Before Trump, I might have taken this shocking sign less seriously. But now, we need to recognize that while they may be a laughably small group in Germany, they have kindred spirits in the U.S.
More information about the Stolperstine is here http://www.stolpersteine.eu/en/home/
The Initiative in Holocaust, Genocide, Memory Studies is delighted to share this article about the Stolpersteine by Anja Reich, translated by Hunter Frederick, orginally published here: http://www.berliner-zeitung.de/panorama/reportage-der-goldene-stein-10695994
BERLIN – A young road builder gets the first job assignment of his life from a family in Israel. The story behind the setting of a Stolperstein in Berlin.
A Special Trip from Israel
She told the man from the Stolperstein initiative what she knew about her grandparents: Else and Karl Hecht came from Plauen, where they ran two stores. Else had one for ladies' wear, and Karl one for men's. They had two daughters, who managed to get out of Germany just in time: one to England, the other to Palestine. Else and Karl Hecht stayed behind; they probably felt too old to be moving to a foreign country. Or perhaps they didn't fully anticipate what the Nazis were capable of.
Deported to Riga
One of the letters is dated August 9, 1942. “Beloved child,” it begins, “replying to uplifting June letter. From children naught? Am healthy, working, earning. Endless yearning. Stay healthy, strong. Heartfelt kisses – to you, children.” With date and address, it adds up to exactly thirty words.
Else's other daughter, Tina, the mother of Ruth Rotstein and Inge Goldstein, never spoke about it, not a word. All she ever mentioned were the lovely German forests, where one could forage for berries and mushrooms. Now that both of Else’s daughters are dead, it's too late to ask questions. All that remains is the need to do something, to create a connection to the forgotten grandparents. This little brass stone might be such a connection.
Andreas Wünsch loads the box with the stones into the small blue truck belonging to the builders' cooperative. It's cold, damp, and gray. There had been frost overnight.
Frost is bad for road work. Dirk Saager briefly considers calling off the day's work, but then decides to go ahead after making a call and learning that family members have come to Motzstrasse all the way from Israel and the USA. They can't be sent away again.
Idea by artist Gunter Demnig
Andreas Wünsch sits in the back with Akin Gündogdu, a second-year apprentice. Dirk Saager follows in his car with the planned route in his pocket: seven locations, thirteen stones. Work gets going on Kreuznacher Strasse at 9:00 a.m. with Sebastian Jezower and his wife Erna, deported on January 13, 1942. If all goes well, by 12:30 p.m. they'll be done at 24 Aschaffenburger Strasse with Margarete Schenk, murdered on December 16, 1942 in Theresienstadt.
Stolpersteine are based on an idea by the artist Gunter Demnig. At the beginning of the 1990's he laid the first memorial stone in Kreuzberg – which was illegal at the time
– in order to remind people that here, in the middle of the city, lived someone who was taken from their apartment and murdered by the Nazis. Since then, almost 30,000 Stolpersteine have been laid in Germany alone. Most requests for the memorial stones are made by family members or by the building's occupants.
The project initiators found that request inappropriate, but then went ahead and did it anyway with a somewhat toned down inscription. There is no state funding and no political litmus test for Stolpersteine. No mayors or state secretaries come for Stolperstein dedications. Rather, those who take part are family members, local residents, and people who just happen to be walking down the street.
Familiar and strange at the same time
The cemetery was closed, as it always is on Shabbat. They stood in front of the big gate, eight family members from three generations, and wondered how this could happen to them. Maybe they were too excited, or tired, or maybe they just couldn't imagine that Jewish precepts pertained even in Berlin.
The city is familiar and strange to them at the same time. Ruth Rotstein expresses hope that a circle will be closed with this family gathering in Berlin. But the older sister, Inge Goldstein, born in 1930 in Plauen, will have none of it. For decades she refused to return, but then came back in the 1980's as an American scientist to study the effect of air pollution on the incidence of asthma in East Germany.
Sixty-six Stolpersteine in one day
For a long time, Inge Goldstein didn't know if she would come to the Stolperstein dedication or not – first she agreed to participate, then she declined. But now she's here, with her husband and daughter. Shorty after 10 a.m., the family sets off for Motzstrasse.
His apprentices come from Marzahn, Neukölln, Hohenschönhausen, Brandenburg – kids with piercings, tattoos, and shaved heads. These are mostly young men who never went to high school, sent over from the Employment Office [Arbeitsamt]. They don't know very much about the Holocaust; when asked about it, Andreas Wünsch says that his great-grandfather was killed in WWII, and that his great-grandmother was raped by Russian soldiers.
Andreas Wünsch is the only one of the first-year apprentices to come along on this day. He knows it's a “big deal to lay these golden stones,” a recognition of the fact that he “does good work.” As a youth, he had shown promise as a bicycle racer. At the age of nine he entered Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Sports School. He placed seventh in sprinting at the 2008 Youth Championship in Moscow. But a year later, he packed it in. He was tired of doing nothing but racing every weekend. He wanted to party, and to meet girls. “I messed up,” he says, “I regret it now.”
Grandpa is his role model
He finished school on his second try. He tried to join the Army, but they wouldn't take him. “Because I have ADHD,” he says – attention deficit disorder. He began an apprenticeship as an elder-care worker, but then quit. He got jobs on construction sites and waiting tables, but then wanted to “do something proper” again, like his grandfather. “Grandpa had himself a driving school and built two houses”, he says. His grandfather is his role model.
Austere post-war buildings
Here, the trees are recently planted, and the buildings consist of post-war apartments with tiny balconies. On one corner is a discount drugstore, on the other a tanning salon called “Sunshine.” 82 Motzstrasse is just about in the middle of the block. It has six stories and a gray facade. The lawn is clipped, and there's a round ornamental shrub. Not a single leaf is to be found on the sidewalks. A bird house hangs from one of the balconies. A sign warns to beware of the dog. It's a tidy German post-war apartment building. There's nothing here that would bring Else Hecht to mind.
Two of the women got their hair cut short in Kreuzberg, and now everyone is admiring their new hairdos. Seemingly trivial conversations, but a current of tension is in the air. This becomes evident in small gestures: a sudden jolt when a bicyclist shouts “Careful!” as he passes, or a nervous glance at a watch. Every so often people walk by: elderly women with walkers, men with shopping bags, mothers with strollers.
Superintendent Ahmed shuts off the engine, and the apprentices spring out of the truck and unload their tools: bucket, chisels, trowel, pickax, and hammer. Ruth Rotstein and her family, somewhat startled by all the action and the new arrivals, grow quiet. Andreas Wünsch runs back to the truck and returns with the stone. It's lovely, very simple, and glitters like gold. The family members take pictures of it from all angles with their cameras and cell phones.
A solemn moment
Done. Dirk Saager nods at the family members. The apprentices put the tools back into the truck. Before Andreas Wünsch gets into the truck, he turns around and says, “Have a nice day.”
A man rushes down the street and yells, “Religious freedom for all!” A young Turkish woman with a stroller comes back from the store with groceries; on her way into the building, she notices the stone and stands still. Ruth Rotstein asks her if she lives here. The Turkish woman nods. Ruth Rotstein tells her that her grandmother used to live here. It's still the same city after all.
Ceremony of forgiveness
The apprentice Andreas Wünsch is now on Schaperstrasse, the next to last job before he punches out for the day. He lays three stones, one each for Max and Käthe Herrmann, and one for their twelve-year-old daughter Ilse-Ruth.