Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - February 16, 2024

Against forgetting

We left the underground at Vienna's Rossauerland station. It seemed a bit warm for October as we walked the four blocks to the corner of Servitengasse and Grünentorgasse. Once there, husband Art checked the GPS on his smartphone, while I and friends Deb and Lou looked for the memorial marker. Lou was the first to spot it.

The "Keys Against Forgetting" marker was unusual - a plexiglass case containing 462 keys set into the ground. It was created to recall the Jewish residents of the neighborhood who had been persecuted by the Nazis during World War II. Each key had a white tag engraved with the name of a former resident or business owner who had lived on Servitengasse. Dora Srulowitz, Ernst and Josefine Nussbaum, Leopold Steiner and others had been driven away or sent to concentration camps.

January 27 has been designated International Holocaust Remembrance Day. On that date in 1945, Soviet troops liberated the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. In our travels to Europe, Art and I have visited many concentration camps - Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Ravensbrück, and Theresienstadt, to name a few. But this year, the day made me think of our stop in Vienna.

These are all mind-numbing reminders of how inhumanely people can act toward those who are different. Camps and large monuments bring to mind how people were victimized in large numbers. But memorials marking the spots where ordinary people were caught up in the events of those times make it personal and emphasize these were individuals. The "Keys Against Forgetting" memorial, dedicated in April 2008, was designed by Austrian multimedia artist Julia Schulz as a community-wide effort to rediscover the history of the neighborhood and those who lived there.

On Grünentorgasse, I noticed two more markers - small brass plaques embedded in the sidewalk. Art and I have seen these in many European cities, but each time, they make us stop. The one on the left was inscribed:

Hier befand sich bis 1941 ein Judishes Waisenhaus. 78 Buben im alter von 6 bis 19 und 42 Judische Frauen un Manner, die hier lebten, wurden von den Nazis deportiert und ermordert. (translation: There was a Jewish orphanage here until 1941. 78 boys between the ages of 6 and 19 and 42 Jewish women and men who lived here were deported and murdered by the Nazis.)

The one on the right had the names of four boys - Alfred Friedmann, Walter Aberbach, Fritz Grünhut, and Adolph Bloch. All were only 8 or 9 when they were deported.

These small plaques are known as "Stolpersteine" - German for "stumbling stones." The ones we saw in Vienna are just two of the more than 100,000 laid in more than 1,200 cities and towns in 24 countries. The Stolpersteine project was begun by German artist Gunter Demnig. The first was set on December 16, 1992, in Cologne to honor the Roma and Sinti. It included the first lines of the Auschwitz Decree - Heinrich Himmler's order to deport them to extermination camps.

Gradually, the project was expanded to commemorate the millions of Jewish, Roma, Sinti, Black, gay, disabled, and dissident victims killed by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945.

Each Stolperstein is placed at the victim's last-known, freely-chosen residence, symbolically bringing them back to their neighborhoods - their homes.

The 70,000th Stolperstein was laid on October 23, 2018, for Willy Zimmerer, a German man with learning disabilities murdered at a psychiatric hospital outside Frankfurt. The 100,000th stone was laid on May 26, 2023 in Nuremberg to honor Johann Wild, a firefighter.

"A person is only forgotten when his or her name is forgotten," Demnig says, citing the Talmud, the primary text of Rabbinic Judaism. Others have been helping Demnig, including Michael Friedrichs-Friedländer, the craftsman who has inscribed, by hand, every Stolperstein since 2005. Some have suggested mechanizing the process, but Friedrichs-Friedländer says it should remain a manual task.

"... The Holocaust was so systematic. What they invented as means of mass slaughter, it was more or less automated," he said in a January 2018 online article in The Week in Germany. "We don't want anything like that."

"... I feel responsibility," Friedrichs-Friedländer said. "When you know the history and see what's happening today, there's just so many parallels."

The word Stolperstein brings to mind several meanings. In Germany, an anti-Semitic saying when someone stumbled was: 'A Jew must be buried here.' It implied a Jew's presence presented a "potential problem" or "stumbling block." But these stones are level with the ground and securely embedded so "stumbling," in this case, invokes the meaning "to find by chance." People stop, read the inscriptions, and then think about what happened to a real person who lived at that very place.

Although most consider the Stolperstein to be a fitting tribute to Holocaust victims, some believe they are disrespectful. The Jewish community in Munich and Bavaria has strongly opposed the project, noting that people may further diminish the dignity of the victims by walking on the plaques unaware.

While the Stolpersteine project is international in scope, individual placements largely arise from grassroots initiatives. Family members or local groups - residents of a particular street or schoolchildren working on a project - come together to research the biographies of local victims, and to raise money to install each stone.

A friend, whose great-great-aunt Ema and great-great-uncle Artur lived in a villa they built and owned in Prague, said some of her family members participated in the laying of the Stolpersteine honoring them. In 1940, the couple was forced to hand over their villa under the pretext that they would receive compensation once they had obtained emigration permits. In 1941, they were deported to the Lodz ghetto and, in 1942, the Nazis began the mass transport of those prisoners to the Chelmno extermination camp. Ema was murdered the day after she arrived.

The Stolpersteine, Vienna’s "Keys Against Forgetting" and other such memorials are helping to ensure that Ema, Artur, and the others won't be forgotten.

Left (both): "Keys Against Forgetting" memorial. (The black piece of plastic at the upper-left is not part of the memorial and was set there during roadwork.) Middle-top: Stolpersteine on Grünentorgasse; middle-center: typically inconspicuous placement of Grünentorgasse stones; middle-bottom: Stolperstein for Gertrud Hoffmann on the Konstantinplatz in Trier, Germany. The text says she lived there, maiden name was Gertrud Schmitz, born 1900, admitted June 23, 1934 to a mental institution in Bonn, moved May 2, 1941 to a mental institution in Hadamar where she was murdered in 1941 as a consequence of "Aktion T4" - an order to kill people with mental problems. Right: great-great-great niece of Artur and Ema sets Stolpersteine outside their former Prague home shown below, now Norwegian ambassador residence. (images: street view from Google, residence from norway.no)

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