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‘Stumbling stone’ gives family overdue closure

Tucsonan Bertie Levkowitz-Herz speaks at the installation of a ‘stumbling stone’ honoring her uncle in Groningen, the Netherlands, Aug. 6. (Photo courtesy Bertie Levkowitz-Herz)

Active remembrance can provide an alternative to warfare, and taking pause to acknowledge as well as consider human tragedies may force us to search for peaceful means, says Bertie Levkowitz-Herz.   

“You only have losers with war, and killing makes no sense,” she says. “There’s got to be another way to solve differences and be a little more tolerant of people.”

A ‘stumbling stone’ honors the memory of Ibertus Magnus, killed in the Holocaust.

Gunter Demnig, a Cologne-based artist who is not Jewish, designed the Stolpersteine, or stumbling stones, project in 1993. The brass plaques that commemorate victims of the Nazis are installed in the street, in front of the person’s last known residence or place of business.

Levkowitz-Herz attended a Stolpersteine ceremony in Holland this summer that honored her uncle, Ibertus Magnus, who was arrested by the Gestapo for “political speech” at the end of 1941. During a business trip, Magnus shared his opinion about Adolf Hitler with another train passenger, who was a Nazi sympathiser — whether he was baited into the conversation or not is unknown. He was murdered at Buchenwald concentration camp at age 24. Levkowitz-Herz was born eight weeks after his death, and was named in honor of her uncle.

Like many other families living in 1940s Europe, Levkowitz-Herz’s parents knew war was imminent, she explained, but by the time the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands began in May 1940 it was too late to flee.

Born in 1942, Levkowitz-Herz spent three and a half years as a hidden child of the Holocaust. During those formative years, she was smuggled around among 40 different families in order to be kept safe. After the war, she was reunited with her parents. 

Her family immigrated to the United States in 1953, eight years after the end of World War II. Although the timing may seem odd, her parents understood the difficulty of starting over in a foreign country, she says. With the Cold War looming, and as Russia continued to expand throughout Eastern Europe, the outbreak of the Korean War ultimately prompted their move.

They arrived in New York City, but soon moved to Bellflower, California, where she stayed until she graduated college. Levkowitz-Herz and her first husband, Jack Levkowitz, who died in 1999, moved to Tucson in 1964.

Levkowitz-Herz says the stumbling stone ceremony originally felt like a perfunctory gesture, but she decided to attend the event in good faith, returning to her hometown of Groningen, the Netherlands. The ceremony, held on Aug. 6, turned into an unofficial family reunion with 25 people attending the event including her three sisters; her son, Howard, and his wife and three children; her daughter, Helene; her aunt, Sary, and Sary’s three grown children; and other family members living in Europe. 

For the longest time, Jews created a community, or sense of place, within their synagogue and faith, says Levkowitz-Herz. During the late 1950s and ’60s, a commonality was built around supporting the state of Israel, she adds. Today, the Holocaust has become a unifying theme in the Jewish community, which makes Levkowitz-Herz a bit uneasy.

“Those of us who lived through [the Holocaust] have, very often, a feeling — it’s a long time ago, it happened, we’ve got to move on with our lives, let’s not dwell on this,” she says. “And it’s not an American opinion; it’s a Holocaust survivor opinion amongst some people. First of all, for years you could not talk about it; nobody wanted to hear about it.”

Moreover, for decades the gravity of the Holocaust wasn’t even recognized, and there certainly weren’t any social services resources for survivors, she says. Often times, the Holocaust was minimized and Jews were blamed for allowing it to happen, which taught survivors not to talk about that time in history. 

Conversely, as someone who speaks to local high school students about the
Holocaust, Levkowitz-Herz says there’s an imperative need for educating young people about this atrocious epoch and remembering those who were lost.

As the number of people who can speak firsthand about the Holocaust shrinks, Levkowitz-Herz says she provides a powerful account, adding, “I accept the responsibility for helping to do this but I often don’t sleep well the night before — it’s draining.”

This Yom Kippur, Levkowitz-Herz spoke at Congregation Anshei Israel’s Yizkor service about the Holocaust and attending the stumbling stones ceremony this summer.

Although she had returned to the Netherlands previously, it had been some time since she visited her hometown. On the day of the ceremony, Sunday, Aug. 6, following the installations of the stumbling stones, her family was bussed to the local synagogue, which was opened specifically for the occasion. There she gave tzedakah, a charitable donation, adding another high point to the trip, Levkowitz-Herz says.

She and her family walked with a group of about 100 people who watched Demnig install six stones along the streets of Groningen. A total of 20 memorials were installed that day.

In front of each home, a paver was already removed from the sidewalk. As the group gathered at each locale, the stone was installed and people spoke about their lost relatives. The current residents participated in the event as well, opening their doors to the group during the ceremony.

When Demnig came up with the original design, Levkowitz-Herz says, the stones were going to be slightly raised in order to force people to stumble and then contemplate why. Although it’s a brilliant artistic idea, the project was adjusted for safety reasons, she says with a laugh.

Demnig installed the first Stolpersteine in Kreuzberg, Berlin, in 1996 without permission, a legal breach that was eventually excused. As of April, more than 61,000 stumbling stones had been installed in 1,200 locations throughout Europe and Russia.

Although Demnig’s motto is “One victim, one stone,” he also installs Stolperschwelle, or stumbling thresholds, which offer an alternative for locations where thousands of plaques would be necessary to honor victims.

The Stolpersteine Schilderswijk Groningen Foundation — the local group responsible for the historical research and organization of the memorials in Groningen — has identified more than 200 Jews who were displaced and killed from this modest neighborhood in The Hague during World War II.

The group compiles biographical data, conducts interviews with surviving family members and gets permission from the local municipalities and the current homeowners to install the memorials, Levkowitz-Herz says, as well as financing the project.

“The whole concept that these people had gone to this incredible amount of trouble, and effort, it made me look at it very differently — it’s pretty awesome,” she says.

Zachor, which Levkowitz-Herz describes as active remembrance, is a poignant term for honoring her uncle with a stumbling stone, she says, “Because you’ve now done something meaningful for him as well as for the community around there.”

It was Levkowitz-Herz’s aunt, Sary, who is now 89 and lives in San Mateo, California, and her children who approached Demnig about installing a stumbling stone for her brother. Although the process was painful, the beautiful event also brought a sense of closure to the family, Levkowitz-Herz says.

As Demnig is not Jewish, Levkowitz-Herz says the project reminds her of the selfless efforts of those who are honored at the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial museum.   

“The fact that a non-Jewish group has taken this on we all found amazing,” she says. “We were humbled by it, grateful for it and touched.”