Germans Setting Shoah Memories in Stone

April 28, 2011 11:12 pm 1 comment

Last month, on a sunny pavement in the Wilhelmsdorf-Charlottenberg section of Berlin, some 40 people solemnly gathered outside a block of tidy, well-scrubbed residential flats on Gieselerstrasse 12. They came to commemorate the memory of seven Jews who were rounded up by the Nazis and sent to their deaths in Auschwitz between 1942 and 1944.

Brief speeches were made. Families with children listened. At one point the sound of a piano and flute drifted through a window. White roses were placed on seven small brass plaques cemented to paving stones inscribed with the names: Regina Edel; Selma Schnee; Kurt, Liesbeth and Hans Jacobson; Hugo and Flora Philips.

“Here lived…” each one begins, followed by a name and date of birth. Then: “deported on…” followed by “murdered… [name of concentration camp]“. Nothing more. Nothing less.

In German, they are called Stolpersteine or “stumbling blocks” and more than 27,000 have been laid in some 500 locations by volunteers in the 10 years since a non-Jewish artist first came up with a way for ordinary Germans to honour the memory of the Jews who once lived in their midst.

“They are small but conspicuous reminders of what happened here 70 years ago,” said Clemens Risi, who together with his wife Bettina Brandl-Risi coordinated the memorial with their neighbours. “The plaques are easy to overlook,” he said. “But when your eye catches them and you are almost forced to kneel to read them, then you see what they stand for: real human beings who were arrested, deported and killed by the Nazis.”

Brass plaques containing information about the Jews who went missing from their homes, never to return.

This dedication was different, however. Even by Stolperstein standards. For among the clutch of guests was 87-year old Ilse Newton of Golders Green. The last time she had set foot on this street was in 1939 with her parents, Hugo and Flora Philips, who took her to the train station where she joined other children as part of the Kindertransport that brought her to England and safety during the war years.

Now she was back – after a lifetime of refusing to set foot in Berlin ever again. This time the invitation was personal and heartfelt, from Hilde Keilinghaus, a neighbour of Clemens and Bettina, who had learned of her existence after three years of research and a visit to Yad Vashem. This time she would go, she told her 59-year-old daughter, Miriam Book of Brighton, after a moment’s deliberation: “I want to say goodbye.”

And so on the weekend of 12 March Newton flew to Berlin, joined by her daughter, four grandsons, a nine-month-old great granddaughter and other relatives.

There they were greeted by a contingent of German neighbours now living at Gieselerstrasse 12 whose years of research into the lives of the Jews who once lived there had brought the two groups together.

For Newton, the decision to return to Germany was a culmination of a mourning process that spanned 72 years. Following a stroke that has left her mother’s speech impaired, Book has assumed the task of Philips family chronicler as well as interlocutor. Seated in her Brighton home, Book recounts a tortuous process of discovery she went through while growing up. “For years my mother never even talked about the war. I think it was only after watching the movie Shoah and the birth of her grandsons that things began to come out in the open.”

Book learned that her family had come from Germany’s Rhineland region, that both grandfathers had fought for the Kaiser during the First World War, and that Hugo and Flora Philips owned and worked in a modest furniture store in Berlin. Like thousands of others, they were solid, hardworking German burghers when they were rounded up in 1943.

Meanwhile, after arriving in London at the age of 16, Newton boarded in Finchley, North London, worked in a sweat shop sewing beads on dresses, and eventually found work with the National Fire Service during the war, never quite relinquishing the hope that her parents might still be alive.

Her worst fears were confirmed in 1947 when a letter arrived from Christian neighbours of her parents who knew of their deportation to Auschwitz.

Bettina and Clemens began their search three years ago. “I first read about the Stolperstein project in 2007 from a newspaper article in the Berlin Tagespiegel newspaper,” said Bettina. “From that point forward we set out to see what our research would reveal.”

By then the project already had a seven-year track record, initiated by Cologne artist Guenter Demnig who developed it as a form of installation art-as-remembrance. He soon found it so popular that he has since been constructing the “stones” (cement “bricks” with a brass overlay) almost full-time, delivering them to locations around the country.

In Berlin he was aided by Wolfgang Knoll, 75, a retired civil servant who helped Bettina and Clemens research the names and identification of Jews living in their apartment building.

Because Germany’s data protection laws make it difficult to track down living relatives of deceased former residents, the couple were prepared to abandon hope – until their neighbours travelled to Israel last summer.

At Yad Vashem they found an active trail that led them to north London. Miriam recalls: “Two days later I found myself talking on the phone to this German couple who had traced my grandparents back to their last home and were now planning this memorial in Berlin. It was a lot to take in,” she said.

“Yet when my mother and I learned that it was all privately initiated, organised and had come from the heart, we knew the whole family would have to go – four generations of Flora and Hugo’s descendants.”

Arriving on a Saturday evening, the Philips family was warmly feted and hosted to a series of home hospitality occasions – including dinner in the flat where Newton grew up. Staring at the 24 places set the first night at tables stretching the length of the living room. “Yes,” said Newton, her voice trailing off. “This is where we used to have a big family seder…”

But Sunday’s memorial outside Gieselerstrasse 12 brought things into sharp focus. “It was overwhelming,” said Book after accompanying her mother back to the UK. “I don’t think it has really begun to sink in.”

