This photograph shows six Stolpersteine [stumbling stones] embedded in the pavement in front of the residential building at Brahmsallee 13 by artist Gunter Demnig on July 22, 2007. The brass plate-covered concrete cubes measuring 10 x 10 cm remember three Jewish couples who lived at this address: Gretchen and Jona Fels from 1920 until 1935, Bruno and Irma Schragenheim from 1927 until 1936, and Moritz and Erna Bertha Bacharach from 1937 until the spring of 1939.
Demnig’s intention in placing these stones is to embed the names of the victims of National Socialism in the memory of people living today. He hopes they will start various kinds of discussions, thus continuously encouraging the study and discussion of National Socialist injustice. The first line which begins “here lived …” shows that these six Stolpersteine were laid at the last (freely chosen) place of residence of those named and not at their place of work (in which case the line would read “here worked …”). Their inscription also includes the person’s name, for women their birth name, their year of birth, and their fate (deported in 1941), the place of death, and—if known—the date of death. Some Stolpersteine such as that for Moritz and Erna Bacharach also mention particular circumstances. On the more recent stones, the artist consistently uses the term “murdered” [ermordet] as he did on these six, because the National Socialists intended the deaths of these individuals whether they were killed in the gas chambers of Auschwitz like Erna Bacharach or Gretchen Fels or died of disease or hunger in a ghetto like Jona Fels.
These six Stolpersteine are sponsored by the building’s current residents (120 EUR per stone in 2016) who also ensure the continued care and maintenance of their brass surfaces.
In the 1990s, artist Gunter Demnig began developing his art in public spaces project (Art of Remembrance/Street Art), which ultimately became the Stolpersteine art campaign of today. He laid more than 60,000 of these stones in Germany and many other countries. Their purpose is to allow for an individualized memorializing of National Socialist crimes in the everyday public sphere. Demnig defines his Europe-wide art campaign “social sculpture” or as “the world’s largest decentralized memorial.” He relied on the participation of the local population from the very beginning. To create the six Stolpersteine at Brahmsallee 13, and all the others, volunteers researched the biographies of the individuals commemorated, regardless of whether they were deported Jews—as in these six cases—or whether they died in a concentration camp because they were homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, executed members of the resistance, deserters, or forced laborers accused of sabotage, to name just a few groups of persecuted victims. The Stolpersteine equally commemorate those who were killed in camps, those who committed suicide, and those who died as a consequence of persecution. Once the dates for the stone have been verified and a sponsor has been found, local organizers obtain permission to lay the stone on public property from the local authorities. A Stolperstein can be laid either at a person’s last residence of choice or at their place of work. It partly depends on whether the sponsor intends to place the stone in the individual’s former neighborhood or outside a school for a teacher, outside a theater for an actor or actress or outside city hall for a politician, for example. In some cases, more than one stone has been dedicated to one person. Erna Bertha Bacharach, née Strauss, is now also commemorated by a Stolperstein in her birth place of Michelstadt, for example. Once a Stolperstein has been laid, it becomes public property, and thus the local municipality is responsible for prosecuting cases of vandalism or unauthorized removal.
In Hamburg the Stolpersteine art campaign was introduced in 2002 by art collector Peter Hess. After initial resistance by the local authorities in particular, his idea eventually met with political approval and broad public support. In 2016, the 5,000th Stolperstein was laid in Hamburg. More than 90% of the city’s Stolpersteine commemorate Jews—such as the six pictured here—followed by those laid in memory of homosexuals, victims of “euthanasia,” and people persecuted as political opponents. The rest are divided up among other groups. In 2006, Rita Bake of Hamburg’s Landeszentrale für politische Bildung [Hamburg Agency for Civic Education] and Beate Meyer of the Institute for the History of German Jews initiated the project “Stolpersteine in Hamburg—biographische Spurensuche” [Stolpersteine in Hamburg—A Biographical Search for Traces]. The volunteers, more than 300 people thus far, receive instructions from academics in order to research the biographies of those individuals for whom Stolpersteine have been laid in their neighborhoods. At the time of writing (2016), three groups were working simultaneously; two of them are focusing on the Grindel area, formerly Hamburg’s main Jewish neighborhood. One of these groups produced the biographical texts on the married couples named Fels, Schragenheim, and Bacharach published in the volume “Stolpersteine in Hamburg—Grindel I” in 2016. Thus far, the project managers and their team of volunteers have published a total of 17 neighborhood specific volumes of biographies, and six more are in preparation. The roughly 3,000 life stories researched and published in those volumes so far can also be viewed at http://www.stolpersteine-hamburg.de.
These six Stolpersteine feature only a few basic dates relating to the life and death of those whose names they bear. What becomes evident at first glance is that they commemorate married couples, and their deportation to places like Theresienstadt and Minsk as well as the name of the Auschwitz death camp suggest that they were persecuted as Jews without actually spelling it out. Biographical research produced further information: Gretchen Fels, née Hildesheimer was born in Peine. She married Hamburg businessman John/Jona Fels in 1905. After he returned from the First World War, the couple and their daughter Edith moved into an apartment on Brahmsallee 13, where they continued to live for the next 15 years. John Fels was the executive director and Gretchen the general manager of the Gerson company [Fa. Gerson], which John Fels took over in 1934 as a metal and chemicals broker. In 1938, John Fels avoided having to use the mandatory name “Israel” by changing his first name to the permitted “Jewish” name Jona. The couple had to move out of its spacious apartment for financial reasons. An attempted emigration to Palestine to join their daughter failed. On July 15, 1942, after having moved several times, the couple was deported from a “Jews’ house” [Judenhaus] to the “ghetto for the aged” [Altersghetto] at Theresienstadt, where Jona died after three months. Gretchen Fels was eventually deported to Auschwitz and murdered in the gas chambers.
