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American choir shares German town’s sorrow with gift of song

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. -- On Monday, Jan. 2, Bethel College’s Concert Choir was having its last practice before beginning a three-week tour in Europe on Jan. 3. That afternoon, the roof of an ice rink in Bad Reichenhall in Germany’s Bavaria region near the border with Austria, collapsed, killing 15 people, most of them children. Up to a foot of snow had fallen on the Alpine region in the 24 hours before the roof fell in. The Concert Choir arrived in Bad Reichenhall a week later, on Jan. 10, for a previously scheduled concert. Organizers had originally planned it to benefit Sudanese refugees. Instead, the money raised went to families who had suffered in the ice rink tragedy.

The choir sang in the concert rotunda of the Kurgarten, part of the town park. Bad Reichenhall, population about 17,000, is a spa town and there are usually concerts at the Kurgarten every day. However, the Concert Choir was the first to sing there since the ice rink tragedy, said Merle Schlabaugh, Bethel College professor of German, who accompanied the choir on the tour.

In a Jan. 12 article, "Ein Konzert wird zur Gedenkstunde" ("A concert becomes an hour of remembrance"), a reporter for the local paper, the Reichenhaller Tagblatt, praised choir members for their participation.

Margaret Penner, a senior from West Chester, Ohio, who is fluent in German, told those gathered, "Through our music and singing, we want to express our [sharing] in this sorrow."

They did that successfully, said the reporter, especially through their presentation of "Kyrie eleison" ("Lord, have mercy") by Sandstrom and in the male octet Open Road’s rendition of "Lord, be near me," an original piece by Moundridge senior and Open Road member Joel Krehbiel. The choir showed evidence of good preparation, the reporter wrote, and he praised them for their singing of German texts such as "Jauchzet dem Herr" ("Praise to the Lord") by Mendelssohn.

Also participating in the concert were several pastors, from a local Catholic and a local Protestant church, as well as David Rempel, a Canadian and the pastor of a small mission church in Bad Reichenhall that belongs to the Mennonite Brethren denomination. Fritz Potreck, who had helped to organize the concert, also spoke. Potreck, who lives in Berchtesgaden, not far from Bad Reichenhall, was the first German student to participate in Bethel College’s exchange with Bergische Universitat in Wüppertal, Germany, in 1951-52.

There was no admission charge for the concert but at the end choir members took up a collection. Penner prepared a speech and she and two other choir members then took the money, about 800 euros (around $960), and presented it to a representative of a citizens’ group to be distributed to the families of the dead and injured.

The Bethel College Europe Concert Choir consisted of 43 members. Conductor was William Eash, professor of music at Bethel College. The Jan. 3-25 tour included concert venues in Sarajevo, Vienna, Prague, and a number of towns in Germany.

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and has been named a Top Tier college by U.S. News & World Report every year since 1998. For more information, see the Bethel web site at

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