Photos by Brett Kaplan
Every time I flaneuse around a German city I stumble, as I am supposed to, over the Stolpersteine. These stones are not new: in 1996 Gunter Demnig began a project to memorialize some of the victims of the Nazi genocide through a seemingly simple but intensely engaging and important method. Each small, squarish metal plaque is embedded into the sidewalk and inscribed with straightforward information about the person or people who lived there. There are now some 60,000 of them in many European cities. “Hier Wohnte Leo Böttigheimer Jg. 1886 Flucht Holland Ermordet 1943 Aushwitz,” and right below this stone: “Hier Wohnte Else Böttigheimer Geb. Levy Jg. 1901 Flucht Holland Ermordet 1943 in Auschwitz.” The family names that group the stones remind us of the loves and kinships of these people who died or were forced to flee.
While in Frankfurt for the 2017 Mnemonics conference in September, I was photographing a shockingly large group of Stolpersteine (they are often in groups of just two or three, or sometimes just a lone stone) whilst the residents walked around me—I seemed to be almost invisible to them at first, a tourist with her camera, probably a Jewish tourist, I imagined them thinking—they were carrying something rather large (a boxed bookshelf from Ikea?) and they pretended I was not in their way. I was about to ask them how they felt about the stones and the tourists who visit them when one of them looked at me with such a sense of pity that I felt ashamed and shuffled away. When I found this large group of memorial stones I was only about a block away from my hotel on Hebelstrasse, and the proximity felt uncanny and a little scary.
Every time I have seen stones—in Frankfurt and, a few years ago, in Cologne, and in Berlin—I stop and take a photo and try to picture what those people might have been like. They may have been lovely, selfish, awful, generous, or, likely, some combination of all. Every time I pause for a photo the locals around me just move aside—sometimes they seem confused given that I am photographing the ground rather than making a selfie or taking a photo up high, above the sight line. I wonder whether the passersby have seen the curious taking photos a zillion times and what it might feel like for them to walk familiar routes past a succession of gawkers from all over the world capturing an image of these unimposing but very powerful memorials. I wonder if those on the stones who may have surviving family have been visited in these not-graves by their families?
I wonder how many of the those who live in the houses formerly inhabited by the Jewish residents who are no longer there—either murdered or left for safety—knew, before the Stolpersteine were installed in front of their houses, that Jewish residents used to live there. In Frankfurt, there is a great likelihood that the houses wherein the murdered or fled lived are no longer there—Frankfurt was heavily bombed and many of the “old” sections are actually reproductions of what was there before ’45. Place and the traces of the past are displaced by the vast destruction of the fire- bombing.
I live in Illinois and there are no Stolpersteine to the native peoples who may have lived where we live now. There are no monuments in front of our house and we do not who may have been displaced, murdered, long before we arrived. I imagine that the folks who live in the Stopel-houses think to themselves, on occasion, “but I had nothing to do with the Nazis! I wasn’t even born yet.” Or “Why are they dredging up the past and making tourists stop in front of our house with their iPhones?” Both of my parents are either immigrants or descended from immigrants—my mother from England, my father the grand-son of a rabbi from a shtetl outside Minsk. I have no bio connection to the Mayflower murderers who committed genocide so many generations ago. I do not feel absolved, though, and while not feeling guilty I do own my complicity. The “ordinary Germans” who live in the houses marked by those gripping, melancholic stones may feel the same way. Did their parents or grandparents, if they were in Frankfurt during the war, resist? Am I doing enough to resist the current strands of racism and antisemitism that are manifesting now? If the forebears of the folks in the houses had done more to resist would history have looked different, millions never murdered by the state, Frankfurt never been bombed? Chances are good, though, that those forebears did not want or need to resist because they believed in the tantalizing Nazi vision of a pure, better, homogenous world full of Lebesraum and racial purtiy.
Along with the Stolpersteine I also saw in Frankfurt a sign that read: “Der Jugend Eine Zukunft HEIMAT Verteidigen! Junge Nationalisten Wahlen: NPD.”
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
The Golden Stone
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.
Sixty-nine years and seventy-one days after Jewish resident Else Hecht was taken from her apartment on Motzstrasse, roadwork apprentice Andreas Wünsch is assigned the job of laying a stone in her memory into the city curbstone. Just before the end of his shift at the training site for apprentices in Berlin, where Wünsch has spent the day laying cobblestones – in a row, in a circle, in a mosaic – his training supervisor Herr Saager informs him that the next day he wouldn't be working in the shop. Instead, they'd be driving into the city to lay Stolpersteine, thirteen in all.
