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Struggling with its past, Germany's 1,000-year-old choir admits girls for the 1st time

Regensburg Cathedral, where the Regensburger Domspatzen choir performs, on July 14, 2021.
Lena Mucha for NPR
Regensburg Cathedral, where the Regensburger Domspatzen choir performs, on July 14, 2021.

REGENSBURG, Germany — For as long as she can remember, 15-year-old Elisabeth Wühl sang with her twin brother, Serafin, in the same choir.

"We both started piano lessons when we were 6, and then we joined our church choir, and then the cathedral choir," said Wühl in an interview last year.

But the twins yearned to further their musical studies, which meant leaving their hometown.

Serafin applied for one of Europe's top choirs, the Regensburger Domspatzen in the Bavarian city of Regensburg.

Founded in the year 975, the Domspatzen is one of the world's oldest choirs and performs at the city's historic Gothic cathedral.

But throughout its thousand-year-old history, the Domspatzen — "cathedral sparrows" in German — has only accepted boys, and when Serafin earned a spot in the choir, Elisabeth found herself empty-handed.

Elisabeth Wühl used to sing with her twin brother but had to attend a different school, Regensburg's College of Catholic Church Music and Musical Education, because the Regensburger Domspatzen where her brother went was boys only.
/ Lena Mucha for NPR
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Lena Mucha for NPR
Elisabeth Wühl used to sing with her twin brother but had to attend a different school, Regensburg's College of Catholic Church Music and Musical Education, because the Regensburger Domspatzen where her brother went was boys only.

Fortunately for her, she gained admission to a girls' choir at a nearby Catholic music college.

This week, however, the Domspatzen upended a millennium of history and is now allowing girls into its music school and to sing in a girls' choir.

It may have come too late for Elisabeth, who says she is committed to staying at her current school. But the move is being hailed as a major milestone for an institution that was once feted by Adolf Hitler and later played host to a decades-long scandal of physical and sexual abuse.

Among the choirboys of the Domspatzen, the move to admit girls has long divided opinion.

"I'm a bit skeptical as to how well the school will function with girls; we're so used to just being among boys," said Johannes Ferber, 13, as he relaxed with classmates on the choir's boarding school campus last year.

But Maximilian Steiner, 15, says he has warmed up to the idea of having female classmates.

Maximilian Steiner practices his trumpet in his room at choir boarding school on July 15, 2021. He joined the school starting in first grade.
/ Lena Mucha for NPR
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Lena Mucha for NPR
Maximilian Steiner practices his trumpet in his room at choir boarding school on July 15, 2021. He joined the school starting in first grade.

"It's long overdue," he said. "We're way behind on this issue. Girls should have the same opportunities as us boys when it comes to education. My sister couldn't come to this school and now it's too late for her."

The new girls at Domspatzen are now attending school with the boys but have a separate choir directed by a female conductor.

"Deciding to allow girls in was part of a long and broader decision-making process about the future of the choir," said Christian Heiss, the musical director of the boys' choir.

"We've made a lot of changes here in recent years," he said. "We rebuilt the school, modernized it, made it nicer. So, then we asked: How do we want to use these new facilities? We came to the conclusion to allow girls to benefit from them as the boys do."

Christian Heiss, musical director of the boys' choir, in the Regensburger Domspatzen school on July 15, 2021. He joined the school in 2019.
/ Lena Mucha for NPR
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Lena Mucha for NPR
Christian Heiss, musical director of the boys' choir, in the Regensburger Domspatzen school on July 15, 2021. He joined the school in 2019.

Heiss says it is a "revolutionary step" in the choir's thousand-year history — a history that has often mirrored some of Germany's darkest chapters.

In 1938, the Domspatzen performed at one of the Nazi Party's annual Nuremberg rallies. Hitler was a fan of the choir, friends with its then-director, and he gave it regular donations in the years to come.

"It was Hitler who made the choir what it is today," said Magnus Meier, who was a choirboy with the Domspatzen in the 1980s.

"Instead of simply singing mass as it used to, Hitler had the choir sing secular music and sent them off on tour. This is how the choir started to tour and gain international fame."

Hitler used the choir as a propaganda tool for Nazi Germany, showcasing it throughout Europe in the run-up to World War II.

The touring ended at the conclusion of the war, but it was replaced with another dark period for the choir: decades of systematic physical and sexual abuse.

As a young boy, Meier was one of hundreds of victims.

"The school director then was one of the worst," Meier said of then-director Johann Meier (no relation). "He'd been an officer in the Second World War, and his punishment methods were similar to the sort that Nazis carried out in the camps. I truly believe if murder were not a crime, he would have killed us."

In 2017, an investigation commissioned by the Catholic Diocese of Regensburg found that Magnus Meier was one of 547 Domspatzen choirboys who were subjected to physical and sexual abuse at the hands of priests and teachers from 1945 to 2015.

The 440-page report describes teachers at the Domspatzen boarding school slapping boys in the face so hard that marks could be seen the next day, and whipping them with wooden sticks and violin bows.

The choir was run by Georg Ratzinger — elder brother of retired Pope Benedict XVI — from 1964 to 1994, when most of the abuse occurred. Ratzinger denied knowing about it, and by the time the abuse came to light, most of the perpetrators had died. (Ratzinger died in 2020.)

Georg Ratzinger at home in Regensburg on April 19, 2005.
Franziska Krug / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Georg Ratzinger at home in Regensburg on April 19, 2005.

The church later compensated victims like Meier with payments of between $20,000 and $30,000.

"As kids, we didn't know any better," said Meier through tears. "We thought the beatings and abuse were normal. It wasn't until later that I realized none of it was normal and that's when I started to deal with the trauma."

Meier, now 50, still struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder and borderline personality disorder. He says the school and the church will never be able to apologize enough for what they did to generations of young people like him.

Still, he says the Domspatzen's decision to open itself up to girls is a good one, albeit, one that, in his mind, reeks of "rebranding."

But Choir Director Heiss says the decision to admit girls has nothing to do with the abuse scandal.

He insists the choir will never sweep its past under the rug, but the abuse happened in the previous century, the choir leadership has changed, and the church led a thorough investigation, listening to the victims.

"And this is now our job: to make sure it never happens again. It's a highly sensitive issue we take very seriously."

The Regensburger Domspatzen choir sing at a concert in Lappersdorf, Germany, on July 15, 2021.
/ Lena Mucha for NPR
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Lena Mucha for NPR
The Regensburger Domspatzen choir sing at a concert in Lappersdorf, Germany, on July 15, 2021.

At a Domspatzen concert at a cultural center in the town of Lappersdorf last year, the choir sang to a full house.

One of those in the audience, Sabine Schick, said she was thrilled for the choir's future.

"It is special and the choir means a lot to this region," said Schick. "The abuse scandal was dreadful and it's a shame that such things happened to such a good choir with such amazing musicians, but I'm trying to focus on the positive."
Schick said it is now time to have girls sing with this thousand-year-old choir.

"I wouldn't want to throw away all our old traditions, but it's time to venture on a new path," she said.

Esme Nicholson contributed to this story from Berlin, and Austin Davis contributed from Regensburg.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.