STUMBLING OVER THE PAST

In Berlin, more and more victims of the Nazis are being remembered with Stolpersteinebrass plates, embedded in concrete, in the streets where they lived. Andreas Kluth traces the stories behind the stones

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, May/June 2013 

ON A HOT July evening in 2012, Menasheh Fogel, his wife and three children were returning from a favourite haunt, the sandy beach at Wannsee, one of the lakes on the western outskirts of Berlin. Fogel, still in his beach clothes, parked near their home on Bamberger Strasse, a charming street of old buildings with high ceilings. As he unloaded their beach toys, his wife started chatting with an older man on the other side of the street. "He was just talking in English to anybody walking by," Fogel recalls. "He came off as a bit loony, but he was just emotional." So Fogel, still in his flip flops, walked over and started to listen. The half-hour chat that followed changed the way he relates to his street and city, its past and his present.

The man outside Bamberger Strasse 3 turned out to be Howard Shattner, from Santa Rosa, California, about an hour from Berkeley, where the Fogel family had lived until a year earlier. Like Fogel, Shattner is American and Jewish. And this address was where his family had lived before the war. In 1938, Shattner’s father and two uncles fled Germany. But his grandfather Chaim and aunt Jente stayed. In September 1942, the Nazis came to this building and took them away.

Twelve days before he met Fogel, Shattner had commemorated his grandfather and aunt by embedding two Stolpersteine—"stumbling stones"in the pavement at Bamberger Strasse 3. He had come back on this day to talk to residents and passers-by about them. They are brass plates sitting on concrete cubes of ten centimetres on each side. Printed into each plate are the details of one victim of National SocialismJewish, gypsy, homosexual or otherwho had his or her last address at this spot. The information is deliberately kept terse. The stone for Shattner’s grandfather reads:

HERE LIVED CHAIM SHATTNER
BORN 1867
DEPORTED 22.9.1942
THERESIENTSTADT
MURDERED 20.12.1943

There are now almost 40,000 such Stolpersteine in several European countries, most in Germany, thousands in Berlin alone. Some streets that used to be centres of Jewish life teem with them. My own street, in elegant Charlottenburg, is one. In front of my own front door are five Stolpersteine, and they were among the first things that my kids and I noticed when we first came to look at the place. We bowed down and I read the inscriptions out loud. My seven-year-old daughter wondered what this might be about. Since she asked, I began to tell them, for the first time, about the Holocaust. As I did so, some of our neighbours-to-be paused and joined us and an ad hoc conversation aroseall before we had even moved in.

In the same way, Fogel had also noticed Stolpersteine in the streets almost immediately after moving to Berlin. There were already several in his own neighbourhood, Bayerische Viertel (Bavarian Quarter) in Schöneberg, not far from Charlottenburg. Built by and for the bourgeoisie in the years just before the first world war, this was and still is a well-to-do area. Most of the streets are named after Bavarian cities, hence the name of the quarter. But so many Jews once lived there, Albert Einstein among them, that its other nickname was "the Jewish Switzerland".

Berlin, and all Germany, has many memorials and monuments to the Holocaust. But for Fogel these small blocks in the sidewalk made remembrance concrete and therefore more touching, immediate, even eerie. "You can go to the Holocaust Museum in Washington or to the Holocaust Memorial here in Berlin and it’s kind of impersonal and abstract. But this is one person, in one place, and you can imagine what his daily life was like."

At first I assumed that the Stolpersteine were a government project, organised by the city. Fogel had thought so too. Then, during one of his German lessons, his language teacher told him that they were a private initiative run by an artist, Gunter Demnig, who was born in Berlin and now lives in Cologne. "When I learned that the Stolperstein project was actually a private art project and not something done by a public agency," Fogel says, "I actually got a little upset. I realised that while there are quite a few Stolpersteine throughout Berlin, the streets would be literally covered in them if all of the victims were memorialised. It really made me realise how many people could easily be forgotten."