Dirk Saager shows him a cardboard box containing a dozen small concrete blocks, on top of which metal plates have been fastened. Names, dates, and places are engraved on each of these plates. Andreas Wünsch had never heard of these memorial stones. He only knew about old war memorials from the villages in Brandenburg where he grew up, he says later. He's nineteen years old, a skinny kid with a shaved head, a soft smile, and restless eyes. He's from Wildau, near Berlin.
He refers to himself as Andi. His friends call him Neger or Kanake because his father comes from Saudi Arabia and he likes wearing hip-hop pants. He says it doesn't bother him: “I'm an open-minded person, I get along with everyone, including Turks.” The only people he might have any problems with are “those Turk wanna-be sorts or other pseudo-foreigners, otherwise I respect everybody.” Andreas Wünsch says he respects Jews as well: “I don't know any, but if I did, I wouldn't have a problem with them.”
A Special Trip from Israel
Ruth Rotstein couldn't get much sleep last night. She went to bed late and kept waking up in her hotel room on Kochstrasse. She's waited for this moment for a long time – she made a special trip from Israel for the occasion – but now she has to tell herself over and over again that it's OK, that she's doing the right thing.
At the beginning of this year Ruth Rotstein dialed a telephone number in Berlin, and said to the man who answered on the other end that she would like to place two memorial stones (Stolpersteine, she said – she has a good command of German) for her grandparents Else and Karl Hecht.
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.
Ruth Rotstein doesn't know much about her grandparents. She was born in Palestine and never met them. Her older sister Inge can still remember saying goodbye to her grandmother before she escaped from Germany: how she took Inge into her arms and held her tight, how her grandmother's face and clothes felt wet – wet from tears, which Inge came to understand only much later.
Deported to Riga
Documents show that Karl Hecht died from a lung infection in January of 1942 in the Jewish Hospital in Berlin, and was buried in the (Weißensee) Jewish Cemetery. Two letters survive from Else Hecht to her daughter Eva in London: short, truncated missives without a single negative word. Jews were prohibited from complaining about their situation; their letters were not allowed to exceed thirty words.
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.
Six days later, on August 15, 1942, Else Hecht was taken from her apartment in 82 Motzstrasse and deported to a concentration camp in Riga. She was murdered there on August 18.
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.
Almost the entire family has come to Berlin: Ruth Rotstein's daughter from New Jersey, daughter and son-in-law from Israel, her sister and brother-in-law and niece from New York, and her granddaughter from London. After she gets up this morning, Ruth Rotstein unpacks a couple of old photographs and her grandmother's letters, which she had brought with her from Israel. She lays the items side by side by the window. Outside, it's slowly beginning to grow light.
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
They set off in a group of four. Shop superintendent Ahmed drives the truck.
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.
Sometimes residents refuse to contribute towards the 120 euro cost of a Stolperstein, other times building owners complain because they worry about loss of property value. And occasionally, relatives make idiosyncratic requests, such as the recent request of one family member that the inscription on the stone for his great uncle mention the fact the Americans had denied him an entry visa.
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
Ruth Rotstein and her relatives are in Berlin for ten days. They've been to the Barn District, the Turkish Market in Kreuzberg, as well as the C/O Gallery on Oranienburger Street. When the last family member finally arrived on Saturday, they all took the 200 bus to Weißensee to seek out Karl's gravesite in the Jewish Cemetery.
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
The professional distance helped her. But when she visited Berlin with her children five years ago, though she liked the liveliness and openness of the city, at the same time it disturbed her. She knew these were the same reasons her mother loved the city in the 30's, and why she never got over having been forced to leave.
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.
Dirk Saager is a little jittery, as he always is when he makes the rounds with his apprentices on this project, which he began doing this past spring. Gunter Demnig used to knock every stone into the pavement himself, but now there are so many Stolperstein requests that he rarely puts in an appearance anymore. One day in November Saager's crew laid sixty-six Stolpersteine on Sybel Street, twenty-one of them in front of a single building. With these kind of numbers, Saager marches in with a whole brigade. “It's good for the apprentices to get out once in a while,” he says, “and once they're out there, they get the big picture pretty quickly.”
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.
He says he's always wondered “why Adolf, who wasn't even German, made such a big deal about race theories.” When asked if he knew how many Jews the Nazis had murdered, he squints into the milky autumn sky and guesses, “Fifty thousand?”
Grandpa is his role model
A silver medallion hangs around his neck. On one side is his name, on the other his father's: Abdul Manhan Fahet. He barely knows his father. His mother met him after the two Germanies unified. Now he supposedly lives somewhere in Thuringia. He had the medallion chain made a month ago. “A dog tag like soldiers have,” says Andreas Wünsch.
