When Nelson Mandela died, many of us reflected on his efforts at reconciliation. We wondered how anyone who had endured nearly three decades of imprisonment and witnessed the denigration of his people could emerge from his cell and talk about reconciliation with his jailors. For example, when did he first think about taking this action? How long had it taken him to come to his decision? And how did he convince others this would be a worthy path to take? Think of the process involved. First we need to acknowledge our painful memories, then we need to take some form of action in recognizing (validating) those memories, and finally we have to engage those who hold responsibility for inflicting the pain.
These thoughts were with me in an immediate and personal way around the time Mandela died, when I took a trip to London and Berlin. In London, where I grew up, a close friend had become involved in events commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Kindertransport. Between 1938 and 1939, more than 10,000 children, mostly Jewish, were provided with visas to enter Britain. Parents made the decision to put their children on a train to England to prevent their extermination by the Nazis. They entrusted their children to strangers to save their lives, and most were never reunited. In 2003, a statue at Liverpool street station had been dedicated to the Kindertransport, depicting five children carrying small suitcases, a teddy bear, and a violin.
A few days after I arrived in London, over 250 people gathered at the statue for the 75th anniversary. I was there because my friend’s mother is one of the few surviving ‘Kinder.’ It was a somber occasion, both a tribute to the courage of those who survived and the generosity of the (mostly non-Jewish) families that took these children into their homes and raised them.
The process of remembrance and recognition has been a long journey for many Kinder. Like other survivors of Nazi persecution many did not speak about their experiences for decades; but as they aged some felt compelled to tell their stories to family members and others. Organizations encourage such acts of remembrance, providing support so they can speak out and educate others. In 2013, this recognition was recently taken to another level when Prince Charles met and talked with surviving Kinder, and a ceremony at the Houses of Parliament commemorated the November 1938 debate that resulted in the Kindertransport.
Berlin was a different experience. Both my parents were born in Germany: my mother in Berlin, my father in Leipzig. As Jews they were lucky to escape to London before war broke out. I knew that except for one brother and his wife, my mother’s family did not survive. Eleven members were killed in Auschwitz, Riga, and Sobibor. Because the Nazis kept detailed records of their persecution and slaughter of Jews and others, I had been able during a previous visit to find the address in Berlin from which my grandmother had been taken (along with the date of transport, her destination, and the date of her murder). I was interested in placing a Stolperstein at this address.
A Stolperstein is a brass plaque, about the size of a small brick that is placed in the sidewalk next to the building from which a person was taken to a concentration camp and killed. It bears the simple facts recorded in the Nazi records: the person’s name, date of transport, destination, and date of murder. Stolper means to stumble, and the stones are raised to make them noticeable. They were the idea of performance artist, Gunter Demnig in 1996, and he is still responsible for making them. His intent was that their presence would remind people constantly as they go about their daily business of a past many of them would rather forget; and specifically, to name the people who perished. There are now about 6ooo in Berlin alone, and volunteers keep the stones clean and shiny. A month before my trip I had contacted a woman, Hannelore, who assists with these installations in the Schoeneberg neighborhood where my grandmother Marie Driesen had lived, and informed her I wanted to arrange for a Stolperstein for my grandmother.
A week before my trip she informed me a Stolperstein for Marie Driesen was already in place, and that its installation had been arranged by a current owner of an apartment at the Schoeneberg address. Two weeks later my husband and I were warmly greeted by Hannelore and the owner, Baerbel. We looked at the Stolperstein in the sidewalk, and then sat at a table in Baerbel’s apartment and talked. We learned that around 1938, 37-39 Belziger Strasse had been designated as a Jewish building. This meant that all Jewish residents in the building were forced to take in other Jews as lodgers, and Jews from other buildings were forced to move into the apartments; measures that made it easier for them to be rounded up later. Baerbel, a retired geologist, had worked tirelessly to obtain documents on the 22 Jewish residents taken from that building, and she had a huge binder with files on each one. But she went further; she asked the 52 current residents to contribute to the cost of installing Stolperstein for them. Not a single person refused, and the installation had been filmed by local television.
Such installations are taking place all over Germany; and as families travel from abroad to gather round the stones they engage in conversation with strangers--neighbors and passersby--to remember, recognize, and, openly acknowledge this history and their loss. And yes, these steps approach reconciliation.
On the few previous occasions I have visited Germany I have felt very uncomfortable. This time I found a new respect for those who had the dedication and personal courage to take on the responsibilities of a previous generation. In the 1950s, the German government made a move towards reconciliation by paying nominal monetary restitution to victims’ families, and more recently has built museums and memorials. But the Stolperstein have grown out of the next generation’s sense of their nation’s shameful history. Its grassroots efforts profoundly affect local residents, entire neighborhoods, cities, and the nation; and they offer people like me a sense of gratitude and hope. I think that is a good definition of reconciliation.
Erika Kates, Ph.D. is a Senior Research Scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College.
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Erika, thank you for this blog post. I was unaware of the Stolperstein program. It might interest you to know that Germany has invited and paid for many Holocaust survivors to return to their home communities for a visit. In 1990 my husband's grandfather, at the age of 90, went back to Berlin for such a visit. He had sworn that he would never return to Germany, but the visit was profound for him, a reconciliation of sorts, and he was glad to have done it.
Zoe Sobel, a senior psychology major at Wellesley College and a member of the varsity track and field team and a head athlete mentor, recently wrote about her internship with WBUR, a National Public Radio affiliate in Boston, MA. Sumru Ekut, Ph.D. notes that Zoe has already done what the researchers recommended, in advocating and informing recruiters and potential employers about their transferable skills. Read the recent blog Zoe wrote for Wellesley College's Center for Work & Service: https://blogs.wellesley.edu/mycws/sobe-wbur/