The Germans setting Shoah memories in stone

All over Germany, stepping stone memorials are being installed outside the homes of Jews deported to the camps


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.

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

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

"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."

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."

    Last updated: 12:04pm, April 7 2011