass.

Hoffsis first visited East Germany in 1985 as one of six Lutherans allowed to visit churches there. He immediately wanted to return but was told that would be impossible. What if, he thought, the return trip wasn't religious but rather cultural, a youth handbell concert perhaps?

In 1986 the youth handbell choir from Epiphany Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, played to standing room-only congregations in East Germany.

Why did the people respond so enthusiastically? Many churches were left in ruins under communist rule. "Very few (churches) were rebuilt and many of them had bells that did no longer ring in the towers, or had been taken out by the Nazis to melt them down for the war effort," says Hoffsis.

A partnership was born. Epiphany and other Lutheran churches across the United States raised enough funds to purchase two sets of Malmark handbells, one of which was used during that 1987 trip to found the Handbell Choir of the St. Augustine Lutheran Church in Gotha.

The American choir members spent a week teaching church members how to play their new instruments. People of all ages came out to learn how to ring, among them Matthias Eichhorn, the 8-year-old son of the church's music director.

St. Augustine would go on to play a lead role in the peaceful revolution overthrowing the communist regime, and little Matthias Eichhorn would grow up to be an acclaimed jazz musician in the reunified Germany. He also now leads some 100 ringers in St. Augustine's six - yes, six - handbell choirs, one of which is touring Ohio July 9-22.

"In many ways we can say that the handbells built a bridge," Hoffsis says. "I often thought that if I had a hammer, I'd hammer out justice ... and if I had a bell, I'd ring out for freedom. And in some ways, that really did build a bridge between East and West and the old Cold War."

Ohio Performances

The St. Augustine choir is scheduled to play 11 concerts in Cincinnati, Dayton and Columbus. Hoffsiss says you don't need to be religious to enjoy the music.

"They're going to be doing selections from Beauty and the Beast," Hoffisis says. "They're going to be doing selections from The Nutcracker, and some of those are just terrific, like 'Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.' Another one that will be interesting is 'Escape Velocity' and it was written in honor of the NASA Space Shuttle program. ... There's a lot of variety."

Tour stops include:

Wednesday, July 10, 7 p.m. - Emmanuel Lutheran Church, Kettering
Thursday, July 11, 7 p.m. - Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Cincinnati
Friday, July 12, 7 p.m. - St. Paul Lutheran Church, Westerville
Sunday, July 14 - Holy Trinity Lutheran, Upper Arlington (morning service and 4:00 p.m. concert)
Monday, July 15, 7 p.m. - Epiphany Lutheran Church, Pickerington
Tuesday, July 16, 7 p.m. - St. Peter Lutheran Church, Lancaster
Wednesday, July 17, 7 p.m. - Lutheran Church of the Resurrection, Cincinnati
Thursday, July 18, 7 p.m. - Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Loveland
Friday, July 19, 2 p.m. - Bethany Lutheran Village, Centerville (Wholeness of Life Center)
Friday, July 19, 7 p.m. - Lord of Life Lutheran Church, West Chester
Sunday, July 21 - Epiphany Lutheran Church, Centerville (morning service, 7 p.m. evening concert)