In Germany, I saw stepping stones, not stumbling stones

As the daughter of a German émigré mother and Los Angeles-born father of Russian ancestry, I was weaned on that modern Jewish-American question: how much to hate the Germans?

I’m stepping up to say, “Give Germans a chance.”

I’ve just returned from a week in Lüdinghausen, the tiny town where my mother was born, in the picturesque Westphalian countryside. An enormously dedicated group of non-Jewish Germans has been working in Lüdinghausen for the past 10 years to find the Jewish families who were dispersed by the Nazis and to come up with ways to preserve their memories.

That work includes an elaborate conceptual art piece by Günter Demnig called “Stolpersteine” (stumbling stones), which commemorates all Jews yanked from their home to subsequently die at the hands of the Nazis. In my family’s case, that meant my great-grandmother Julie who died in Terezin; my great-aunt Hildegarde who killed herself in a jail cell; and my cousin Walter, an 11-year-old whose train ride ended not at a concentration camp but in a pit in a forest with hundreds of others outside Riga.

Demnig sees “Stolpersteine” as his life’s work. As of this month he has installed 15,000 stones and is now also expanding his scope to include the Netherlands, France, Italy and beyond.

Lots of Jews today practically spit when it comes to discussing Germany, and it’s not a majority position, shall we say, to talk about Germans as compassionate and sensitive and still in shock about what went on in the 1930s and 1940s. But it was indeed the case with a very unusual set of caring people who invited my mother and me to witness the installation of three stones at Bahnhofstrasse 5 in front of the home my great-grandfather built (and 19 others in front of other homes).

People came up to us on the street and very quietly and warmly thanked us for making the trip. People invited us into their homes to hear their stories. We met the son of the man who made the wooden trunks for my grandparents to take to America, which he had to deliver in the middle of the night (the Nazis would have punished him for helping Jews). A woman who lived upstairs from my family talked to us with tears in her eyes about how her father was a Nazi, but not an “angry” one. Another woman who had been a neighbor told of the plumber who repaired the damage to a family’s home after Kristallnacht, only to be picked up in the middle of the night and sent to the war front as punishment.

Another example of reparations is the involvement of young people — whether it’s the high school kids who read passages from Simon Wiesenthal at the installation of the stones; the beautiful blue-eyed blonde girl who came to meet my mother and ask permission to build a detailed family tree, repeating several times, How could this ever have happened in “her” wonderful Germany?; or the group of students who cleaned and polished the tombstones in the Jewish cemetery.

Furthermore, Demnig’s protocol for installing “Stolpersteine” mandates that expenses be covered by the people in the town and not by the Jews who today live elsewhere. In Lüdinghausen, kids have bake sales to raise money for the stones.

The guiding hand behind Lüdinghausen’s efforts is a local teacher, Baerbel Zimmer, who fires up her computer every night to answer questions from ex-Lüdinghausen Jews. From her we learned more details about how evil the Nazis were. Every story is so important, so precious.

She symbolizes the new Germans, the people I now admire, the ones who are dedicated to remaking their nation as best they can. My head spins from the enormity of the trip. At one point I felt as if my head — or my heart? — would literally explode.

Someone suggested my mother and I were “Holocaust tourists,” but in fact our experience wasn’t about walking through Auschwitz (which we didn’t do); it was about trying to understand how our family fled, survived and thrived.

Zimmer told us that “after years of research and months of planning I was deeply moved when the Stolpersteine were actually laid. To see the small stones with the engraved names and fates of the murdered Lüdinghausen Jews gave me the feeling that these people had finally regained some of their dignity and now have a place of remembrance.”

Germany for me now means people who are smart, sensitive, funny and warm — people for whom anti-Semitism is a major blemish on their history, not their character.

 

Julie Ann Kodmur lives and works in the Napa Valley as a wine publicist. Her mother graduated from Lowell High School, attended Congregation Emanu-El and today lives in La Jolla.