Nov 2012 Journal

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Tripping up the conscience (review)

The need to acknowledge, remember and provide for continuing engagement with the history of the Holocaust has produced a lively culture of memorials, especially in the USA and Germany. The quality of these has, naturally, varied. Some of the largest and most prominent – the bare carcass of Daniel Liebeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin and Peter Eisenmann’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (also in Berlin) – are marked by a high degree of abstraction and symbolism. They steer well clear of the flesh-and-blood human reality of the victims.

Stolpersteine - stumbling stones - are different. Conceived by the artist Gunter Demnig, they bring memorial culture down to street level. They are personal, local, a little bit awkward, liable to cause embarrassment. They are about who used to live in your house or flat and the inconvenient truth that these people were murdered. They are also about neighbours and raise the awkward question of what kind of neighbour you yourself might have been under other circumstances.

In Germany Stolpersteineare a phenomenon. They are to be found in over 500 localities as well as in several other countries, including Austria. In form, they are small, brass plaques set into the pavement and they record the residence, date of deportation and place where the commemorated person perished. They are like gold-coloured cobblestones, catching the eye and tripping up the conscience.

The city of Düsseldorf has embraced the culture of Stolpersteine and the supporters of the memorial and commemorative sites of the city commissioned this book. It records the project and reminds us that behind the bare facts incised on each stone lie a real person and a real life lived. The editors and the translator (it is a dual-language book) have done their work well.

Stolpersteine/ Stumbling Stones is a fine volume, beautiful to look at and profoundly moving in its catalogue of biographies. The genius of Demnig is his vision of literally bringing the victims home. Home is where their hearts were; the expulsion from their homes must inevitably have been a key moment of suffering in their long agony of persecution. Re-uniting people posthumously with the places where they lived and, it is to be hoped, knew some happiness, is a great act of humanity, apology and reconciliation.

As so often, it is the photographs that are most poignant. One in particular caught my eye. Dagobert David (Tiergartenstrasse 3, Düsseldorf Düsseltal) was extremely dapper and probably of short stature. The photo shows him proudly and happily strolling in the countryside in his three-piece suit, pocket square, well-polished shoes and elegant cane. His wife and children are arranged in the photo next to his - neat, clean, prosperous and unsuspecting.

Dagobert perished in the Ulmenstrasse remand prison in 1937, accused of currency offences (he was in banking). His family ultimately moved to Britain after the war but his son, Felix, who had been sent to England in 1936, returned to Germany after becoming ill and was taught in Berlin at the Jewish Kaliski School (where my great-aunt Hilde Rosenthal-Lauphardt was among his teachers) before eventually reaching safety once more in the UK (Hilde was murdered in Auschwitz).

What immediately captured my attention about Dagobert was his physical resemblance to a dear friend. Arbitrary as this is, it turned out that there was a deeper connection between us - through the Kaliski School. And this highlights something about the tragedy of the Holocaust and the wonder of the Stolpersteine: the unlooked-for connectedness of us all, friends and strangers, Jews and Gentiles alike. Thanks to Demnig, traces of these destroyed webs of connection are rendered visible once more and the sheer bloody madness of the Nazi enterprise - to excise one section of society as though it were entirely free-standing and unconnected to the rest - is brought sharply to mind.

This is not a book you read cover to cover. It is a coffee-table book for picking up and browsing. But, like the Stolpersteine themselves, the book will trip you up if you are expecting coffee-table blandness. As you turn the pages you will inevitably be gripped by the astonishing immediacy of this simple way of remembering.

Next spring I will place a Stolperstein outside great-aunt Hilde’s flat in leafy Dahlem in Berlin, where she and her husband Fritz last knew what it was to have a home. It is partly thanks to this book that I’ll do so.

Ben Barkow

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