The Holocaust in the streets, one brass plate at a time

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Above you see several so-called Stolpersteine — “stumbling stones” — in a sidewalk near my place in Berlin. The flowers and candles are from a neighbor, who regularly looks after the many, many stones in our street. Each one commemorates one victim of National Socialism who lived at the address where the stone is placed.

The Stolpersteine were among the first things I noticed when I moved to Berlin last year. There are about 40,000 of them now, all over Germany and in much of Europe. Every week many more are laid. No governments are involved. All this is a private art project, conceived by an intriguing artist, Gunter Demnig.

One of those now sponsoring such a stone is a friend of mine, Menasheh Fogel, a Jewish American living in Berlin. I tell Menasheh’s story, and a few of the many stories of the people he met, of the victims he learned about, of the artist behind the project, in the current issue of Intelligent Life, a sister publication of The Economist. You would make me happy by reading it.

I will let the piece speak for itself. But I just want to add two strands of thought here:

  1. one about the different style and voice of this piece, compared to my usual fare in The Economist, and 
  2. one about Germany’s style of remembrance generally.

My style in this piece

Way back in 2008, I mused here on this blog about the pros and cons of writing in the first person (which is completely banned at The Economist, but encouraged at Intelligent Life). I also told you about my efforts to find my own natural voice, because I was, of course, writing my book at the time, and was using this blog in part to loosen myself up after writing in my Economist voice during the day.

Well, writing this story transported me back to all that. It necessitated a completely different voice, and I discovered that I loved finding it. I wrote a first draft that was quite good and sent it off.

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Then I had a great chat with the editor, Samantha Weinberg, who told me to “feature it up”. For example, she asked, again and again, for more quote. At The Economist we don’t quote much, and when we do, we use just the choicest bits of a quote, perhaps a single word, for maximum efficiency. But Samantha wanted everything. “Even the uhs and ers, the wrong syntax and dead ends?”, I asked. “Especially the uhs and ers and the wrong syntax,” she said. I went back to my notes and put all of it, or most of it, in. And lo, the piece was better.

And I put a bit of myself in, in the first person. Discreetly and sparingly, though. And lo, it was better again. (But more of me, and it would have started getting worse.)

I loved this process. For those among you who are editors, there are also lessons for you in Samantha’s style: she didn’t fiddle with my words; she just helped me to understand what changes were necessary. (Thanks, Samantha.)

The German style of remembrance

Yes, there is such a thing as a “German” style of remembrance, as I have concluded since moving back to this country last year.

It is to remember everywhere and all the time, never taking a break, never looking the other way but always at what happened before, and integrating all of it into a new present.

If you ever get the chance, for example, walk through the Bundestag in Berlin, in the old Reichstag building. A British architect, Sir Norman Foster, rebuilt it. As a signal and symbol of the new German political culture, he made it physically transparent on the inside (and it really is, as much as any large building can be). The entire edifice invites all those in it to remember and reflect, every day and all the time. For example, members of parliament, like journalists such as myself, walk every day past walls such as these:

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You see the bullet hole? You see the graffiti? It’s the scrawlings of the young Russian soldiers after they took the building in 1945. Things like “Vladislav was here” and “Fuck all Germans”. The graffiti and bullet holes were not merely kept; they are emphasized.

(One of the staff at the Bundestag is working on a book about these graffiti. She’s found some of the — now old — Russians who wrote them, and they have amazing stories to tell.)

In the weeks since finishing my piece in Intelligent Life, I’ve got deeper into the subject. (This often happens to writers.) And I’m thinking of getting even deeper into it yet.

For example, I met up with Petra Merkel, a member of parliament, the lady in red in the picture below.

(Yes, Germany’s Bundestag has two Mrs Merkel, one named Angela and one named Petra. Both once married and divorced (different) Mr Merkels, but kept their name. Both are wonderfully down-to-earth. Petra says she occasionally gets mail for Angela by mistake. She enjoys being on the parliamentary committee that oversees the federal budget, proposed by the government the other Merkel heads, since “Merkel is watching Merkel.”)

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Well, Mrs Merkel also sponsored a Stolperstein. And then she brought over the descendants of the victim, Paula Dienstag, from Israel to Berlin. In front of Mrs Merkel on the right is Yuval Doron, Mrs Dienstag’s grandson. Next to him are his two sons.

And that’s the other thing about remembrance done right: It never separates human beings, it always connects.

27 thoughts on “The Holocaust in the streets, one brass plate at a time

  1. I liked very much the style and voice of your Intelligent Life piece – so evocative of so sad a time.

    I wonder if Hollywood’s Walk of Fame was among the influences in the artist’s mind when he dreamed of the Stolperstein project.

    I noted the 120 Euro fee for each Stolperstein. With 40,000 having now been laid, they would appear to have yielded 4.8 million Euros so far.

    • I don’t think the Walk of Fame was among his influencers. He’s got a timeline on his personal site: http://www.gunterdemnig.de/
      Check out some of the stuff he used to do.
      He’s very touchy about the money question you raise. He makes the point that this is now a full-time endeavor, with a small team of part-timers, and involves big costs. So I doubt he nets much, if anything.

