(NPR’s Eric Westervelt reported from Germany on Morning Edition about the effort to remember Holocaust victims by engraving their names on bricks, or “stumbling stones,” placed on sidewalks throughout Germany. Some of those stones bear the names Jeffrey Katz‘s relatives. Jeffrey, NPR’s deputy managing editor for digital news, went to see those stones last year in Lembeck, Germany.)
My roots are so deeply engrained in Germany that I have family trees that stretch back more than 300 years on my mother’s side and almost as far on my father’s side. None of it helped during the Holocaust — they were German Jews. The lucky few left just in time or escaped; most perished.
One of the few remaining hallmarks of their lives are the Stolperstein, or “stumbling stones,” made by artist Guenther Demnig.
Last summer, my wife and I and our teenage children went to Germany and saw the stumbling stones placed there in memory of some relatives. It was a experience that made more vivid both the horror suffered by my family members — and the selfless dedication of a new generation of Germans who feel a responsibility to keep their memories alive.
Consider, for instance, my paternal great-grandmother, Sarah Sophie Lebenstein. She was part of a large family that seemed fully integrated in the small town of Lembeck, in Germany’s western reaches. She was the family matriarch. And yet when the Nazis ascended, Hitler youth screamed Nazi songs outside the home; neighbors suddenly avoided the family or hurled insults. My great-grandmother was said to have lamented, “What have we done to make them treat us like this?”
On Jan. 24, 1942, she and two daughters were evicted from their house and taken to a collection point at a freight train station. A neighbor recalls: “Nobody said a word.”
One of her sons-in-law (who was not Jewish), ultimately managed to have her released because she was nearly 80 years old, hard of hearing, and not considered suitable for labor in the east. She was taken to her family’s house in nearby Raesfeld, where she died less than four months later. The children who were deported with her from the home in Lembeck perished in the Holocaust — as did other family members who were deported from the home in Raesfeld.
What of that new generation of Germans? They are the ones responsible for sponsoring the stumble stones near both houses. And naming a street in Lembeck after my family. And providing much of the research about my father’s side of the family. And creating a museum of Jewish history in the region — the Jewish Museum of Westfalia — even though most of them are not Jewish.
Consider, too, the cemetery in Raesfeld where a number of my relatives are buried, including my great-grandmother. A tradesman who lives in the area cares for the cemetery at least every week. It was immaculate on the day we visited. Our visit was so important to him that he and his wife came to the cemetery in the rain just to greet us and shake our hands.
One couple deeply invested in the effort had us over for dessert, and as we were leaving, handed me a photo book from the region and a handwritten note. One of passages in the note was, “Let us work together, that everyone gets his human rights. The members of the ‘Stolpersteingroup in Raesfeld’ try not to forget what was done by our people to your family.”
That night, our dear friends and hosts, Elisabeth and Paul Schulte-Huxel, took us to dinner at an Italian restaurant. It was exactly one block from my great-grandmother’s house, seven decades after she was evicted.
The indelible memories of the horror my family endured now mingle with the incredible kindness of a new generation.