Hier Wohnte Bernhard Marx
‘Here lived Bernhard Marx
Year of Birth 1897
It was while walking past a desolate street in Bonn that we stumbled upon some brass plates on which the names of the members of a family were engraved. The name Bernhard, supposedly the head of this family, was engraved on the first plate, followed by three to his right: Erna Marx Geb Hartman, (born 1899), Helena (1929) and Julie (1938).
This was an ill-fated Jewish family from Bonn, deported to the dreaded Minsk concentration—rather extermination—camp that was brutally murdered just four days after they got there. The youngest, Julie was barely four when she died.
Estimates of how many died in this camp over a period of two years vary but at least 65000, mainly Jews, perished there until it was liberated by the Soviet forces.
The young researcher who was our host and guide to the city said that the brass plaques, raised on stone, are called stolpersteine. Stolper means to stumble in German and steine means stone. The idea behind erecting stolpersteine is to raise awareness about events that took place in the late thirties and early forties in this region, when millions of innocent people—Jews, Romas, Jehovah's Witnesses, homosexuals and political dissidents—were sent to the gas chambers or brutally killed by the Nazi regime.
The brass plates immediately bring up a mental sketch of the scenario of the Marx family’s life and times, in particular their deportation and, soon after, their death. Perhaps, to serve as memorial of the turbulent time and cruel end is the very idea that informs the installation of this stolpersteine.
The plaques also remind of the sustained campaign that unfolded in those days to disenfranchise and disempower the Jews. This was followed by the targeting of their businesses and homes by the Nazi storm troopers. The denouement of the ascent of Hitler, the head of the Nazi Party, took the form of ferrying innocent people to concentration/extermination camps while, in most cases, their neighbours acted as cheerleaders.
For people in this part of South Asia, where majoritarianism is raising its head, where the perpetrator community on this side of the border seems to be becoming the victim on the other side, it would not be very difficult to imagine these scenarios, which unfolded less than eighty years ago.
About 8.5 million Germans, or 10% of the population, had been members of the Nazi Party. Nazi-related organisations also had huge memberships. Hence, one can imagine the kind of legitimacy and support the actions of the Nazis then had among German populace.
American writer Daniel Goldhagen’s well-received book Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, published in 1996, throws light on the fact that a majority of ordinary Germans had become “willing executioners” during the Holocaust. Goldhagen traces this phenomenon to a unique and virulent “eliminationist antisemitism” that had slowly taken root in the German political culture, a process that had unfolded over the preceding centuries.
Contemporary commentators claim that the stolpersteine, or stumbling stone, can be found “in 1,200 cities across more than 20 countries in Europe”. This makes them the “world’s largest memorial of its kind”.
Later, while walking through the streets of Brussels, we saw more such memorials, confirming their spread over Europe.
What makes the stolpersteine phenomenon even more remarkable is that they are less than 30 years old. They are the brainchild of the artist Gunter Demnig and the first was created as recently as in 1992 to mark 50 years since Heinrich Himmler, one of the most powerful Nazis, had signed the Auschwitz decree to deport Jews and other ‘undesirables’ for mass extermination.
Demnig, who believes in a saying from the Talmud, the central text of Rabbinic Judaism, that “a person is only forgotten when his or her name is forgotten”, installed the first stolpersteine at the City Hall in Cologne, which is his own city. It marked the path that the first deported Jews of Cologne took to the train station.
The question arises: what has made Demnig’s project possible, and why are ever-younger people contacting him and his team to install a stolpersteine in their cities? Why do these young people want a memorial to the last place where the victims of Nazism (and occasionally its survivors) once lived?
No doubt, many young people contacting Demnig would be practising Jews themselves. Or, they may have had relatives who perished (or survived) those bloody days. Yet, it is worth emphasising—and asking again—why is there a general acceptance for such memorials today in Germany.
