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A bridge across the ages

POSTED: October 24, 2011 6:43 p.m.
Photo by Pat Donahue/

The Halle delegation, along with Mayor Johnson and state Rep. Ann Purcell, visit the Jerusalem Lutheran Church.

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Savannah officials signed the Hostess City on as Halle, Germany’s first North American sister city last week, celebrating the long German and American heritage of both cities.

“I think we have a good future,” Halle Mayor Dagmar Szabados said in careful English as the German delegates and Georgia’s distinguished guests mingled in the courtyard at the Mansion on Forsyth.

Thursday evening, delegates from Halle, including city officials and representatives of the Francke Foundations, were the guests of honor at a twinning ceremony for the two cities and the opening of an exhibit honoring the 300th birthday of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, the patron of American Lutheranism.

After reading the different objectives of the cooperation agreement, which among others included scholarly and student exchanges, Savannah Mayor Otis Johnson said he hoped that those would evolve over the years.

“I think it’s outstanding, and I’m sure over the years that this will be expanded as we develop a closer relationship,” he said.

The ceremony was held at the Mansion on Forsyth, courtesy of Rincon native and Salzburger descendant Richard C. Kessler, and the exhibit will be housed there for the next few weeks.

State Rep. Ann Purcell, who was involved in developing the partnership, read a letter from Gov. Nathan Deal, a Salzburger descendant, and a resolution from the state Legislature recognizing the Muhlenberg exhibit in Savannah, Atlanta and Philadelphia.

“This is an exciting time and I do bring you greetings from the state of Georgia,” Purcell said after presenting the resolution, along with state Rep. Ron Stephens, to Dr. Thomas Müller-Bahlke, director of the Francke Foundation

A rich history

Detailed documentation of the Salzburgers of Ebenezer who came to Savannah 270 years ago were kept in the diaries of two Lutheran pastors from Halle, Germany, who were sent to accompany the Salzburgers, fleeing religious persecution in Eastern Europe.

“Since that time, we in Halle and especially in the Francke Foundation where I come from, have a strong relationship to the city of Savannah and to the Georgia Salzburgers,” said Dr. Müller-Bahlke. “All the Lutheran pastors in Savannah and also Muhlenberg wrote the journals and wrote about what happened here and sent that back to Halle, and it’s now stored in our archives.”

These pastors, Johann Martin Boltzius and Christian Gronau, were sent from their teaching positions at a Halle orphanage, now the Francke Foundation building, to Savannah. Their diaries offer detailed accounts of the Ebenezer settlement and the spread of the Lutheran faith across Georgia and the North American colonies, as well as insight into the lives of the colonists.

“That means that American scholars can learn about their own 18th century history because Muhlenberg and Boltzius wrote in their journals what happened during the revolutionary times,” said Müller-Bahlke as the Muhlenberg exhibit waited patiently in the adjacent ballroom to open to the public. “So that’s very, very important for both sides.”

Müller-Bahlke said that Muhlenberg, who settled in Pennsylvania and who studied at the University of Halle in Germany, visited Savannah and the Salzburgers in Ebenezer during his travels throughout the east coast as he united Germans and other Eastern Europeans in the ‘New World’ under the Lutheran Christian faith.

Saturday, the German delegation, along with Lutheran pastors and Savannah, city and state officials, were escorted to Ebenezer and New Ebenezer to see the Salzburger settlements firsthand.

At the twinning ceremony, Purcell spoke in depth about the revived relationship between the two cities and her enthusiasm for the opportunities available for the Georgia Salzburger Society, the German Heritage Society and the German Friendly Society, representatives from which were present at the ceremony.

Purcell, who guided the Saturday visit, noted at the twinning ceremony the religious history that resonated with her during her visit to Halle.

“We do have a lot to be thankful for,” she said. “As I visited in Halle at the various places my family had homes, and I looked at the beautiful countryside, and I thought immediately, ‘how can my ancestors leave such a beautiful, beautiful country?’ It was because they had a strong faith.”

A bright future

Halle is in the German state Saxony-Anhalt in east Germany and is of similar size as Savannah. After more than three years of negotiations between officials of the two cities and the Consul General of Germany in Atlanta, Dr. Lutz Görgens, along with other supporters and societies, mayors Johnson and Szabados signed a partnership agreement of academic, cultural, scientific and economic cooperation.

“For us in Halle, it means we get a beautiful city on the other side of the Atlantic,” said Müller-Bahlke. “For us in Halle, it also means we get new contacts in cultural and scientific affairs but also in economical things. So I hope that we can take advantage of this new sister city partnership.”

The agreement promises more student exchanges between the universities in Savannah and the universities in Halle, especially the art and design schools in each.

“We are convinced that we will have a good future, based on the universities and the college of art and design and things like this,” Mayor Szabados said through translator Dr. Petra Sachse, deputy head of Halle business development.

Görgens said that this agreement would bridge the 260-year-old link between the cities with a 21st century partnership, a sentiment echoed by the Savannah mayor.

“Now we have an agreement that will move our cooperation across the Atlantic and into the 21st century,” Johnson said of the twinning agreements, one written in English and one in German.

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