Stumbling on History – Closing the Circle

Earlier this month in the warm spring sunshine an older, colder Berlin was remembered. In June 1939 16-year-old Ilse Philips boarded a Kindertransport train bound for London. Her parents Hugo and Flora waved her off at the station. Three years later they were murdered at Auschwitz and Ilse vowed never to return to Berlin. But on Sunday, at the age of 88, she came back – accompanied by four generations of her family.

stolper1Last November I stumbled upon seven glinting, new stolpersteine along the street from my apartment. An astonishing twenty thousand of these brass ‘stumble stones’ have been planted among the cobbles of 280 German cities, engraved with the name of individuals who were pulled from their home and murdered during the Nazi years. Each plaque begins with the same words: ‘Hier wohnte’ – here lived – followed by the name, date of birth, year of deportation and identity of the death camp, if known.

In almost every case the stolpersteine have been ordered and paid for by residents of the deceased’s former residence. In November I spoke to Hilde Keilinghaus, a Berlin school teacher, who commissioned the seven stones with her neighbours Bettina and Clemens Brandl-Risi. ‘I think it’s important to give the victims a face,’ Keilinghaus told me. ‘I think it’s important that people see the stones in front of the house, and stop, and read the names.’

In an effort to trace living relatives, Keilinghaus had travelled to Jerusalem. At Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, she found that only a single Jewish resident seemed to have survived the war. She wrote to him, and discovered that he too had died. But Keilinghaus’ letter – along with the blog which I posted in November – reached that man’s sister in London.

On Sunday Hugo and Flora’s daughter came home. In the company of 50 residents, neighbours and her English family members, Ilse stood at the doorway which she had last walked through 72 years ago, on her journey to Britain. With tears in her eyes, resident Bettina Brandl-Risi welcomed Ilse back to her home and spoke – in English and German and with humility – of being overwhelmed by her family’s ‘generosity and friendship towards us.’ She expressed the need to ‘commemorate the unbearable fate of our fellow citizens’. She said that as one stumbles over the stones, and stops to read them, one has to bow – in respect for those who were so cruelly and unnecessarily killed. Other speakers – touched by both shame and a desire to learn from terrible mistakes – spoke of the monstrous dimension of crimes committed in a few short years. One-by-one today’s residents – none of whom had lived in the building during the war – read aloud the names of their Jewish predecessors, and the dates and places of their execution. Their voices, wracked with emotion, echoed down the street where the deceased had once walked, talked, laughed … and wept.

stolper2Then it was time for Ilse’s family to speak. Her daughter Miriam Book told the gathering that her grandparents had been ordinary German citizens ‘who happened to be Jewish’. Hugo had served the Reich in the trenches during the First World War. Their forefathers had lived in Germany for centuries. She said that saving their children – Ilse’s late brother had been sent to Manchester – ‘had been the only light in the last years of Hugo and Flora’s lives’. Miriam held her mother’s hand, the men donned their kippah prayer caps, and on the leafy Charlottenburg street the family recited the Kaddish, the liturgy for the magnification and sanctification of God’s name. Finally Ilse laid white pebbles onto the stolpersteine, to show that her parents were remembered.

Later in the apartment which had once been her family home, Miriam told me that Ilse – on hearing about the stolpersteine – had immediately decided to return to Berlin, to be a part of the act of remembrance. ‘We have a huge sense of a circle completed,’ she said.

As Ilse’s family departed for the Jewish Museum and their flight home, and I took my leave of them, I search for the right words of farewell. I was in no position to thank them for coming to Berlin, to talk of the pain of their loss, or to mention the courage of the new generation of Berliners who – in a humane and moving manner – are confronting the darkness in their past. I did not need to ask who will lay stones on the stolpersteine of the other lost, former residents: Regina Edel, Selma Schnee, Dr. Kurt Jacobsohn, his wife Liesbeth and little Hans Adolf who was six years old when he was gassed at Auschwitz. All I could say to Ilse’s family – my own voice croaking with emotion – was ‘I am pleased to have met you – here in Berlin.’