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A 1,000-year-old German boys choir is now accepting girls

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Starting today, one of the oldest boys choirs in Europe will begin admitting girls for the first time since it was founded in the year 975 A.D. The Regensburg Domspatzen, or Cathedral Sparrows in English, is changing its course as it recovers from a dark period in its thousand-year history. NPR's Rob Schmitz brings us this story.

(CROSSTALK)

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: The Cathedral Sparrows seem to be chirping all at once on their bus ride from their boarding school to a concert venue in their Bavarian hometown of Regensburg. The boys range from 8 years old to teenagers. They represent the Regensburg Cathedral, whose gothic spires have dominated the city's skyline since the year 700.

REGENSBURGER DOMSPATZEN: (Vocalizing).

SCHMITZ: A few centuries later, this boys choir was established. And through the next thousand years, its members have sung the music of countless composers, each one's life going by in the relative blink of an eye, their work living on through these voices.

REGENSBURGER DOMSPATZEN: (Singing in German).

SCHMITZ: On this evening, the choir sings music from Beethoven to celebrate the composer's 250th birthday.

REGENSBURGER DOMSPATZEN: (Singing in German).

SCHMITZ: They're all dressed in navy suits, white shirts and ties. They're all holding books of sheet music in front of them. And, of course, they're all boys. That last part will change starting this week.

JOHANNES FERBER: (Through interpreter) I was quite surprised to hear they're letting girls into our school. I'm a bit skeptical as to how well the school will function with girls. We're so used to just being among boys.

SCHMITZ: Thirteen-year-old Johannes Ferber hasn't yet warmed up to the idea of choir girls taking classes alongside the choir boys. He and his friend Maximilian Steiner relax after a full day of classes in the choir's boarding school, which, apart from music, specializes in the sciences. Steiner, who's 15, feels better about admitting girls into the choir.

MAXIMILLIAN STEINER: (Through interpreter) I think it's a step in the right direction and is long overdue. We're way behind on this issue. It's a matter of equality. Girls should have the same opportunities as us boys when it comes to education. My sister couldn't come to the school. Now it's too late for her.

SCHMITZ: The first female members of the Regensburg Domspatzen will attend school with the boys but will have a separate choir that will be under the direction of a female conductor.

CHRISTIAN HEISS: (Through interpreter) Deciding to allow girls in was part of a long and broader decision-making process about the future of the choir.

SCHMITZ: Christian Heiss is the conductor of the boys choir.

HEISS: (Through interpreter) We made a lot of changes here in recent years. 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.

SCHMITZ: Heiss calls it a revolutionary step in the choir's thousand-year history. And it comes after what was a tough century for the choir.

(CROSSTALK)

SCHMITZ: Nuremberg, 1938, at an annual Nazi rally, Adolf Hitler addressed Germany's young people.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ADOLF HITLER: (Speaking German).

SCHMITZ: The Regensburg Domspatzen sang at this rally. Hitler was a fan of the choir, friends with its director and gave regular donations to it.

MAGNUS MEIER: (Through interpreter) It was Hitler who made the choir what it is today.

SCHMITZ: Magnus Meier was a choir boy with the Domspatzen in the 1980s. He says Hitler used the Domspatzen and as a propaganda tool for Nazi Germany. In the run-up to World War II, the choir toured internationally for the first time and sang secular songs, a showcase supported by the Nazi regime. All of that ended at the conclusion of the second World War, but another period of darkness for the choir followed - decades of systemic, physical and sexual abuse. And as a young boy, Magnus Meier was one of hundreds of victims.

MEIER: (Through interpreter) The school director then, Johann Meier, was one of the worst. He'd been an officer in the war, and his punishment methods were similar to the sort Nazis carried out in camps. I truly believe if murder were not a crime, they would have killed us.

SCHMITZ: According to court documents, when Meier was a 10-year-old choir boy, he was regularly hit in the face by his school director. Whenever his homework had mistakes, the choir prefect punched him with a closed fist in the stomach. The same happened when he and his friends were caught chatting at night in their rooms.

MEIER: (Through interpreter) Because of what was happening to me at school, I deliberately did my worst work. I handed in blank pages for assignments so that I'd be kicked out of school.

SCHMITZ: An investigation commissioned by the Catholic Diocese of Regensburg found that Meier was one of 547 Domspatzen choir boys who were subjected to physical and sexual abuse at the hands of priests and teachers at the boarding school from 1945 to 2015. The choir was run by Georg Ratzinger, elder brother of former Pope Benedict XVI, 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. The church compensated victims like Meier with payments of around $30,000 each.

MEIER: (Through interpreter) As kids, we didn't know any better. 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. That's the problem. We all thought we deserved it, that it was God's will. It's only now that I realize why I still struggle with certain things.

REGENSBURGER DOMSPATZEN: (Singing in Greek).

SCHMITZ: While the Regensburg Domspatzen choir has moved on from the abuse scandal, Meier, now 50, still struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder and borderline personality disorder. He says the abuse consumed his entire life, preventing him from going to university, finding a meaningful career. His settlement hasn't been enough to pay for the therapy he still requires, and he's filed several lawsuits over it.

MEIER: (Speaking German).

SCHMITZ: Meier says the decision to allow girls into the choir is a good one, and he says it's likely an effort to rebrand the choir and to try and leave the past behind. As for him, he says he'd never send a child to the choir.

REGENSBURGER DOMSPATZEN: (Singing in Greek).

SCHMITZ: Back in Regensburg, choir director Christian Heiss says admitting girls to the choir has nothing to do with the abuse scandal. He says the choir can never sweep its past under the carpet. But the abuse happened in the previous century, the choir leadership has changed, and the church led a thorough investigation, listening to the victims.

HEISS: (Through interpreter) And this is now our job - to make sure it never happens again. It's a highly sensitive issue we take very seriously.

REGENSBURGER DOMSPATZEN: (Singing in non-English language).

SCHMITZ: At the Domspatzen concert, audience member Sabine Schick says she's thrilled for the choir's future.

SABINE SCHICK: (Speaking German).

SCHMITZ: She says the choir is special and means a lot to the region. She says the abuse scandal was dreadful and shameful, but she's trying to focus on the positive. Why not move forward with the girls choir after a thousand years, she asks. While she doesn't want to throw away old traditions, she says it's always good to venture on a new path.

REGENSBURGER DOMSPATZEN: (Singing in non-English language).

SCHMITZ: Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Regensburg.

REGENSBURGER DOMSPATZEN: (Singing in non-English language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.