Witness: Germans atone for Holocaust with "stumble stones"

Thu Oct 21, 2010 8:23am EDT

So-called ''Stolpersteine'' (stumbling blocks), memorial pavement plaques commemorating German Jews who died in the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Theresienstadt, are pictured in Berlin's Wilmersdorf district November 7, 2008. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

So-called ''Stolpersteine'' (stumbling blocks), memorial pavement plaques commemorating German Jews who died in the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Theresienstadt, are pictured in Berlin's Wilmersdorf district November 7, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch

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Walker Simon is a desk editor for Reuters based in New York, specializing in Latin American economics and markets.

Raised in the Mexican city of Monterrey, he joined Reuters in Mexico City and led bureaux in Lima, Caracas and Bogota. In New York, he often writes about arts and entertainment and travels on assignment to Latin America.

By Walker Simon

EGELSBACH, Germany (Reuters) - The metal plaques, called Stolpersteine, or "stumble stones," are set into the ground at my father's ancestral home in this picturesque village south of Frankfurt.

The squares, 10 cm by 10 cm (4 inches by 4 inches), are barely conspicuous, but the words etched in brass seem to cry out for memory of the home's last five Jewish inhabitants.

As autumn sunlight bounces off the plaques, I recall a time nearly 75 years ago when the five, all relatives including my father, were driven from here by Nazi anti-Semitism. Four fled Germany; the fifth died in a concentration camp.

The creation of Cologne artist Gunter Demnig, the Stolpersteine are set at homes of victims of Nazi prejudice. They aim to trip the memories of passers-by of long-gone targets of discrimination, mainly Jews but also homosexuals, the disabled, dissidents and Gypsies.

By tying a victim's fate to a capsule biography, told in a kind of Haiku, the "stumble stones" seek to reduce the epic scale of the Holocaust to a more comprehensible human story.

More than 26,000 Stolpersteine have been laid, mainly in Germany, where I traveled for the ceremony in Egelsbach, 15 km (10 miles) from Frankfurt.

Arriving from New York, I'm joined there by my brother, a 54-year-old gas industry consultant who now lives in Brussels, and two California relatives, both in their 20s.

We begin the ceremony by chanting Kaddish, a Hebrew prayer often said to remember dead relatives.

I insert the plaque for my late father into a concrete groove, and my heart is jolted, then suddenly warms. It is disconcerting. My mind seems to zoom back to another time, perhaps 1937, when my father left Germany at age 17.

Now uninhabited, the house retains a fairy-tale quality. Exposed brown beams crisscross whitewashed walls. Two chimneys top a peaked roof, clad in ochre tiles, by a capacious barn.

Our ceremony has five Stolpersteine, one for cousin Thekla Lehmann, who died in a concentration camp in 1942 in Poland.

Lehmann was sterilized in a mental hospital in 1936, as the Nazis sought to prevent reproduction by those deemed defective, according to Gaby Melk, who organized the ceremony and researched German and Israeli archives for the presentation.

"The Stolpersteine are problematic for the older generations of this town," said Martin Diehl, the local Lutheran pastor who is here to help mark the occasion.

"They may have profited, like getting their homes for almost nothing, so they feel they may have been complicit."

Our home, in family hands for more than half a century, was sold dirt cheap in 1938 by my fleeing grandparents.

Among the score of Germans gathered for the ceremony, nearly all were born after World War Two. One exception was Anni Hahn, 81, who lives down the street.

She fondly recalled matzoh, or unleavened bread baked by Jews, that my grandmother, Dina Simon, gave to her when she was a child. It was "nice and crunchy," she remembered.

Simon Schaefer, a 19-year-old high school student, inserted the Stolperstein for my grandmother.

He got involved in the Stolpersteine project because, he said, "It's important not to forget the Holocaust," which he studied for four weeks in a 9th grade history class.

There was also a personal reason, he said. His non-Jewish great-grandfather died in the Dachau concentration camp, imprisoned as a dissident who opposed Nazi anti-Semitism.

"Some people don't want to hear about the Jewish history (in Germany)," said Melk. "The six million (Jews) who died in the Holocaust is too big to imagine, but if you give victims a face and a story, they will be remembered as humans."

"When you look down at the Stolpersteine, it's like a kind of a bow in honor of the person."

When he spoke about Germany, my father used to say: "Nowhere in the world has a country constructed so many memorials to the barbarity of its past."

Besides Stolpersteine, there are around 2,700 Holocaust memorials in Germany, said an official at the biggest one, located in Berlin only one block from the Brandenburg Gate.

Sprawling over 19 hectares (47 acres), the memorial is also barely two blocks from the Reichstag, the parliament.

In Egelsbach, a 1996 Holocaust memorial lists 82 Jews driven out by Nazism, ending the local Jewish presence that began about 250 years earlier.

At the Frankfurt Jewish Museum, historian Michael Lenarz said my father's life ended on an unusual note. He did something unheard of: After he died, his body was flown back to Germany, after a long exile, for burial in his hometown.

The Jewish cemetery in Egelsbach reopened for the first time since 1934 for my father's 2007 interment.

"Your father wanted to say, 'I've made my peace with history. It's good to be here'," said Diehl, the pastor.

(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

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