And so the Stolpersteine dredged up every conflicted feeling that Fogel, as a Jew, had about living in Germany. Nobody in his own family died in the Holocaust. On his father’s side, he is fourth-generation American; on his mother’s side, he is fifth-generation. But he is still Jewish. And not only does he now live in Germany, but he works there – in information technologyfor Bayer. Today, Bayer is known predominantly for Aspirin, which it invented. But during the Holocaust, Bayer was part of IG Farben, a chemical conglomerate that made, among other things, Zyklon b, the gas used in the death chambers.

Fogel had made a sort of peace with his mixed feelings about his career move. As a tech guy, he is the linear and logical type. "My left brain overrides my right brain," he says. "I have nuanced feelings because Germany has dealt with the Holocaust so openly and modern Germany has some of the most progressive politics in the worldenvironment, governance, companies and all that."

And yet, the past is always there, sedimented into every place. Take that sandy beach at the Wannsee, where the Fogel family had been swimming just before they met Shattner. On a warm day, there are kids splashing in the shallow safe area, bigger kids tumbling from the water slide farther out, and off to the right the nudists are enjoying themselves. But looking diagonally left from the beach, one can see, just across the water, a grey mansion. This is the Villa Wannsee, where 15 leading Nazis met on January 20th 1942nine months before Chaim Shattner was deportedto decide the "Final Solution to the Jewish Question".

WHEN FOGEL TALKED to Shattner that day, he realised that sponsoring a Stolperstein was an uplifting way of acknowledging and embracing those unnerving links between past and present. Doing so is surprisingly simple, as Shattner explained. Private individualsGermans who are curious about what transpired in their building, schoolchildren doing a project, surviving relatives of a victim, anybody who is interested—conduct their own research about a victim at a specific address. They submit this to the artist, pay him a small fee (€120) and then wait for their installation date. (Such is the demand, the wait is currently about six months.) Demnig usually lays the Stolperstein himself, often giving a talk as well.

But how to start? At Yad Vashem, the centre for Holocaust research in Israel, one begins with a name. But Fogel was starting with an address, and had to find out if any victims had lived there. He began by asking his landlord what he thought of the idea. The landlord, whose grandmother was deported by the Nazis, was enthusiastic, and they started their research together.

Registration records, old phone books, government databasesinformation started piling up but yielded little. Two things helped, says Fogel, who has a goatee and dark-rimmed glasses and would blend perfectly into Silicon Valley. First, he is methodical and tech-savvy. A Google Docs folder was soon up and running, keeping family trees and other records organised. Second, as he says, "I don’t give up that easily."

He compared address books from the years 1936-43. Any name at his address that did not appear in a following year could have been a victim. He then ran these names through the Memorial Book of the Federal Archives, a German database of victims. At last, this produced one match: Max Nartelski.

The victims’ archive also listed other Nartelskis at different Berlin addresses. Fogel’s search took him further. Slowly, an entire family began to emerge on his computer screen. It was a clan of victims, survivors and descendants. One day, a fortuitous Google search pointed Fogel to an American website raising funds for Alzheimer’s research, and thence to one Evelyn Nartelski. Now living in Michigan, she turned out to be Max Nartelski’s great-niece. This led to his first live conversation with a relative of the man who had lived in his house, who had perhaps slept in his own bedroom. Evelyn Nartelski’s recollections brought his database work to life.

Even so, Fogel says, "all I really know about Max is that he was unmarried and drove around in a big white car. I think he was a fabrics supplier for suits, in business with his brother, maybe gay, in one of these huge beautiful apartments, maybe mine." Fogel thinks he has identified Max in the one grainy family photo that he has come across. The picture shows a wedding party in a stately room with a high ceilingthe men wearing evening dress and sporting the moustaches fashionable in Germany at the time, the women in their finery, the tables well stocked with wine, the air one of bourgeois sophistication. The room could have been in Fogel’s flat.