She added: “After the words, the chamber music, the recollections and the tears, and after we finally said the mourner’s kaddish and placed small stones on each of the Stolpersteine, you could hear a pin drop. That is, until Maya, our granddaughter, made a sound and people began to stir – a reminder that life must go on.”

This article originally appeared on The Jewish Chronicle Online www.thejc.com

1 Comment

  • Mrs Susan Sylvester

    I recently read the above article in the Jewish Chronicle.

    My maternal grandparents lived in Berlin before being deported to Riga in January 1942.

    How can I find out whether a Shoah memorial plaque has been or will be placed outside their home in Gasteiner Strasse, Wilmersdorf?

    Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Jewish Identity Sports Cycling the Desert: New Israel Bike Trail Connects Mitzpe Ramon to Eilat

    Cycling the Desert: New Israel Bike Trail Connects Mitzpe Ramon to Eilat

    As the popularity of cycling continues to increase across the world, Israel is working to develop cycling trails that make the country’s spectacular desert accessible to cyclists. The southern segment of the Israel Bike Trail was inaugurated on Feb. 24 and offers for the first time a unique, uninterrupted 8-day cycling experience after six years of planning and development. The southern section of the Israel Bike Trail stretches over 300 kilometers in length and is divided into eight segments for mountain biking, [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Theater Forthcoming Major Action Movies Inspired by Jewish Comic Artist Jack Kirby

    Forthcoming Major Action Movies Inspired by Jewish Comic Artist Jack Kirby

    JNS.org – With the recent Oscars in the rearview mirror, Hollywood’s attention now shifts to the rest of this year’s big-screen lineup. Two of the major action films coming up in 2015—Avengers: Age of Ultron, which hits theaters in May, and the third film in the Fantastic Four series, slated for an August release—have Jewish roots that the average moviegoer might be unaware of. As it turns out, it took a tough Jewish kid from New York City’s Lower East [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Jewish Identity When Torah Teaches Life and Life Teaches Torah (REVIEW)

    When Torah Teaches Life and Life Teaches Torah (REVIEW)

    JNS.org – Rabbi Gordon Tucker spent the first 20 years of his career teaching at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) and the next 20 years as the rabbi of Temple Israel Center in White Plains, N.Y. I confess that when I heard about the order of those events, I thought that Tucker’s move from academia to the pulpit was strange. Firstly, I could not imagine anyone filling the place of my friend, Arnold Turetsky, who was such a talented [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Oscars 2015: Reflecting on Love at First Sight

    Oscars 2015: Reflecting on Love at First Sight

    JNS.org – I’m in love, and have been for a long time. It’s a relationship filled with laughter, tears, intrigue, and surprise. It was love at first sight, back when I was a little girl—with an extra-terrestrial that longed to go home. From then on, that love has never wavered, and isn’t reserved for one, but for oh so many—Ferris Bueller, Annie Hall, Tootsie, Harry and Sally, Marty McFly, Atticus Finch, Danny Zuko, Yentl, that little dog Toto, Mrs. Doubtfire, [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Book Reviews Examining America’s First Foray into the Middle East (REVIEW)

    Examining America’s First Foray into the Middle East (REVIEW)

    At the turn of the 21st century through today, American involvement in Middle Eastern politics runs through the Central Intelligence Agency. In America’s Great Game: The CIA’s Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East, historian Hugh Wilford shows this has always been the case. Wilford methodically traces the lives and work of the agency’s three most prominent officers in the Middle East: Kermit “Kim” Roosevelt was the grandson of president Theodore Roosevelt, and the first head of [...]

    Read more →
  • Relationships US & Canada Seniors at Los Angeles Jewish Home Give Witty Dating Advice Ahead of Valentine’s Day (VIDEO)

    Seniors at Los Angeles Jewish Home Give Witty Dating Advice Ahead of Valentine’s Day (VIDEO)

    Residents of the Los Angeles Jewish Home give dating advice to a young Jewish man in a comedic video posted Monday on YouTube just in time for Valentine’s Day. Jonathan, an associate at the Jewish home, quizzes the senior citizens on an array of topics including having sex on the first date, kissing a girl, who should pay for dinner and whether online dating is a good idea. When the 28-year-old asks a male resident named Lee about his experiences [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish History Kutsher’s Documentary an Amazing, and Tragic, Look at the Past (REVIEW)

    Kutsher’s Documentary an Amazing, and Tragic, Look at the Past (REVIEW)

    Anyone who spent time in the Jewish Catskills hotels – especially those like me, who returned for decades – must see the new documentary,”Welcome to Kutsher’s: The Last Catskills Resort.” Not only will the film transport you back to the glory days of your youth and thousands of memories, but it will also make you long for a world that is now lost forever. I returned to Kutsher’s one last time in the summer of 2009, but by then, the [...]

    Read more →
  • Education Jewish Identity Lifestyle Riding the Wave of Change in Part-Time Jewish Education

    Riding the Wave of Change in Part-Time Jewish Education

    JNS.org – Amid the numerous studies and analyses regarding Jewish American life, a simple fact remains: part-time Jewish education is the most popular vehicle for Jewish education in North America. Whenever and wherever parents choose Jewish education for their children, we have a communal responsibility to devote the necessary time and resources to deliver dynamic, effective learning experiences. The only way we can do this is by creating space for conversations and knowledge-sharing around innovative new education models. That also [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.