Initially I wasn’t sure I wanted to participate in the Stolpersteine program, the initiative to place stones in front of the European homes of victims and survivors of the Holocaust. The stones, covered in brass, bear the names of the family members who lived there, and where and when they perished, or when they fled. The intent is for passersby to notice the stones, and reflect on the lives of the people who once lived there.
My mother is a Holocaust survivor and my father left Germany in the mid-1930s, when Hitler was coming into power. I grew up in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, where most of my friends were children of survivors or children of refugees from Hitler’s Europe. Most of our parents did not talk very much about the Holocaust, but we grew up in the shadows of the trauma: the ghosts of family members who did not survive, the ongoing fears of persecution, the pressures to succeed, a contempt for all things German.
Even though I grew up speaking German, I was taught to identify the dialect spoken by non-Jews. When we heard it on our very occasional visits to the Yorkville section of Manhattan, we would discreetly cross the street. My parents boycotted German products.
I was surprised when my parents decided to participate in a program in which local German governments invited survivors and refugees back to their hometowns to express their remorse. I was against the visit, but my parents prevailed. My father often spoke about his idyllic village and he had a sudden interest in seeing it again. When he went back, he was treated like a VIP. It turned out to be a beautiful closure to his life, because he passed away a few months after he returned.
For the same reason I was against the visit, I was concerned about the Stolpersteine initiative. I did not want to support a program that would even begin to relieve the Germans of their accountability. I was also aware of the ongoing controversy about the stones. Since they are placed in the ground, passersby also have the opportunity to simply step on them.
I started to have a change of heart when a few of my friends told me about their positive experiences with the program. They were pleased to have the opportunity to memorialize their families.
I decided to participate in the program with that simple aspiration in mind.
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As far as I know, most of my ancestors are from Germany. My maternal grandparents, Samuel and Karoline Falk, my mother, Flora, and Uncle Norman, lived in Frankfurt. My grandfather had a very successful kosher meat market.
On Kristallnacht, in 1938, everything changed. The butcher shop was shut down. The Gestapo stormed the apartment and took my grandfather to Dachau. As he left, he told my grandmother not to worry, and not to go to the Gestapo to try to get him released. After all, he said, he defended Germany in World War I. Whatever is going on now will blow over.
My grandmother had sisters living in New York City and, as a result, was able to get a visa for the family to move to America. Contrary to my grandfather’s wishes, she went to the Gestapo every day to try to get him released.
My mother used to tell this story: Six weeks after my father was taken, I woke up at 2 a.m. because I had a premonition that he was coming home. I ran down to the train station and there he was, on his way home, crying. He was never the same.
The family left everything behind and set sail for New York City in March 1939 to rebuild their lives.
My family’s four stones were installed by Gunter Demnig, the originator of the Stolpersteine initiative, last month. During the ceremony, the two women who sponsored my family’s stones spoke about my family history. I spoke about the impact the history had on me. A violinist played a solo. The crowd of around 40 people included a group of schoolchildren. After the ceremony, they ran up to the stones and placed roses on them.
Once the ceremony was over, I felt that my initial aspirations had been fulfilled. I was also deeply touched by some of the Germans I met, including my sponsors and other locals. They all expressed a deep, honest remorse.
My mother used to say the Holocaust affected me more than it affected her — partly because I never stopped asking questions and reading about it. I felt like I was living in two worlds: a world inhabited by the ghosts, and our comfortable middle-class American life. I was always trying to reconcile the two worlds, which later extended into an activism against contemporary genocide.
During the installation, I mentioned the anthology of poetry I created in 1989 called “Ghosts of the Holocaust” — a collection by children of survivors from around the world. The Holocaust is still a recurrent theme in my poetry, as I continue to process my family history.
I concluded my talk with one of the poems I wrote, called “Mother to Son.” The poem includes lines from a popular German nursery rhyme:
your grandfather had his bag packed
and was ready to go.
The Gestapo beat me up too
but back then, they left little girls
with their mothers.
Hoppe hoppe Reiter
Wenn er fällt dann schreit er
Mr. Woolf, the man down the street
who lost his leg defending W.W. I Germany,
never imagined he would be taken.
Der Dank des Vaterlands ist euch gewiss, they said.
Fällt er in den Graben
Fressen ihn die Raben
Six weeks after they took your grandfather,
I jumped up once at 2 AM. I knew
he was coming home. I ran outside,
down the street and there he was,
crying, crying, he cried for weeks.
Fällt er in den Sumpf
Da macht er einen Plumps
And then what happened?
I keep asking, pushing through
one dark velvet curtain after another.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.
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