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Apr 2007 Journal

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A heavy, lonely legacy

Visit many a German town, and you could easily overlook Stolpersteine - stumblestones - small brass plaques in the pavement outside house entrances. They are only 10 cm square. You have to bend down to read the dedication etched into the shiny surface: ‘Here lived …’, followed by the person’s name, dates of birth and deportation and, where known, place of death.
Restoring the individual’s identity and place in the world is the inspiration of Cologne artist Gunter Demnig. In 1996 he laid his first Stolpersteine for people who have no grave. The majority are for Jews, but other Nazi victims are also commemorated - homosexuals, the disabled, Roma and political opponents of the Third Reich.

I grew up tiptoeing around this area of my family past. My mother, born in Berlin, was the youngest of three children, the only one still at home when Hitler came to power. By 1936 she had persuaded her parents to let her go and, with a domestic permit, immigrated to London. Her parents, plus a stream of uncles, aunts and cousins, remained in Germany and were eventually deported and murdered. That much I knew – the bare facts.

One day in the 1980s, my aunt, who was visiting from New York, dumped two plastic bags at my feet: photos, jewellery smuggled out of Germany in 1939, papers entrusted to non-Jewish friends on the eve of deportation, letters of farewell to their children.

When a few years later my uncle in Tel Aviv died, I was at it again, wading through more yellowed papers: a 1905 vaccination certificate, German school reports, an inventory of possessions shipped from Hamburg to Haifa. Plus sheaves of letters from Berlin. I peered at my grandfather’s tight, black handwriting and at my grandmother’s looser, spidery hand. My grandparents were at last trying to emigrate, but the outbreak of war and the rigour of the British censor put paid to any further correspondence. A terse two-liner from the British authorities in Palestine put their immigration application on hold, and that was the end of that.

I brought the folders back to London, but my mother wouldn’t look at them. So I added my uncle’s bagloads to my aunt’s and shut the cupboard door. It felt like a heavy, lonely legacy.

One evening last winter I switched on the computer and ‘googled’ my mother’s maiden name. To my amazement, my grandparents leaped onto the screen, together with their address in Berlin. I watched two pictures materialise. Stumblestones. ‘Here lived Max’; ‘Here lived Amalie.’ I dashed to the cupboard to check dates of birth, of deportation to Theresienstadt, of death. Everything was accurate. But I am their only living descendant. Who had done this? Then I noticed the date the stones were laid: 30 November 2005. It was now 4 December, only four days later.

In January I stood outside an imposing block of flats in west Berlin. The stumblestones resembled two tiny footprints in the ice. So this is where my grandparents lived out their last years, I thought. A young man let himself into the building. ‘May I step inside for a moment?’, I asked. He and his partner invited me in for tea, for a ride in the lift – ‘The original one - your grandparents will have gone up and down in it!’ I was touched by their welcome and struck by their wish to acknowledge this dark era of their history.

My grandfather Max had been a freemason, and I learned that his and Mally’s Stolpersteine were two among several that Wolfgang Knoll - now project co-ordinator for Wilmersdorf-Charlottenburg - had sponsored out of a desire to honour the Jewish members of his lodge who had perished. He gave me a tour of family addresses: Sigmundshof 22, where my mother was born - these days an empty space with a tree; Kurfürstendamm 96, where she grew up; the freemasons’ building in Emserstrasse; Littenstrasse, where the family’s tie factory used to be; the rebuilt house at Heilbronnerstrasse 22, once the home of Max’s sister and business partner Marie Greiffenhagen, which became one of the infamous Judenhäuser from which she and many others were deported. I began to place my mother’s family in space as well as in time.

In May, for the Stolperstein project’s tenth anniversary, I gave a talk in a Berlin school about the family’s experiences. Photos gave faces and personalities to the names engraved on the stones. People were keen to look at my grandmother’s locket, its first time in Berlin for 67 years. Adults expressed surprise that so much had survived the turbulent years of flight and war, and gratitude at being allowed a personal glimpse into the impact of persecution. I was not the only one to have grown up during decades of silence - so had they. How much of the horrors had our parents and grandparents known about at the time? That had been a no-go-area for all of us. We each had a piece missing from our jigsaw of the past, and I realised in that schoolroom that I represented their missing piece. It was a disconcerting moment.

In the project’s early years, local councils tried to block it. stumblestones?! The bureaucratic brain could not think beyond Health and Safety. Eventually the message got through: you don’t stumble over the stones – they are flush with the pavement - you stumble upon them! There are now 1,000 Stolpersteine in Berlin, over 8,000 throughout Germany, with a long waiting list for more. Local co-ordinators help establish biographical details - particularly important for Jewish victims as the last given address was usually not their own, but a Judenhaus, where they were herded before deportation. German schools have been involved since the beginning, the pupils helping to research the fate of individuals and raise money - 95 euros each.

Not all reactions are positive. ‘Jews have had enough done for them!’, said one woman, slamming her front door. Jewish responses aren’t always favourable either: some believe walking on the memorials is a desecration, others that dogs might dirty them. As for me, the worst that could happen to my grandparents happened decades ago. Let their stumblestones be ignored, dirtied, dug up and replaced, if only now and then a passer-by might pause and reflect.

Big Holocaust memorials arouse big emotions, and the sheer scale of the crime needs to be remembered. Yet it is hard to grasp. What are the next generations to do with inherited feelings of guilt, shame and helplessness? Many are latching onto the stumblestone project. It resembles a pebble dropped in a lake, say the organisers, the ripples grow ever wider. Requests come in daily from ordinary Germans: they can’t change the past, but they want to make a gesture, if only to bring someone back from oblivion to the street where they lived.

Tracing relatives of the deported after so long is difficult, finding them a matter of luck. A tricky question debated by the co-ordinators is: what would a descendant feel who discovered stumblestones had been laid without their permission? In my experience, great relief. Complete strangers have acknowledged my grandparents’ lives and worth as human beings. What is more, their Stolpersteine have provided the key to opening my cupboard. I have cracked the Sütterlin script and can at last read their letters. Between banalities and coded references to the latest Nazi actions runs an undercurrent of increasing bewilderment, fear and dogged getting on with daily life. For the first time, I can hear my grandparents’ voices speaking directly from out of the past.

This is an amended version of an article that appeared in Second Generation Voices, October 2006, No. 33.
Jackie Kohnstamm

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