Ursula Feist vividly remembers visiting her aunt’s house while growing up in prewar Berlin.
Those happy days were soon to vanish, and her aunt, like most of the
rest of that city’s Jews, would be among the countless and often
forgotten who perished. There was never a grave for her mother’s
sister, Frida Holz, who was living alone after having been widowed
Feist was one of the luckier ones. The teenager was among the 10,000 Jewish children who was rescued and brought to Britain on a Kindertransport during the year before World War II broke out. Feist (née Erber) boarded the train for England in May 1939. Her parents and sisters went east, all the way to Shanghai, China.
A friend living in Berlin told Feist of an unusual project intended as an everyday reminder of the individual Jews who had once lived in Germany and other countries before they were deported and exterminated by the Nazis.
“Stolpersteine,” or stumbling blocks, is a project of German artist Gunter Demnig, TOP LEFT. These memorial stones are permanently installed flush into the sidewalks in front of the last known residence of Jews who were deported to concentration camps and exterminated.
He makes concrete cubes about four inches square, which are covered with a sheet of brass, on which is engraved: “Hier wohnte…” (“Here lived…”), followed by the name of the person, the year of their birth and their fate, usually the date they were taken away.
At long last, Feist felt her aunt and other relatives could be memorialized, and in a very public way. “There will never be closure for the Holocaust, but this goes some way toward that, and those who pass by these homes must also remember,” Feist said.
Feist has ordered five stones. In addition to Frida Holz, she is having stones made for another aunt and uncle, Paula and Max Rothschildt – Paula was Feist’s father’s sister – and their twin children Marianne and Karl Rothschildt, who were about 19 at the time they were deported to Auschwitz in October 1942.
Demnig has put down more than 13,000 Stolpersteine since the first was made in 1995 in Cologne. They can be found in some 280 cities in Germany, as well as in Austria, Hungary, Italy and the Netherlands. In Berlin alone, there are about 1,400.
The project has generated controversy. Munich’s city council rejected the project, and some cities have debated the issue for quite awhile before giving permission. Some homeowners objected. Some Jews have also thought that walking on a memorial to Holocaust martyrs is inappropriate.
In addition to Jews, Demnig has also made stones for Gypsies, resistance members, Christian opponents of the Nazis, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses and disabled people who were killed.
The facts about these people are provided by relatives or researched by schools or other organizations, often using the databank of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust authority in Jerusalem.
Feist will pay the going rate for her stones, about $100 each, which is said to cover costs only. Many people and organizations not related to those memorialized have donated to the project.
Feist has regularly visited Berlin over the years and plans to attend the installation of her relatives’ stones in 2009.
She remembered the addresses of the two homes where her relatives lived, which still stand; and other information about her family was confirmed through Yad Vashem. “The Nazis kept very meticulous records,” she said.
The German consulate in Montreal was very helpful in making the arrangements, she said.
The city of Berlin has offered to host a ceremony for the installation, complete with a rabbi, if she wishes.