  2. The German style of remembrance is actually quite similar to the American style of remembrance, except that the latter uses commemorative plates embedded in the sidewalk to pay tribute to entertainment personalities rather than to Indians that perished, say, under Andrew Jackson, who’s being commemorated on the $20 bill for his achievements.

    Someone — I believe it was Charles Grodin on his short-lived CNBC talk show in the ’90s — once quipped that naming a U.S. baseball team “Cleveland Indians” is like naming a German soccer team the “Berlin Jews.”

    • To change the name of the Cleveland Indians into something else would therefore seem not only appropriate but overdue, because calling America’s Aboriginal peoples “Indians” is more and more considered pejorative. So that Canada, for instance, has abolished “Indian” as an appellation for its own Aboriginal peoples.

      What, then, should the Cleveland Indians’ new name be? Since the Scarlet Carnation is Ohio’s state flower, how about the Cleveland Scarlet Carnations? It would help change baseball’s image, and therefore diversify it’s fan base.

      Who knows, the food and drink of choice in the bleachers, now beer and the hot dog, might change in the future to white wine and pasta salad.

  3. This is a beautiful thing that Herr Demnig has done, and a splendidly immediate piece of writing.

    I encounter this in the midst of a rereading of the American — Chicagoan — neurologist Harold Klawans, a Jew who claims no family connection to the Shoah but who throughout his curious and informative medical essays recalls his readers, repeatedly, to the fact that this happened.

    Germany is strangely a leader and model here. “…the stones impeded construction work. They wanted to remove them, but the workers refused…” Americans are, pragmatically, past knowing whose heart was buried at Wounded Knee, or on the Trail of Tears. All the world has its pogroms. So far as I know, no other nation has accepted the responsibility of keeping the names alive.

    • I cannot recommend his work too highly. “Toscanini’s Fumble” has something for everyone, including Quisling’s brain. “Life, Death and In Between” is an essay on medical ethics masquerading as a series of anecdotes.

    • dea sled,

      i have a direct connection to “the shoah” which i have shared on this blog. if the jews can be called a “nation” then we are an example of accepting responsibility for keeping the names alive through memorials, testimonials like “the shoah foundation”. never again, never forget. it is a form of remembering that has it’s critics.

      i have often wondered “why” other victims of progroms do not adopt the kind of remembering that is being practiced by the jews and the germans. it is not just the perpetrators but the victims that can remember in this way.

      the Stolpersteine are a beautiful addition to this form of remembering. thanks for sharing Andreas.

    • I suppose I ought to have said “no other *perpetrating* nation.” Because I imagine survivors, even those who have only oral traditions, always commit to some form of remembrance. It’s the public and shared nature of this that I find unlike anything else I’ve heard of — no one has to take the step of entering a museum or consulting a record, it’s just there.

      I have to think critics would be the ones who are most made uncomfortable by this kind of memorial, and therefore need to be.

    • But what I wanted to know (Do I have to ask everything point-blank?) is how did you arrive at this ending? Was this how you originally ended the piece in the first draft? Was it your idea? Why do you like it? Did your editor like it? Did you have other ideas about how to end it?

      Sincerely,
      Curious in Chicago

    • Yes, of course, that is my original ending in the first draft, unchanged in the second. It just offered itself as the obvious way to end, the only way to end. After all, the piece is really, in a sense, about this stone for Max Narteski.

      Menasheh now has a date for laying it, by the way. It’s in September.

      More generally, the changes between the first and second (final) drafts were quite small. You might not even notice them. Basically, I just fleshed out quotes and added a bit of color about Demnig.

    • My family jokes that there is a Yiddish verb that means breaking something by trying to fix it. And in a household where nobody can fix anything, we invoke it because Yiddish makes the most maddening faults endearing.

      But it suggests that there might be a happy word for getting something right from the start.

      Thanks for the details.

    • There isn’t such a verb in Yiddish really (as far as I know); this our mythical Yiddish. Even more evocative than the real thing.

      The way you describe the bit of rewriting you did (flesh this out, give that color) reminds me that you wrote something about Rembrandt and writing here once. Then i thought of Frank O’Hara’s poem about writing and painting and sardines and oranges: Why I Am Not a Painter. http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/20422

  4. dear Andreas, i just found your blog by googeling on something and im happy i did. our meeting in Berlin in one of my most emotional moments left great impression on me. as you know this visit and the meeting i had with all the people there was a deep experience. be well and keep the great job of writing about humanity in such a way.
    yuval doron
    israel

    • Dear Yuval,
      I’m so glad that your googling brought you “to me”.

      I loved meeting you and hearing your thoughts and feelings, and I still often think of the day. Let’s stay in touch. I’ll send you an email.

      best, Andreas

    • yuval, if you are out there, you have a good “eye”.
      shalom from dafna orly ronen, of the singer mishpucha in tel aviv.
      thank god joseph singer, my grandfather, had the sense to flee to palestine, all family before him perished.

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