An American Woman and her Granddaughter Travel to Germany to Lay Six Stumbling Stones
On a cold afternoon in Koblez, Germany, Carol Kleinman and her family gathered in front of the home where her grandparents lived before the Nazis deported them during World War II. She was there to honor their memory, to place six of her family member’s names into the cobblestone street in front of the house. The so-called Stolpersteine (“stumbling stones”) were plated with gold and engraved with names, and would from this day onward be part of the city’s landscape. Knowing this gave Kleinman a peace of mind that she had never felt before.
Enlarge image (© Carol Kleinman) Kleinman is a psychiatrist who lives in a suburban Maryland neighborhood outside of Washington, D.C., but she spent her childhood in Kansas. Her parents were Jewish World War II survivors who fled to the U.S. after Kristallnacht (The Night of the Broken Glass) in 1938. “For the most part they did not talk about their losses, and they actually didn’t find out until 1945 what happened to their parents,” Kleinman says, admitting she grew up sheltered from the full knowledge of what happened to her family in Germany.
Recently, new material on the Internet, such as ancestry and death records, has made it possible for Kleinman to learn about her family’s history. She also learned that the town of Gelsenkirchen, where her mother grew up, installed Stolpersteine for some of their Jewish citizens – including citizens who escaped Germany, like her mother.
Kleinman researched the Stolperstein project and learned more about it; the little “stumbling stones” are commemorative brass plaques that are installed by German artist Gunter Demnig into the pavement in front of the last known addresses of World War II victims. The stones serve as a constant reminder of the loss of human life during World War II. There are over 53,000 stumbling stones across Europe, and each one reminds passerbys of the individuals who once lived at that address. “And since my grandparents had no grave, I thought this would be an important marker to identify that they had been here and lived on this earth and contributed quite a bit,” Kleinman says. “This was a place where a physical part of their memory could be.”
Enlarge image (© Carol Kleinman) The town of Koblenz installs its own Stolpersteine about once a year, and they were having a ceremony on March 12, 2016, Kleinman says. So after months of planning and with the help of the German Embassy in Washington, Kleinman traveled to Germany with her granddaughter, Olivia, to lay six stones for her family members at Rizzastrasse 27 in Koblenz. The stones would honor the memory of her grandparents (Siegfried and Selma Cohn, who died in 1942 in Treblinka), her father (Walter Joseph Cohn, who fled to the U.S. in 1938), her uncle (Kurt Cohn, who fled to Australia in 1938), her aunt (Anneliesa Fröhlich, who died in 1942 at the Chelmo Extermination Camp) and her aunt’s brother (Robert Fröhlich, who died in 1942 at the Chelmo Extermination Camp). Kleinman’s brother and his family also traveled to Koblenz to be present for the commemoration.
The day before the Stolpersteine ceremony, Kleinman and her family spoke at the Max-von-Laue Gymnasium, a local school that had taken an interest in her story and invited the family to give a talk about their project. Kleinman was particularly struck by the support of one student, who was so interested that he came to the ceremony the next day. “He said he walks past the house on his way to school every day so he said now when he sees the stones he will think of us and our family,” she says.
Enlarge image (© Carol Kleinman) The ceremony, which was held at 3 p.m. on March 12, was a moving experience for Kleinman. When she arrived at her grandparents’ former home, she noticed that someone had already dug a hole in the ground. As artist Gunter Demnig prepared the stumbling stones, a German man wearing a Yamakkah said a prayer – the Kaddish – in German, and Kleinman’s family said it in Hebrew.
As the artist prepared his materials, he asked Kleinman and her family members to place the stones in the ground themselves, after which Demnig filled in the area around the stones and solidified them in the ground.
Kleinman said a few words at the ceremony, explaining that this trip forced her to “come to terms with the fact that these were my grandparents that were murdered,” she says. “It was kind of overwhelming. For me, grandparents is just a concept – I never had any. I couldn’t get upset over something I never had, but I wish I had had.”
And for Olivia, who represents the youngest generation of the family line, the project had a less personal, but equally meaningful, effect: “If you have an opportunity to do something that is related to history, you should always go for it because it means a lot once you do,” she says. “I feel that I connected with the older generation even though they’re not alive.”
Enlarge image (© Karin Richert / stolpersteine.eu) Sitting at the dining room table at her granddaughter’s home in North Bethesda, Kleinman reflects on her trip with a feeling of accomplishment.
“Although six million people died they were each individuals,” Kleinman says. “I wanted to identify the place where my family came from as a reminder to future generations to never forget what happened there. My father used to say, ‘you can forgive but you can never forget.’ (Laying these stones) has a sense of closure for me."
By Nicole Glass, Editor of The Week in Germany