Hamburg native Bruno Schragenheim and his wife Irma, née Löwenberg, lived at Brahmsallee 13 for nine years. They did not have children, and Irma apparently did not work. While Bruno Schragenheim, who worked as a self-employed accountant, was adversely affected by the anti-Jewish measures, he was able to continue working until 1938. He subsequently worked as an accountant for Hamburg’s Jewish congregation until he was deported on November 8, 1941. The couple’s traces disappear after they arrived at the Minsk ghetto. Therefore the Stolperstein reads “murdered,” but does not give a date of death. Since there are almost no surviving documents from the Minsk ghetto, the date of death of almost all Hamburg citizens deported to Minsk is unknown. The Bacharach couple lived in Hamburg for just under four years. Moritz Bacharach was from Seligenstadt. He married Erna Bertha Strauss from Michelstadt. The couple first lived in Hanau, where their sons Albrecht and Walter were born, and later moved to Salzwedel. The family only moved to Hamburg during the National Socialist period when Moritz could no longer work in his profession in rural areas. His wife Erna Bertha Bacharach and sons Albrecht and Walter Bacharach emigrated from Germany to the Netherlands in 1938, and he Moritz Bacharach followed them in 1939. The German troops caught up with them, however, and they were taken from Hilversum to the transit camp at Westerbork. Almost two years later, on February 25, 1944, they were first sent to the Theresienstadt ghetto and then deported to Auschwitz on October 1, 1944, where Erna Bertha Bacharach was murdered. The Stolperstein does not give a date of death for them because none was registered for the arrivals of her transport. Most likely they were murdered either on the day of their arrival or the next day. Moritz, Albrecht, and Walter were selected for forced labor in Auschwitz and were taken to Taucha in Saxony. There they worked as welders in the HASAG arms factory. In April 1945, the prisoners had to embark on a death march during which Moritz Bacharach was shot in front of his sons, both of whom survived. In 2007, the residents of Brahmsallee informed Walter Zwi Bacharach (died 2014), who now was a professor of modern history at Israel’s Bar Ilan University, of their intention to lay Stolpersteine for his parents. His reaction was reserved, and he stated: “This is your business,” in order to point out that this form of commemoration was initiated by the descendants of the perpetrators. However, this aspect eventually became less important than the fact that the names of his parents are commemorated. In 2010, he and his wife participated in the laying of a Stolperstein for his mother in Michelstadt, and they also visited the site of the Stolperstein on Brahmsallee several times.
While most cities and municipalities support Demnig’s campaign and the artist has received multiple honors and awards, some—especially Munich—refuse laying any stones because both the city’s administration and the local Jewish congregation feel that this form of commemoration does not correspond with their idea of a dignified memorial. They see the memory of the murdered individuals literally stepped on and sullied by the stones’ placement in the pavement while the artist’s Gunter Demnig view is that passersby bow before the victims when reading the stones’ inscriptions. The association of Sinti and Roma in Hamburg [Rom und Cinti Union Hamburg] rejects the memorializing of murdered “gypsies” by Stolpersteine for the same reason. Stones already laid for them had to be removed in 2009. Other critics take exception to the Stolperstein campaign because they think the principle of a “grassroots” commemoration in which sponsors initiate and finance the laying of an individual stone does not guarantee that all of those murdered are memorialized. They would prefer to establish an “official” form which unites all names in one central memorial. The installation of stelae with names inscribed into them is being discussed in Munich at present. Cities like Kassel or Göttingen only approved the laying of Stolpersteine after years of controversial debate in 2013 and 2015 respectively. In the city of Oldenburg, Stolpersteine are being laid for those persecuted for political reasons or victims of “euthanasia” while the city does not give permission to lay Stolpersteine for Jews out of respect for the Jewish congregation’s rejection of the project. Instead, the city has erected a memorial wall in a central place which contains the names of all of Oldenburg’s murdered Jews. Time and again, individualized commemoration causes conflict with the victims’ families. This is especially the case when the murdered individuals belonged to groups whose lifestyle or behavior deviated from societal norms and for which their families are still ashamed or embarrassed (victims of “euthanasia,” deserters or homosexuals, for example). Sometimes the fears relate to the present, such as the fear that the Jewish descent of living bearers of the family name will be revealed by a Stolperstein. Local organizers usually are considerate of family concerns if they are known in advance. If contact with relatives is established only after a stone has been laid or if descendants disagree about the issue, those involved endeavor to find an amicable solution. In 2014, inscriptions written by the artist Gunter Demnig using National Socialist legal terms such as “Gewohnheitsverbrecherin” [habitual criminal] or “Rassenschande” [racial defilement] when listing the reasons for persecution prompted criticism in the media, and some historians agreed. They found that these discriminating terms were humiliating the victims a second time and doubted that today’s public understands that this usage is meant to point out the National Socialist’s abuse of the justice system. Since this constitutes an irresolvable conflict between artistic license and political correctness or pedagogical intent, there will certainly be further debate on this and similar issues— which will hopefully lead to greater knowledge about the period of National Socialism.
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Beate Meyer (Thematic Focus: Memory and Remembrance), Dr. phil., is a Research Associate at the Institute for the History of the German Jews (IGdJ). Her research interests are focused on aspects of German-Jewish history, National Socialism, oral history, gender history and cultures of memory.
Beate Meyer, The Stolpersteine of Brahmsallee 13: The Stories behind the Names and the Obstacles to Commemorating Them (translated by Insa Kummer), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, September 22, 2016. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-171.en.v1> [May 28, 2017].