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.
In September, Andreas Wünsch began his apprenticeship as a road builder. For hours at a time, he squats on his knees in the sand and learns how to lay stones in a join. He learns what a 45-degree radial pattern is. He learns that Bernburg cobblestones are not as hard as granite. “It's a blast,” he says.
Austere post-war buildings
Ruth Rotstein and her family members arrive at Motzstrasse far too early. One might mistake them for tourists, standing around in their warm jackets and sensible shoes, cameras at the ready, even though there's no tourist destination anywhere in the area.
Motzstrasse is a long street whose character alters at several points. The street begins at Nollendorfplatz, which is lively, colorful, and distinctly gay; then, at about the mid-point around Viktoria-Luise-Platz, it becomes opulent and bourgeois; towards the end, just before Prager Platz, it becomes austere and low-rent.
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.
Dirk Saager and his apprentices are making slow progress. It has nothing to do with the weather: the ground isn't frozen anymore, and the dirt is easy to dig into. The cobblestones are easily removed and replaced with the brass ones. The obstacles are of a rather different sort. At the first stop, on Kreuznacher Strasse, Andreas Wünsch has to be shown the procedure. On Georg-Wilhelm-Strasse, an older Stolperstein had been put in the wrong way, which Saager immediately corrects.
To make up for lost time, they work through their morning break, and get back on schedule. But then Akin, the second-year apprentice, remembers that he left his work shoes at a construction site yesterday. They make a detour so Akin can retrieve his shoes. He's quick about it, but then on the way to Motzstrasse, Ahmed makes a wrong turn, which he only realizes after it's too late.
Ruth Rotstein looks at her watch. It's already ten minutes before noon, and things were supposed to get started twenty minutes ago – but so far there's no sign of the stone. The air is still frigid, the sky still gray. The gathered relatives rub their hands together, pump their legs, talk about the weather (who'd have thought it'd already be so cold in Berlin?), about the food in the restaurants (they'd expected better) – but at least the hair dressers in Berlin lived up to expectations.
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.
Just after noon the blue truck pulls into Motzstrasse and double-parks. Time for the seventh stone: Else Hecht, with family members in attendance. Estimated time of work: ten minutes. Meanwhile, the group in front of 82 Motzstrasse has grown even larger. A man in sweatpants and a cut-off vest is standing on the lawn, one of the tenants from 82 Motzstrasse. He's been standing there a while, at something of a distance, as if he was afraid of disturbing anyone.
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.
The sidewalk on Motzstrasse and the entrance to 82 are both laid in flagstone, and between the two flagstone segments lies a strip of small rough stones: Bernburg cobblestones. Andreas Wünsch sets down the Stolperstein exactly in the middle of this strip. He looks at his instructor. Dirk Saager nods his head: it's show time. Andreas Wünsch makes a chalk outline around the stone. Akin loosens up the dirt with the pickax, lifts out some stones, and digs a hole. Ruth Rotstein's family stands in a circle looking down toward the two men working.
A solemn moment
Nobody talks. It all goes very quickly: remove dirt, insert stone, pack dirt, put back cobbles, pound in Stolperstein, brush dirt away, wash off stone, brush off hands.
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.”
The workmen are gone, they did their job — much as if they had just patched a pipe or laid down some telephone cable. And yet it's a special, even solemn moment. Maybe it has something to do with the sun, which at this moment breaks through the clouds for the first time. Or maybe something to do with the building tenant, who has now moved closer to the group and explains in halting German that he's from Sri Lanka, that he's a refugee.
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
Ruth Rotstein stands behind the Stolperstein and pulls a slip of paper out of her pocket. She had prepared a speech at home in Israel. “I would like to thank everyone who took part today in this important ceremony,” she reads from her note. She especially wants to thank her sister Inge. “I know it wasn't an easy decision for her.” Ruth Rotstein talks about her mother, who never once talked about Else, never explained why she and her sister fled the country, nor why Else and Karl didn't.
“My mother kept all that inside her heart and it must have caused her great pain.” Ruth Rotstein says that this ceremony is her way of asking for forgiveness for never having asked those questions. She can barely say the words, her voice is breaking. Her sister steps in and talks about the beautiful house in Plauen, and about saying goodbye to her grandmother. Afterward, Ruth Rotstein's granddaughter solemnly sings a song in Hebrew. Without being able to understand the words, it sounds as if it cried out all the lamentations that Else Hecht had been forbidden to write in the letters to her family. It Is heartbreaking.
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.
original article by Anja Reich, published Dec. 10, 2011 in the Berliner Zeitung Magazin translation by Hunter Frederick
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