Gina Burgess Winning, leader of the Network Discussion Group introduces this topic followed by an article by John King of Second Generation Voices, opening the topic to members’ comments.
Introduction to the Network Discussion Group meeting on the topic of Stolpersteine
Gina Burgess Winning shares some of her experiences of the laying of 20 Stolpersteine in the past 10 years
Today’s discussion topic focuses on Commemoration: “To lay Stolpersteine or not to lay Stolpersteine? That is the question…” A question with particular relevance for those of us whose relatives perished in the Holocaust and have no grave.
It was through the Second Generation Network that I first heard about Stolpersteine, little brass covered cobbles, set in the pavement outside the place where victims of Nazism last lived as free people – this was some 11 years ago when I was just starting to explore and come to terms with the Holocaust history that had lurked in the background for decades. For me they provided a way to honour the memory of my grandparents and uncle, and many other relatives I discovered as my Holocaust family history research expanded.
It was not always an easy process. Fortunately the first five were, relatively so. Generally a local group arranges to commemorate former residents who perished, and they organise and pay for the stones. They don’t always try to find or contact descendants. It was a relief to me in one case to learn that there were already Stolpersteine for some relatives. In another case I discovered that the two existing stones contained very minimal information and only part of the family had been included. Through my research three extra stones were added and I provided the local archive with more information, including the missing dates and places of death. So, if you are thinking of commemorating relatives it is worth checking on the net to see if they already have stones.
In the case of my first five, the city of Salzwedel had already decided to install Stolpersteine, including one for my mother’s aunt and uncle. I then learned that it is possible to have stones for all victims of Nazi persecution, including those who had to flee. After many months of emails it was agreed there would also be stones for their sons who had managed to escape as teenagers. The family were then symbolically reunited outside their home. My research into their fates led me to discover a series of second cousins, in Israel and the USA. We met for the first time for the ceremony. It was intensely emotional and cathartic for us all.
The second five, for my mother, uncle, grandparents and great-grandmother, were opposed by some in the local community in the small village where they had lived. I initiated the commemoration and had to wait nine months before the Ortsvorsteher, head of the village council, finally replied, in the negative. The process was immensely stressful and distressing, but I met some very helpful kind people along the way and the ceremony when it finally took place was again very powerful – attended by over 90 people, it became a communal act of mourning, a series of funerals. The local school children were involved, as is often the case. They read out mini biographies I had written.
I should say that when I have visited subsequently the stones haven’t been polished and have gone a dull grey which blends with the pavement. After my initial disappointment I realised I didn’t actually mind. The important thing is that they are there. In some cities like Cologne where there is a very active Stolpersteine organisation – and from where Gunter Demnig, the artist who initiated the project comes – their stones are all kept bright and shiny by local groups.
You don’t need the permission of the current residents of the property in front of which the stones will be installed, as they will be in the pavement which is public land. However, in the case of my mother’s village I did ask the current residents – partly because I thought it would help my case to have their support and they were the ones who would see the stones every day. Also, they happened to be the granddaughter of the man who had acquired my grandparents’ house after Kristallnacht and her father who had been at school with my mother.
Much will depend on where your relatives lived: if there are already Stolpersteine there, things should be quite straightforward; if there aren’t, you may have more work to do, and it would be helpful to try to enlist some local support, e.g. a retired history teacher, local archivist or school that is already interested in researching the former Jewish community. In some cities, like Munich, the local Jewish community is opposed to the laying of Stolpersteine – they can be walked on and get dirty – they are banned on public land, but there are some on private land.
A final point is that even where there is a local group, you may have to argue quite hard for the wording you want. There isn’t much scope for detail, but when you only have a few lines each word counts. It can feel like a very weighty responsibility, deciding on and ensuring the information to be included is accurate – the name, year of birth, brief details of the person’s fate. For this reason the preference now is for very limited information, to minimise the risk of errors. In the case of my grandmother I subsequently discovered, to my horror, that the year of birth on her stone is incorrect – in many official documents she was stated to be three years younger than she actually was, and I had misread the final four letters on her birth certificate (eins not vier). For my great-grandmother I had to decide to what extent the evidence I had relating to her death tallied with the proposed inscription. In cases where people were known by two names, an official name and what they were called by the family, I was able to persuade the Stolpersteine organisers to include both. On each occasion when I met difficulties I found a direct appeal to Gunter himself was successful and he was always very helpful.
There are more than 70,000 Stolpersteine in total in 1,200 cities and towns across Europe and Russia. A Stolperstein costs 120 euros.
Gina Burgess Winning
‘A monument against forgetting’
This description is applied to film director Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 work Shoah.
The Claude Lanzmann Shoah Collection, comprising 185 hours of interview outtakes and 35 hours of location filming is owned by two of the world’s most important Holocaust memorials, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yad Vashem, Israel.
Lanzmann’s film may be described as monumental. But perhaps there as many Holocaust monuments as memories.
These monuments are physical or existing beyond time and space in words, images, music, carried across generations.
They can be international and national as the above institutions in Washington and Jerusalem, as well as more recently in Berlin and Vienna or proposed in London.
The form of these physical spaces varies, the intent and impact of their design debated. A third generation member of my family described to me her feeling of overwhelm inside the ‘Voids’ of the Libeskind installation in central Berlin. Recalling the memory of visiting the memorial caused her distress.
In Judenplatz Vienna British sculptor Rachel Whiteread describes her memorial, a silent library, as designed to challenge and provoke thought.
Monuments and memorials transcend international, national and local, as those at sites of history itself, for example Mauthausen. (Mauthausen-memorial.org)
The monuments may be huge, state-centric or of a different scale, personally initiated. Artist Gunter Demnig started the Stolpersteine project in 1992 aiming to commemorate individuals at exactly their last free place of residency (‘Hier wohnte..’) before being attacked by Nazis.
The hand engraved stones are deliberately raised, impacting the consciousness of all those who pass by.
What is your own experience of physical Holocaust monuments and memorials? Have you completed a Stolpersteine journey or plan to do so? Will Holocaust memorialization change as the First Generation passes? Where should such monuments be located, how should the inscription read. Or even, to quote Rilke’s dictum, ‘erect no monuments.’
Go to the members area of our web site (www.secondgeneration.org.uk) to contribute to this theme linked to the Second Generation Network online discussion 8 September 2020 – Commemoration: to lay Stolpersteine or not to lay Stolperstein? That is the question…
Second Generation Voices
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