Stumbling on History

The brass cobblestones glinted in the autumn sunlight. On the pavement beside them lay six white roses. I stopped, as had a dozen others residents in the hour since the new stones had been laid on our street. ‘Here lived Regina Edel,’ I read. ‘Deported 17.12.1942. Murdered Auschwitz 23.2.1943.’

stolp2Next to it were six more plates, recording the names of other Jewish residents who had been pulled from their home on this leafy and peaceful residential street, and murdered in the camps.

I stood in silence for a moment. Then I spoke the names aloud. Selma Schnee. Hugo and Flora Philips. Dr. Kurt Jacobsohn, his wife Liesbeth and little Hans Adolf. Their boy was six years old when he was executed – along with his parents — at Auschwitz.

I have written before about how modern Germany – in a courageous, humane and moving manner — is subjecting itself to national psychoanalysis. This difficult and painful process is evident in Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial, the undulating labyrinth of concrete plinths which commemorates the European Jews murdered during the Second World War. It can also be seen in Daniel Libeskind’s tortured Jewish Museum, as well as the black husk of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, destroyed by Allied bombs in 1943, and the former Hohenschönhausen Stasi prison which chronicles the zeal of the iniquitous Ministry for State Security in controlling and repressing East Germans. It’s a Freudian idea that the repressed (or at least unspoken) will fester like a canker unless it is brought to the light. The insistence on memory is anciently Jewish, and now Western: the conviction that for the psychic health of a society its past atrocities must be unearthed and confessed, as a condition of healing.

stolp1But this insistence on facing the past is not only evident in grand official projects. Take the stolpersteine. An astonishing twenty thousand of these brass ‘stumble stones’ have been planted among the cobbles of 280 German cities, engraved with the name of a victim: a Jew, a gypsy, a homosexual, a euthanasia victim – anyone the Nazis felt did not deserve to live. Each plaque begins with the same words: ‘Hier Wohnt’ — here lived — followed by the name, date of birth, year of deportation, the camp, and the fate of the victim, if known.

In almost every case the stolpersteine have been commissioned and paid for by residents of the deceased’s former home. All have been made in the studio of Gunter Demnig, an artist who began the project in 1993 with an exhibition of 200 plaques for Sinti and Roma victims. His bold idea to lay stones for the victims of the Holocaust all over Europe almost overwhelmed him until the minister of Cologne’s Atoniter Church told him to ‘start small’. He did, and today there are 1,400 stones in Cologne, and more than 3,000 in Berlin. Demnig – who still does much of the work himself — has also laid the stolpersteine in Austria, Italy, Hungary, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands.

‘Oh our terrible history,’ sighed Hilde Keilinghaus, a Berlin school teacher who lives on my street. Keilinghaus commissioned the seven stones with her neighbours Bettina and Clemens Brandl-Risi. ‘I think it’s important to give the victims a face,’ she told me when we met in her apartment. ‘I think it’s important that people see the stones in front of the house, and stop, and read the names.’

With the help of a volunteer from the town hall, Keilinghaus was able to find those names. The Gedenkbuch, the Memorial Book for the German Victims of the Holocaust published by the Bundesarchiv, proved to be an invaluable resource. The cost of the stolpersteine – €95 per stone – was split equally by the building’s residents. But the search for the victim’s living relatives proved hauntingly difficult.

‘I checked all the German records,’ she told me. ‘I even went to Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust in Jerusalem. And I was shocked to find that no one had asked about these people. There was no brother. No daughter. All their relatives must have been murdered also.’

She sighed and went on, ‘The one exception was Hanns Daniel Philips, Hugo and Flora’s son. He wasn’t in Berlin when his parents were taken away. He survived the war, lived in London for a time and in 1979 went to Yad Vashem to see if there was any traces of them. But now we can’t find him. He too has disappeared.’

Next month Keilinghaus, the Brandl-Risis and their neighbours will hold a small ceremony for the seven murdered residents of their house. Their names will be read out loud, echoing down the street where they once walked, talked and played. No rabbi will be present for it will not be a funeral but rather an act of remembrance, touched by both shame and a desire to learn from terrible, past mistakes.

‘My father was 18 years old when the war began,’ Keilinghaus told me. ‘He fought on the Eastern Front and was imprisoned in a Soviet gulag until 1948. When he came home to Germany, he forbade me and my brother to wear any kind of uniform. I couldn’t even join the Scouts.’

‘How could it have happened that my parents didn’t see what was happening?’ wondered Hilde Keilinghaus, her brow knotted. ‘Today we must look into ourselves and ask, if we had been alive at that time, how would we have reacted?’ She concluded, ‘This is our history, and it’s still around us. It needs to be kept in mind.’

Beneath her window the shining, brass stolpersteine catch the eye, make passers-by stop, and reflect, and takes their breath away.