MAX NARTELSKI, WHO turned 50 in 1938, was one of nine brothers and sisters, most of them born in Königsberg, East Prussia (today’s Kaliningrad). At some point, the family moved to Berlin, settling mostly around the Bayerische Viertel. An older brother, Jacob, lived around the corner on Regensburger Strasse, in a gorgeous building above what is now an Italian restaurant. It probably looked the same then as now, Fogel says. Most of the quarter was destroyed during two nights of apocalyptic bombing in March 1943 and another two nights in November of that year. Beginning in the 1960s, the streets were restored to their former style, with stucco colouring the stately arches and turreted windows. Today, middle-class families bustle about on the street, pushing prams in and out of courtyards. Fogel imagines the Nartelskis walking there in just the same way.

Jacob Nartelski, his wife and one son escaped Germany before they could be deported, and died in America. Two other sons, Lothar and Günther, were sent to Auschwitz but survived, and also died in America. Günther’s wife, Paula, and daughter, Rita, died in Auschwitz, but with his second wife he had Evelyn, who now lives in Michigan. And so it goes for every branch of the clan, as for millions of other families: some died, some survived, some now have living relatives. And of the living, many have lost their connection—to one another, and to the places they came from.

Set in stone: the Stolpersteine show the victims' date of birth, deportation and death

GUNTER DEMNIG REMEMBERS one installation where people from four countries came together, knowing nothing about one another, and found they were all related. Sometimes they come from as far as New Zealand or South America, to some particular spot where their family had once lived. At one installation near Bremen, where Demnig laid stones for a whole family, including two daughters who had survived, “those two daughters showed up for the ceremony, and were unbelievably happy to be reunited in this way with their parents.” They finally felt that they had closure and could come back to Germany in peace.

Demnig calls his project "a decentralised monument" or, alternatively, "a social sculpture". He looks like a middle-aged version of Indiana Jones, often wearing a Fedora and safari shirt that stretches slightly around the waistline. But his voice has no bravado; it is high, almost timid, like that of someone who spends his life questioning and thinking.

As the artist, he retains control over every part of the process. Each Stolperstein is handmade because, he says, any form of mass-manufacturing would remind him of the mechanised and bureaucratic murder at Auschwitz. But to grow, the project relies on the initiative of volunteers who grasp that, as a rabbi in Cologne once told Demnig, "a human being is only forgotten once his or her name is forgotten."

Remembrance has been one theme of his art career. Born after the war, in 1947, he remembers rummaging through his attic as a boy and finding a photo of his father, in Spain during the civil war, sitting in swimming trunks on a cannon that jutted out "like an erect penis" between his legs. Demnig had never really talked to his father about the war years, but now realised that he had fought for Franco. He was distraught. Like many in his generation of 68’er Germans, he sought outlets to express his complicated feelings, in rebellion and in art.

Demnig began laying Spuren—"traces" or "tracks" or "evidence"of the past as art. In 1981 he drove from Kassel to London, printing on the street a 4cm-wide and 680km-long line of animal blood (250 litres, procured from butchers). In 1990, on the 50th anniversary of the Nazis’ first mass deportation of gypsies, he walked with one of his strange printing-wheel contraptions through Cologne, chalking the words "May 19401,000 Roma and Sinti" on the pavement. When the chalk began to wash off, he tried to make parts of that Spur permanent with brass. And that’s when he had the idea for the Stolperstein project.

At first it was purely conceptual since, as he says, "laying 6m Stolpersteine in Europe seemed an absurd notion". Then he talked to a priest who said, "Well, you can’t lay 6m, but as a symbol you could start small." In 1996 he laid the first Stolpersteine in Berlin, illegally. Three months later, the plates51 of them, all along one streetcame to the attention of the authorities when the stones impeded construction work. They wanted to remove them, but the workers refused. Bureaucrats came to inspect the stones, and they were retrospectively legalised.

By 2000, Demnig was laying Stolpersteine legally. But they were never uncontroversial. Every now and then, he meets resistance from landlords who would rather not have remembrance thrust upon them. And right-wing extremists hate the very notion: Demnig says he has received three death threats.

