In 2014 I went on a trip called “Witness and Remembrance” with the Road Scholar organization, studying the Holocaust in Berlin and in Auschwitz, the camp/museum. I write here only of the touring of Berlin, and some of the surprises I found there.
These are called ‘The Stumbling Stones.” They are small brass plaques found here and there in the neighborhoods of Berlin. They are only about three inches square, so in order to reach what is written on them, one has to bend very low – or kneel down.
One of them reads: “Here lived Jacob Bergoffen.” He was a Jew, and this was his home. It tells us that he was born in 1892, deported to Auschwitz and murdered there on the 31st of August, 1942. Next to his Plaque is one for Felli Berghoffen, her dates, her deportation and murder in Auschwitz. Here was a couple who lived in a house on a street at this site and mingled with non-Jewish neighbors, perhaps worked with them. They were Germans of Jewish Faith, and the assimilation story of the Jews into German life, up to 1933, was a success story. There was always a vein of anti-semitism, but not until the Nazi regime came to power and began its ‘Race War’ did that vein begin to bleed.
When Jews were deported to the camps, non-Jews moved in and took over their homes, and often all their property was sold at auction, the money going to the State, the Nazi Regime. All traces of the Berghoffans and so many others were wiped out as if they had never existed. Not anymore. Now there are the Stumbling Stones, about 5,000 so far just in Berlin.
Jews and non-Jews did the research on the murdered and raised neighborhood initiatives to mark the spot where they had lived. Jews and non-Jews keep the plaques clean, shine them. In order to shine a Stumbling Stone, one has to bend very low – or, as I said, kneel down. In this way the Berghoffens are remembered, honored and not erased.
This is typical of the movements toward understanding, full disclosure, and the honoring of all the victims of those twelve years, 1933-1945, when Germany was driven by racial hatred and true “Race War" as the Nazi’s called it. In 1939, before the war began, in a speech by Hitler, he promised “the historic annihilation of race enemies.” Annihilation. What a word.
Now memorials exist throughout Berlin, for the murdered Jews, the Gypsies, the homosexuals, the very elderly, the sick and the mentally ill and the deformed – all murdered by the Nazis. In breeding the myth of a strong “Aryan Race” the Nazis believed these elements were poisonous.
Now people come to these memorials from everywhere in the world, and some leaves stones and flowers – just to mark that someone stopped here, some one took note, someone cared.
Even the train tracks are now marked, where the journey from Berlin to the camps began, as a reminder. Every train that left the city carrying people to the camps is remembered here, when it left, how many Jews were carried, and where the train was bound, and here, too, people come to leave tokens as a remembrance, an honoring, a witnessing that those murdered millions were not erased, not forgotten and will never be forgotten.