In October, I attended a Stolpersteine (stumbling stones) ceremony in Magdeburg, in the former East Germany, to honor my great-grandparents, Rudolph and Laura Lowenthal, who died in the Holocaust. My sister and two cousins, the other surviving family members, accompanied me.
The first Stolpersteine were created by German artist Gunter Demnig in 1993; now organizations in a dozen countries in Europe have honored Holocaust victims by placing these brass-covered stones, etched with the victims’ names and fates, outside their former homes or places of business. Often family members ask for these ceremonies; however, we were contacted by the Magdeburg group only six weeks before the event. We later learned they had tried for almost a year to find someone connected to the Lowenthal family.
Before I boarded Air Berlin in Los Angeles, I had many unanswered questions: How does one fathom the unfathomable? How will I feel about the homeland of my mother and grandparents? Will we be welcomed as American Jews or will the Jewish factions from Munich that boycott such ceremonies be present? Will we be safe?
I was brought up with a daily dose of fear from my mother, who taught Holocaust studies at the University of Akron and published a book about women survivors. But her harsh lessons were tempered by my Omi, my grandmother, who delighted us with wonderful stories of Germany. She loved Magdeburg and in my early years I thought it was a land filled with fairy tale characters such as Max und Moritz, Struwwelpeter, Stuwwelliese and Haeschenschule, all from traditional German tales. In later years, these books were replaced with those of Mary Wigman, Rudolph Bode, Rudolph Von Laban and Dora Mentzler. My grandmother owned a modern dance studio in Madgeburg and I later taught dance, so our discussions of imagery, breathing and spatial relationships were a further bond.
My Omi, who never became bitter toward Germany, decided before she died in February 1985 that she wanted to be cremated. I could not understand her desire to go against Jewish custom, but she explained that she wanted me to scatter her ashes to the wind, hoping a few might even reach her native land. Several months after she died, as promised, my mother, son and I went in a friend’s helicopter over the Great Lakes to scatter her ashes.
Twenty-seven years later, delivering my speech during the Stolpersteine dedication, I truly understood why she’d wanted to be cremated, despite the fact that her parents had died in a crematorium. She simply wanted to go home to Magdeburg. I knew my Omi was finally home and in the land she loved so much.
Armed with a video camera, I taped my trip from beginning to end, starting in Berlin where we were met at the airport by the two grandsons of my mother’s best friend from childhood, with whom I’d communicated via e-mail and Skype. After driving to Magdeburg, we spent the evening at our hotel with their mother and grandmother and the sponsors of the Stolpersteine event. Conversation revolved around the history of Magdeburg pre- and post-World War II; how, why and where Stolpersteine projects were being funded and accomplished; and our itinerary.
The next morning, a cousin and I attended Shemini Atzeret services at the only synagogue in Magdeburg. I always travel with my personal Siddur and as luck would have it, since I travel often, I had two in my suitcase, so we were both able to daven Shacharis and Mussaf. I finally got to say Kaddish for my mother, grandmother and great-grandparents in their homeland. It was very emotional, but it was simply the beginning of the most humbling experience of my lifetime.
The remainder of that day we toured places from my mother’s and Omi’s youths. We were accompanied by my mother’s 87-year-old childhood friend, her daughter and two grown grandsons. I filmed interviews with them all to get a better perspective on the life they led during the dark days of Germany as they watched their beloved city bombed and friends and neighbors torn from their midst. They spoke of the degradation of my family and their attempts to help them until they were finally deported. Eighty-five percent of Magdeburg suffered damage during the war and the city lost its entire Jewish population, approximately 1,000 people. Although the Jewish population was a mere .3 percent of the total, most were professionals. My great-grandfather and grandfather were highly respected physicians and served as the city’s health commissioners, in addition to their private practices.
The following afternoon, Oct. 9, was the Stolpersteine ceremony, complete with reporters from three television stations and several newspapers and magazines. With little sleep and emotions galore, my mantra became “get through your speech and cry later!” In my speech, I mentioned that it was Simchas Torah and read a poem I’d written, “Stolpersteine: A Foundation from Stones.” The ceremony, in English and German, was held outside the house where my mother and grandmother were born. A YouTube version can be viewed at www.youtube.com/watch?v=I-ncZtKRtE0&feature=youtu.be
That night, we attended a reception held at the city’s capital building, hosted by the Oberburgermeister or “Lord Mayor.” He spoke eloquently and we were wined and dined as dignitaries.
The next morning, we were featured in several newspapers and on the news broadcasts. Later I received a copy of my magazine interview. I left Germany with a feeling of wonder at all that had taken place in those few short days.
What had I accomplished? What had I learned? Was my presence significant and how can I gauge its effect on those I encountered? If I had not attended, would those who knew my family understand that we do not blame them for Hitler’s intolerable acts? Would they know that we’d sympathized with their plight under Russian rule from 1945 until the mid-’90s, as evidenced by the packages my mother and Omi sent regularly? Would I have ever learned the exact date my great-grandparents perished in the Sobibor death camp, which was provided by the Madgeburg organization’s research? How would my new perspective of the Holocaust drive future acts of kindness?
I confirmed that hatred breeds more hatred and killing breeds more wars, whereas compassion breeds kindness, and that humanity, faith and prayer are the pillars of Judaism.
In the late 1980s I had spoken at a national Hadassah conference as the young president of an Iowa chapter and asked the proverbial questions, “If not me, then who; if not now, when?” If I am not involved in informing and healing, as my Omi had done, how will my children be able to teach the next generation? Finally, as a community member, how can I contribute to the education of future generations?
Jill Ranucci, Ph.D., is an administrator in the Catalina Foothills School District and head coach for the University of Arizona synchronized swimming club team.