Imagine a parallel scenario: Should a conscious group of citizens decide to install similar memorials to remember the victims of, say, caste, communal or ethnic violence here, would the that be considered acceptable to the general population.
Consider the Partition, during which 10 to 12 million were displaced from their homes and the ensuing riots, in which several hundred thousand to two million innocent lives were extinguished. Would it ever be possible to take up similar projects in this part of South Asia as a form of remembrance for the members of one community who were literally expelled by the other?
This is why it is important to unpack the broad acceptance to stolpersteine installations in Germany—especially in Germany—which supposedly led the world in ethnically cleansing a section of its own population with support from ordinary Germans.
We need to remember that it is more than 70 years since the menace of Nazism, which unfolded as the ethnic cleansing of millions of Jews, Gypsies, Roma and others, was defeated by the Allies.
Despite this passage of time the idea that the victims must be remembered in a unique manner, which assigns some humanity to victims who were heavily stigmatised before their death, is still getting new converts. It is also worth remembering that every moment when humanity ‘stumbles’ upon these plaques does not just help contemplate the past but also serves as an opportunity to inspire humanity within us all. It forges a sense of feeling connected to others and that can form the basis to prevent such atrocities in future.
Consider also the vital reminiscences of ordinary citizens who record how they and their countries confronted their Nazi past. Here is Bruni de la Motte, sharing experiences about the (then) East Germany in The Guardian newspaper on Thursday, 29 Mar 2007.
‘I was born and grew up in the German Democratic Republic [GDR]. Our schoolbooks dealt extensively with the Nazi period and what it did to the German nation and most of Europe. During the course of their schooling, all pupils were taken at least once to a concentration camp, where a former inmate would explain in graphic detail what took place. All concentration camps in the former GDR were maintained as commemorative places, so that no one should forget.’
When this subject was broached during our drive to Heidelberg, a beautiful town with one of Germany’s oldest universities, a new acquaintance, who is an engineer with a multinational company, underlined the role of the media in preparing people to look back at history dispassionately. He explained that a sense of guilt about the ethnic cleansing of the thirties and forties still pervades a large section of the German populace despite the fact that hardly any of them had personally played a role in it, for they were born much later.
No doubt, the fact that in both West Germany and East Germany, the United States of America (USA) and the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR)-led forces contributed to rid the society, the culture, the press, the economy, the judiciary and the politics of the Nazi ideology. Their influence no doubt must have been a key to Germany’s ‘denazification’ but still, over time the German people developed the skills and ability to critically view and face up to their past.
I recall a brief interaction with a Swedish journalist who was on a tour to India, and had expressed his bewilderment at finding Mein Kampf (My Struggle), a book written by Adolf Hitler, widely available in India. He had told me that the book was not officially banned in many parts of Europe but it is, nevertheless, unavailable.
In Germany, reprints of Mein Kampf were banned until 2015. Germany’s approach used to be to impose outright bans on all Nazi memorabilia, including symbols (although the bans were somewhat undermined over the years). Seventy years after Hitler’s death, a new heavily annotated 2,000-page volume of Mein Kampf was made available by the Institute of Contemporary History, a taxpayer-funded institution.
The unavailability of Mein Kampf was the result of a conscious move by the German state to deter exposure to the racist diatribes contained in this book. It is also possible to see its unavailability as the attempt of a people to turn a new page in their lives although their parents, forefathers and -mothers may have played a part in the Nazi past, or they may have strengthened the anti-human agenda of the Nazis and the Fascists by either remaining silent or submitting to their authority.
On the way back to Bonn, I wondered if—when—we can ever have a stolpersteine for Akhlaq, the man from Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, who was killed by a lynch mob merely on the suspicion of storing beef. Maybe Akhlaq’s stolpersteine can symbolise a new beginning towards ridding society of the exclusionary world view that fosters violence against the ‘other’, an idea that is gaining new converts every day.
The writer is senior independent journalist based in Delhi. The views are personal.