Our Top 10 in 2013. No 4: in Berlin, more and more victims of the Nazis are being remembered with Stolpersteine—brass plates, embedded in concrete, in the streets where they lived. Andreas Kluth traces the stories behind the stones
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, May/June 2013
ON A HOT July evening in 2012, Menasheh Fogel, his wife and three children were returning from a favourite haunt, the sandy beach at Wannsee, one of the lakes on the western outskirts of Berlin. Fogel, still in his beach clothes, parked near their home on Bamberger Strasse, a charming street of old buildings with high ceilings. As he unloaded their beach toys, his wife started chatting with an older man on the other side of the street. "He was just talking in English to anybody walking by," Fogel recalls. "He came off as a bit loony, but he was just emotional." So Fogel, still in his flip flops, walked over and started to listen. The half-hour chat that followed changed the way he relates to his street and city, its past and his present.
The man outside Bamberger Strasse 3 turned out to be Howard Shattner, from Santa Rosa, California, about an hour from Berkeley, where the Fogel family had lived until a year earlier. Like Fogel, Shattner is American and Jewish. And this address was where his family had lived before the war. In 1938, Shattner’s father and two uncles fled Germany. But his grandfather Chaim and aunt Jente stayed. In September 1942, the Nazis came to this building and took them away.
Twelve days before he met Fogel, Shattner had commemorated his grandfather and aunt by embedding two Stolpersteine—"stumbling stones"—in the pavement at Bamberger Strasse 3. He had come back on this day to talk to residents and passers-by about them. They are brass plates sitting on concrete cubes of ten centimetres on each side. Printed into each plate are the details of one victim of National Socialism—Jewish, gypsy, homosexual or other—who had his or her last address at this spot. The information is deliberately kept terse. The stone for Shattner’s grandfather reads:
HERE LIVED CHAIM SHATTNER
There are now almost 40,000 such Stolpersteine in several European countries, most in Germany, thousands in Berlin alone. Some streets that used to be centres of Jewish life teem with them. My own street, in elegant Charlottenburg, is one. In front of my own front door are five Stolpersteine, and they were among the first things that my kids and I noticed when we first came to look at the place. We bowed down and I read the inscriptions out loud. My seven-year-old daughter wondered what this might be about. Since she asked, I began to tell them, for the first time, about the Holocaust. As I did so, some of our neighbours-to-be paused and joined us and an ad hoc conversation arose—all before we had even moved in.
In the same way, Fogel had also noticed Stolpersteine in the streets almost immediately after moving to Berlin. There were already several in his own neighbourhood, Bayerische Viertel (Bavarian Quarter) in Schöneberg, not far from Charlottenburg. Built by and for the bourgeoisie in the years just before the first world war, this was and still is a well-to-do area. Most of the streets are named after Bavarian cities, hence the name of the quarter. But so many Jews once lived there, Albert Einstein among them, that its other nickname was "the Jewish Switzerland".
Berlin, and all Germany, has many memorials and monuments to the Holocaust. But for Fogel these small blocks in the sidewalk made remembrance concrete and therefore more touching, immediate, even eerie. "You can go to the Holocaust Museum in Washington or to the Holocaust Memorial here in Berlin and it’s kind of impersonal and abstract. But this is one person, in one place, and you can imagine what his daily life was like."
At first I assumed that the Stolpersteine were a government project, organised by the city. Fogel had thought so too. Then, during one of his German lessons, his language teacher told him that they were a private initiative run by an artist, Gunter Demnig, who was born in Berlin and now lives in Cologne. "When I learned that the Stolperstein project was actually a private art project and not something done by a public agency," Fogel says, "I actually got a little upset. I realised that while there are quite a few Stolpersteine throughout Berlin, the streets would be literally covered in them if all of the victims were memorialised. It really made me realise how many people could easily be forgotten."
And so the Stolpersteine dredged up every conflicted feeling that Fogel, as a Jew, had about living in Germany. Nobody in his own family died in the Holocaust. On his father’s side, he is fourth-generation American; on his mother’s side, he is fifth-generation. But he is still Jewish. And not only does he now live in Germany, but he works there – in information technology—for Bayer. Today, Bayer is known predominantly for Aspirin, which it invented. But during the Holocaust, Bayer was part of IG Farben, a chemical conglomerate that made, among other things, Zyklon b, the gas used in the death chambers.
Fogel had made a sort of peace with his mixed feelings about his career move. As a tech guy, he is the linear and logical type. "My left brain overrides my right brain," he says. "I have nuanced feelings because Germany has dealt with the Holocaust so openly and modern Germany has some of the most progressive politics in the world—environment, governance, companies and all that."
And yet, the past is always there, sedimented into every place. Take that sandy beach at the Wannsee, where the Fogel family had been swimming just before they met Shattner. On a warm day, there are kids splashing in the shallow safe area, bigger kids tumbling from the water slide farther out, and off to the right the nudists are enjoying themselves. But looking diagonally left from the beach, one can see, just across the water, a grey mansion. This is the Villa Wannsee, where 15 leading Nazis met on January 20th 1942—nine months before Chaim Shattner was deported—to decide the "Final Solution to the Jewish Question".