Sunday, March 04, 2007

Piecemeal Memory

It can happen anytime—when stepping out to pick up a carton of milk, on the way home from work, or after grabbing brunch with friends on a leisurely weekend morning. You can “stumble” most unexpectedly just about anywhere in Berlin, a metropolis with over 900 “stumbling-stones” and counting. The “stumbling-stones” [Stolpersteine] are small brass-capped squares laid flush with Berlin’s stone sidewalks. One stumbles psychologically, not literally, for inscribed into their surface is the name, birthdate, deportation date, and sometimes death date of a former Jewish inhabitant of the dwelling alongside the stone. The brainchild of artist Gunter Demnig, the miniature memorials must be privately sponsored at a cost of roughly 95 Euros, and have caught on as an effective way to personalize the enormity of the Holocaust.

There have been objections—some Jewish groups say that the stones encourage “treading on the dead” and some present-day residents would rather not run into the small, grim, reminders—but on the whole the project has been remarkably successful. With Berlin’s sidewalks thoroughly dotted with stones and other cities in Germany following suit, Demnig has even begun to talk of taking the idea abroad to other European nations. Meanwhile, after so many encounters with the stumbling-stones, I became eager to talk to the individuals who funded the stones’ creation and inlay, which the artist completes himself. A phone call to my neighborhood’s stumbling-stone coordination center puts me in touch with a local couple. I am set to meet sponsors of the latest memory trend.

Thomas and Jutta Schmidt greet me at one of Berlin’s thousand cheap Italian restaurants, chosen so we could talk at length without worrying someone else will be waiting for our table. At first blush they are what Germans call “bürgerlich,” which means solidly middle-class, orderly, and normal. At about sixty years old, Mr. Schmidt is a life-long civil servant whose employment moved him from a village near the Dutch border with his childhood sweetheart and wife to West Berlin. He explains with a smile that he joked at the time to his wife, “at least we’ll be there when the wall falls.” His smile doesn’t fade when he describes running to the Brandenburg gate after watching the evening news on November 9th 1989 and dancing with joy on top of the stormed “anti-Fascist protection rampart” with ecstatic Easterners.

“He saw it all, he was there!” Jutta Schmidt chimes in enthusiastically. “I couldn’t go because our son was young,” she says in afterthought. “But he saw everything.”

Like many West German mothers, Mrs. Schmidt stayed home to raise children, later working briefly for the national insurance agency. She waits for her husband to answer first when I ask questions and lets him lead the discussion. Her umbrella lies on the floor in a KaDeWe shopping bag, emblem of the bourgeois wife.

All in all, theirs is an interesting but not atypical picture of politically conventional citizens. Yet on second glance the picture becomes more complicated.

The Schmidts have two children, one born in Germany, one born elsewhere. While contemporary media coverage portrays third-world adoptions as a practice of pretentious celebrities, it was a bold act for early 1980s Germany. Until January 1, 2000, German citizenship was still defined by inheritance, that is, by blood, in contrast to the United States and many other nations, where it is defined by birth.[1] Being born in Germany did not guarantee citizenship, and in fact it still doesn’t—one must first apply for the privilege, which is expensive and time-consuming.

In such an exclusionary atmosphere, the Schmidts nonetheless went ahead with their decision to adopt. They also hold unorthdox political opinions, supporting Israel in a climate more inclined to condemn the state as an aggressive oppressor. Finally, Mr. Schmidt believes in the “collective guilt” theory, one which many Germans today reject. The theory, popularized after a 1981 speech by Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, holds that Germans as a people are guilty for the crimes of Nazi Germany.[2] A prevailing counter to the “collective guilt” theory runs that German society is not collectively guilty but rather collectively responsible; as witnesses to the terrible history and heirs to its consequences, they have can help ensure it does not happen again. While Mr. Schmidt agrees with this responsibility, he nonetheless sees the nation as categorically culpable.

And here we come to why Mr. Schmidt wanted to sponsor a stumbling-stone.

“With this stone, I’m accepting a small piece of the guilt of our people. The guilt that I inherited. I take on this guilt in recognition of the terrible crimes we have committed,” he explains slowly and carefully, as though describing a logical proof.

Mrs. Schmidt expands on their reasons, bringing up an incident from their 1974 trip to Israel, when they stopped in a bakery for a snack.

“I wanted to buy a pastry and the woman behind the counter had blue numbers tattooed here.” Mrs. Schmidt points to her arm. “When she heard us speaking German she just gasped and then couldn’t breathe. She froze, completely transported by horrible memories.”

This encounter with a concentration camp survivor stayed with Mrs. Schmidt for decades. “I had to face what my people did,” she says. “And for me, the stumbling-stone is a way of dealing with this past.”

The Schmidts’ stumbling-stone commemorates an elderly woman deported to Theresienstadt and killed in October 1942. It lies not far from our restaurant in the Tempelhof district near the old airport and we visit it after dinner.

Mr. Schmidt bends down to wipe a bit of dirt off the surface. “Now you can see how it shines.”

Without his handkerchief, however, the stones run no risk of darkening with dust. Perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, it is constantly being walked upon that prevents residue build-up and allows them to glisten.

“We came upon them the same way you did,” explains Mr. Schmidt. “We noticed them shining here and there throughout the city, and at some point we thought, ‘that’s something we’d like to do. We’d like to sponsor a stone.’”

They were able to turn their desire into action when Mrs. Schmidt read a newspaper article with detailed information about the local office that coordinates with the artist. She called the same number that put me in touch with them, and ten months later, the stone was set.

The Schmidts would like to do more. After reading about the former Jewish neighborhood in Venice, where the phrase “Ghetto” originated, the idea of laying a stumbling-stone there appealed to them. They were dismayed to find out, however, that the office in Berlin was only responsible for local history and that no corresponding “coordination point” exists in Venice.

“I have to get in touch myself with the mayor in Venice and do all the research about Jews there personally,” Mrs. Schmidt explains as she shows me Giudecca Island, former home of the Giudei, or Jews, in a travel guide she brought to dinner.

We study the map for a minute. The cartographic neutrality of the land mass, shaped like a bread crust lying in a soup of Venetian canals, does not betray the cramped conditions under which Jews lived.

“We’re not sure if everything is recorded, either,” Mr. Schmidt adds. “Germans like to write everything down, but other countries might not have.” He is referring to the astoundingly precise German documentation that occurred alongside their crimes, right down to careful inventories of homes from which Jews were deported.

“Only when the research has been done can I go to the authorities, and only with the authorities’ permission can I then call the artist,” Mrs. Schmidt concludes a bit wearily.

Despite these tactical obstacles, the Schmidts believe strongly that in what they are doing, stating emphatically that only by remembering can one avoid repeating past mistakes. When asked how they would advise someone planning to sponsor a stone, their message is clear, “Be sure you know why you are doing it.”

Names have been changed to protect the couple's privacy. Demnig image courtesy Shoe image courtesy
[1]“Reform of Germany’s citizenship and Nationality Law,” German Embassy in london, 2006. [] Website viewed March 2, 2007.
[2] Micha Brumlik, ed., with Doron Kiesel, Cilly Kugelmann, Julius H. Schoeps, Jüdisches Leben in Deutschland Seit 1945 (Frankfurt: Judischer Verlag, 1986), 94.

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