In June, I interviewed the German ambassador to the United Nations, Harald Braun. We talked about Germany’s involvement in world peace and the actions that the German government was taking around the world. I was impressed but cautious given Germany’s history.
This week, I got to see some of what Germany was doing not just in the world but also in its country, in its own house. Although, I only went to Berlin, I was amazed at how the Germans have tried to reconcile their past.
The recognition of the murder and pure evil that had gripped the country under the Nazis was heartening. There is no attempt to run away from it or to sweep history under the collective carpet. From the well-attended museum, which is underneath the major memorial, to the murders that took place in Europe to the Topography of Terror Museum right next to a preserved section of the Berlin wall and close to the Brandenburg gate, it is clear that Germany has not forgotten its history. Later, I visited the Wannsee House, where over a meal, some of the Nazi leadership (Hitler was not there) decided how to finish and kill any Jews left within their sphere of influence. A lovely mansion on a recreational lake outside of Berlin, it stretches your mind as to how such a decision could have taken place over a shared and upbeat meal. We know what happened because one set of minutes survived in an archive.
One of the most moving sites was an artistic installation in the Bavarian Quarter that had 80 signs on light posts, depicting the laws made against the Jews with one side of the sign showing a symbol such as a loaf of bread and then wording of the actual law that was made. The bread represented a law that said Jews could only shop between 4-5 p.m. when all the stores would have been emptied as this was in the time of war. There was a sign of a dog, representing that a law had been passed declaring Jews were no longer allowed to have pets or that Jewish veterinarians could not open practices. The signs and their explanations were put up all around this area, including right near the apartment occupied by Albert Einstein. The signs are designed so that ordinary Germans can’t forget that Jews once lived and worked right where they now live. Their lives and hardships are not to be forgotten by ordinary people in 2014 going about their daily tasks.
I would never have learned about how Germany is trying to imprint its history onto the lives of its citizens had my brother, Michael, not informed me of the “Stolperstein” (Stepping Stones) project. The idea is to embed on sidewalks the names of people who were living in houses or apartments when they were taken to the concentration camps and killing camps. A German artist, Gunter Deming, designed this form of remembrance in the 1990s, and to date there have been stepping stones in 17 European countries and 900 different German cities. More than 5,000 stones, which are actually plaques on a cement brick, have been laid in Berlin alone. The Berlin Senate decided in 2005 to offer financial support for the project.
On Monday, Aug. 4, my family and I gathered at the apartment house of my grandfather’s brother, Elias Spet. As Hitler came to power, he was living in Berlin with his wife, having emigrated from Poland. He was taken away to a “work camp” and, although we do not know what he was subjected to, a book was written by Leon Szalet called “Experiment ‘E’: A Report from an Extermination Laboratory.” He had survived and lived in the same slave/prisoner housing unit my Great Uncle Spet lived in. It was a miserable place, and clearly my uncle died from some combination of starvation, overwork and beatings. In those days, the Nazis actually returned ashes back to the families, and his wife received them and then buried my great uncle before she was also taken away and killed.
The Stolpersteine Project has gathered stories of the people’s lives the stones commemorate. They are amazing stories, from people who were factory workers to people who mounted whatever resistance they could. People in Berlin and the 17 countries where the stones are embedded see that a real person lived there, a person with a history, a family and a life. This project aims to bring what happened 70-plus years ago into the lives of ordinary people so they won’t forget history and the individual lives that perished at the hands of the Nazis.
Media wishing to interview Ellen Ratner, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.