Even among those who want to remember, not all like the approach. Most notably, Charlotte Knobloch, who was president of Germany’s Central Council of Jews between 2006-10, feels that the Stolpersteine are undignified because pedestrians are in effect trampling on a victim’s name. Knobloch still leads the Jewish community in Munich, where she survived Kristallnacht as a six-year-old girl, so that city is among the few that, so far, do not allow Stolpersteine in public spaces, though some residents put them in their private pavements.

Sometimes people suggest that Demnig should instead place plaques on walls. He never liked that idea. It would mean getting the consent of every landlord piecemeal, which would slow the project down. And he feels that people rarely look up to the plaques that are already on buildings (and there are many in Berlin), whereas they constantly look down at the ground.

He also perceives the act of stepping on a nameplate quite differently from Knobloch. "The more people walk over a Stolperstein," he argues, "the greater the honour to the person who lies there." His original vision was that pedestrians polish the brass plates just by walking over them, thereby "refreshing the memory each time". Instead, it turns out, people usually step around the plates, perhaps associating them with gravestones, which they are not. This means that the metal oxidises and turns brown or even black, which in turn, ironically, makes it look as though the Stolpersteine were left untended. Often, residents then polish them the old-fashioned way. A lady in my building regularly lights candles and strews white roses around the Stolpersteine in our street.

There is also the idea of stumbling across something unexpected, as implied in the name. Demnig feels this was put best by a boy aged about 14 or 15: "You’re not stumbling physically, you’re stumbling with your head and with your heart." For children especially, Demnig says, stepping over the name of a victim in their own street day after day makes the Holocaust concrete as nothing in their formal education could do. And, he adds, "one of the most beautiful pictures, I find, is this aspect that, when you want to read, you have to bow, before the victim." I sometimes look out of my own window and see pedestrians doing just that in front of my door.

THE DAY HOWARD SHATTNER'S stones came to Bamberger Strasse 3, Demnig was laying stones in another country, so two apprentices came to do the installation. Spontaneously, Shattner asked if he could lay the stones, took the hammer and did it. When Demnig returned to Berlin, Shattner was still there and asked to accompany him for a few days, with a cameraman, to make a documentary. He also brought along a rabbi, Walter Rothschild, and they went around Berlin, looking at one installation after another.

"My feeling about Germany changed completely after my experience this summer," Shattner says, on the phone from his home in Santa Rosa. "People were friendly and helpful. On the one hand I still have these fantasiesthat the person on the train, the S-Bahn, at another time he could have killed me." But on the other hand, he found his actual contacts with Germans to be healing. In his documentary, he shows one installation where the tenants in a building had got together to sponsor a stone. "One of the most special moments for me was talking to that group of Germans. I was so moved by the fact that they had no connection to the person remembered, other than that he lived in their building, so they researched and wanted to have that memorial. It’s much more meaningful to me that people are doing this from their heart." Before he knew it, he was giving each of them a long, deep hug. There is little body contact in German culture, but these embraces came quite naturally.

So this is yet another connection that the Stolpersteine help to make: not only between residents and the places they live, between schoolchildren and a past that their ancestors were responsible for but that seems unfathomable to them now, or between random pedestrians pausing to reflect and striking up a conversationbut also between Germans and Jews.

"As a Jew living in Berlin," Menasheh Fogel says,  "I felt the need to connect personally to the Holocaust. Nothing felt any more personal than sharing the same space as someone who had been deported." His research is now nearing completion. Soon he will get a calendar date for the ceremony of laying the Stolperstein he is sponsoring. It will say:

HERE LIVED MAX NARTELSKI
BORN 1888
DEPORTED 15.08.1942
RIGA
MURDERED 18.08.1942

Top Menasheh Fogel in his flat on Bamberger Strasse

Andreas Kluth is the Berlin bureau chief of The Economist and author of "Hannibal & Me" . He continues the story here

Photographs Mustafah Abdulaziz