by Michael Rice
“Ella,” wrote my grandmother about her daughter, my aunt, in 1946, “attained a human greatness in the two years in Theresienstadt: she radiated an all-encompassing goodness, a true light – and was entirely unconscious of it. Ill and broken people built themselves up at her side, and she was always wherever things were most desolate, most dirty, and most dangerous – without a sense of self-sacrifice, quite simply, matter-of-factly, cheerfully, and entirely unembittered” (my translation). They had chosen to stay behind in the Germany my mother and I could finally leave for America in April 1941, so that Ella could carry on her work helping Jews emigrate. In July 1942 they were deported to the concentration camp. Ella was among those transported from there to Auschwitz in October 1944 and gassed. My grandmother volunteered to leave the camp that December (expecting to be reunited with her daughter) in what turned out to be a Red Cross organized trade of trucks for Jews, and landed in Switzerland.
A February 2006 phone call from Germany advised me that at the end of April a Stolperstein – literally, a stumble-stone – would be inserted into the sidewalk in front of my birth house, the last home of my aunt Ella, as a memorial to her. I could learn more about this project at www.stolpersteine.com. It was notice enough for me to catch the last frequent-flyer spot on a flight that would take me to Stuttgart on April 27 and back again on April 30.
“Stolpersteine are 10 cm concrete cubes furnished with a brass plate and set into public sidewalks in such a way that no one can come to harm by them. And nevertheless they are called stumble-stones, for those who see them in passing should stumble in their spirit, pause briefly, and read the inscription. A piece of history is thus brought into our everyday lives directly in front of the victim’s dwelling, under the heading ‘here lived …’ Stolpersteine are intended as tokens of memory, to bring the victims out of their anonymity in the place where they lived.” Thus wrote the Cologne artist Gunter Demnig, who originated the concept. Since November 2000, he has manufactured and cemented into holes cut into sidewalks over 5,500 such stones in cities throughout Germany, with the support and funding by local committees.
Demnig writes: “Nothing is worse than collective silence. But fortunately there are people who confront history and have taken on the task to name the crimes of fascism. The deportation of victims took place from neighborhoods; each person had a name and a living place. This is again made visible by the local Stolpersteine groups.”
I did not know what to expect when I traveled to my old home. To my great pleasure, the elderly owners of the house, whom I had first met there thirty years ago, were still in good health, still there with a daughter and granddaughter, and pleased at the prospect of the stumble-stone. So at 8:30 on a Saturday morning I appeared on the sidewalk and was surrounded by more than twenty local citizens (including Mme. Mayor of the Stuttgart suburb of Degerloch). One had brought three tulips. Most were over 60, except the granddaughter of the current owners and the young psychiatrist who, as the technology-capable member of the local group did the email correspondence, and a young American woman, five years resident in Stuttgart and attracted by the newspaper announcement of the event. They were very grateful that I had come. My own spirit was healed by the stone, by Gunter Demnig, and by the caring of so many other Germans.