Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Holocaust Took Place In The Neighborhood (Stolpersteine)

The first time that I came to Germany for a visit was just over a year ago. Prior to that visit to Frankfurt, I didn't really know what to expect in terms of World War II and the events surrounding it. I wasn't even sure if I could say the N-word or even the H-word in mixed company. I looked for signs while walking through the different neighborhoods but didn't see anything obvious. I played it safe and didn't bring up Nazis or the Holocaust or anything else in the religious and/or political realm. What I realized later was that I didn't have any better sense of what had happened here and how people feel about it.

After moving to Stuttgart, I continued to lightly and ever-so-carefully poke around about the N and H words. I again looked for indications. Of course, I asked my new roommate once or twice and a couple of friends with German sigots as well but it wasn't until our visit to Hamburg earlier this month when I finally came face-to-face with history. Our friends live in what I consider to be a fairly typical neighborhood in Hamburg and, there on the ground leading up to the front door of their apartment, was a small brass plaque:

You might not notice it at first glance because it looks a little like a utility access panel or something. This is a closer-up photo with my size 92 feet in it to show some scale:

Our friends told me that the plaques mark places where Holocaust victims either lived or worked. In some cases, like the one in front of the apartment building above, they show where the person lived and, like in the photo below, where they worked.

I took some photos and, when I got back to Stuttgart, did some research into the plaques. They are called Stolpersteine (stumbling blocks) and are the work of Cologne, Germany, artist Gunter Demming. Each 10x10cm plaque is a small memorial to show that the Holocaust "took place in the neighborhood". The artist's goal is to remind people that a real person, who lived a real life in this real place, died as a result of the Holocaust. For me, it makes what happened much less anonymous since I can see a name and I can see a house. It's as if one of our neighbors got taken away, which is what happened.

Demming takes requests from people for the Stolpersteine, has them made, and installs each one personally. According to his website, there are currently over 32,000 (!!!) of them throughout Germany and several other European countries. They each cost 120 Euros (~$150U.S.) and are sponsored by a donor. Interestingly, while reading about the stones, I came across a bit of controversy as some folks don't like the idea of having them in front of their home as they feel that it might reduce property values. He only installs them in cities where there is an ordinance allowing their installation.

Each plaque represents a single individual and starts with either "Hier Wohnte..." (Here Lived) or "Hier Wirkte..." (Here Worked) depending on if it was their home or their workplace. It's followed by the person's name, year of birth, what happened to them (Deportiert/Deported, Eingewiesen/Admitted, and so on), and the when. In the case of a person who was sent to a concentration camp or hospital, the camp's or hospital's name is next. Finally, the plaque says Ermordet (Murdered) and the date when they died.

After reading up about the project, I decided that I wanted to walk to visit all of my former neighbors' Stolpersteine within a ten minute radius of my house, which I guess is what I consider to be "the neighborhood". I found a website that lists all the plaques in the Vaihingen area of Stuttgart and put together a quick map that I could use to find the closest stones (six stones at five sites) on my walk to the supermarket.

The first one was for Gertrud Schonberger who was born in 1908 in Vaihingen. She was the 10th of 11 children, suffered from epileptic seizures during her whole life, and died in a gas chamber in Grafeneck, Germany, on November 11, 1940.

Gertrude lived in a house that was originally located behind what is now a kindergarten. You can see just make out the memorial on the right side of the driveway where it meets the sidewalk in front of the planter.

My next stop was the site where August Leitz used to live. He was born in Vaihingen in 1901 and worked as a mechanic at Bosch, which is still one of the largest employers in Stuttgart. He had one daughter and his wife owned a chocolate shop. It is said that he suffered from mental illness in his later years and died on March 31st, 1941 in a gas chamber in Hadamar, Germany.

August's house was located in the very center of Vaihingen where the Volksbank is in the Vaihingen Market. The stone is on the sidewalk just to the right of the planter between the post where the bank sign is and the planter.

About a half-block away are two stones dedicated to husband and wife Franz and Henriette Fried. They lived together at this location for about 19 years. He was a president at the local Deutschbank until he was "early retired" in 1939. Franz and Henriette were picked up by the secret police and sent to Riga, Latvia, where they died at an unknown date.

They lived on the second floor above the Deutsche Bank on the main street in Vaihingen. The stones are located in the center of the mid-gray color strip that run from in front of the bank out towards the planter to the right.

I then walked over to the spot where Gottlob Haberle used to live. Gottlob was born in Vaihingen in 1893 and was one of 13 siblings. He served Germany in World War I and became an outspoken critic of the Nazis. There is a series of documented events where he had run-ins with them resulting in arrests and time in jail as well as in concentration camps. He (officially) was killed in the Sachensenhausen camp on February 28, 1945 after a more-than three-and-a-half-year stay but there's mention of him being in the camp infirmary on May 1st of that year so it's possible that he died just before the camp was liberated.

Gottlob's stone was the first in Vaihingen where I got to see the actual house that the person lived in. It's the left house in the photo below. The stone is in the very center of the photo right at the bottom edge (it's almost out of the photo).

The last Stolperstein in my ten-minute radius is for Robert Rebmann. He was born in 1912 and had mental illness. He died in a gas chamber in Grafeneck, Germany, on May 27, 1940 at age 28. There wasn't much other information about Robert.

Robert lived where there is now an orthopedic studio about a block or so from the Vaihingen Market. The stone is located on the sidewalk in front of the building below the large display window.

I've walked down most of these streets at one time or another and some many times and had never noticed the Stolpersteine. Even though I visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., which impacted me greatly, seeing these plaques in my neighborhood personalized the Holocaust in a way that I could have never expected. History came alive as the saying goes. It's caused me to reflect on what it'd have been like in my little neighborhood in Philadelphia if people were being rounded up and taken away. How would you have felt if they "took away" your neighbors Mr. and Mrs. Smith who lived at the corner and whose kids you used to play with on the street?

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