first person

In Berlin, ‘Stolpersteine’ is laid outside my grandfather’s house


I don’t recall when I first heard about the Stolpersteine, but once I did, I knew that it would be my mission to have them installed in front of my grandparent’s home in Berlin.

A few months after Kristallnacht, my grandparents were expelled from their home at 6 Lottumstrasse in Berlin and sent to the Cracow ghetto, where they lived until being forced out in 1940. They moved on to a small town called Mszana Dolna, not far from where they grew up. On Aug. 19, 1942, Heinrich Hamann oversaw the massacre of 881 Jews of Mszana Dolna and their burial in a mass grave.

My father, who had fled in 1938, never returned to Berlin, nor did he travel to Mszana Dolna to visit the gravesite of his parents. He lived with a great sense of survivor’s guilt. I decided to make the trip, hoping for closure. In 2013, my sister Rena and I visited Mszana Dolna, but the experience was not sufficient to ease the pain.

In 2015, I read a newspaper article about Gunther Demnig, an artist who has dedicated himself to placing Stolpersteine at locations throughout Europe. The small brass plaques, installed in front of homes, memorialize those who were forced to leave by the Nazis. Each stone is engraved with the name of the person, the date they left, and where and when they died. Demnig personally removes pavement to cement the Stolpersteine in. The concept interested me, and I decided to pursue it.

In October 2017, I was told that my grandparents’ stone would be installed between March 15 and March 20, 2018. I had to commit to be in Berlin for the ceremony before Mr. Demnig could engrave the stones. I agreed immediately. Only then did it occur to me that I had no idea where to sleep, daven, or find kosher food.

After many e-mails to rabbis and Chabad Houses, I finally had a plan. I would stay at a hotel next door to Chabad Alexanderplatz, within a mile of my grandparents’ home. Adass Yisroel, where my family davened, was also within a mile. I made arrangements to visit the Adass Yisroel cemetery where my great-grandmother is buried. 

In January 2018 I was notified that the Stolpersteine were engraved and that the ceremony would take place on March 19 at 9:15 am. I was a nervous wreck. This type of trip, traveling into the unfamiliar, was not my style, but neither is quitting. I had invested a lot of time and energy into this project, and I had to see it through.

On Wednesday, March 14, my friend Tatyana and I boarded a Lufthansa flight to Tegel Airport in Berlin. It was mid-March, but the frigid temperatures that greeted us in Berlin were extremely winterlike.

By Monday, the temperature had warmed up to about 30 degrees. At nine o’clock sharp, we arrived at 6 Lottumstrasse to meet Gunther Demnig for the Stolpersteine installation. The quiet was broken when a woman called to us from an apartment window, “Are you here for a stone laying?”

She came outside, accompanied by her daughter, and was soon joined by other residents of the building, some holding roses. They pointed a glass case in the front door where a photograph of my family hung, and asked about their fate. As we were speaking, I turned my head to see an amazing sight. Walking up Lottumstrasse was a class with their teachers, 12-year-old boys and girls from the Lauder Yeshiva.

At 9:15, Gunther Demnig drove up. Without further ado, he started the preparatory work on the cobblestone walk directly in front of the house. He greeted me and shook my hand, but waved away my words of appreciation. He got down on his knees with a pickaxe and removed enough cobblestones to install four brass Stolpersteine in a neat square.

After some discussion, we decided to place the stones with my grandparent’s names on top of the square. Directly underneath were installed the stones for their children: my father, Isidor Stern, and my uncle Naftali. The stones for Natan, Leibe, and Naftali were engraved with their dates of birth, expulsion, and death. The stone for my father was engraved with his date of birth and date that he fled from his home.

After the installation, Mr. Demnig and his assistant drove off to another installation. I read a memorial text that I had prepared, torn between intense satisfaction and great pangs of anguish.

One of the Lauder Yeshiva teachers spoke in Hebrew about my family and the ceremony. A young Israeli man said Kaddish, and another teacher recited Kel Malei Rachamim.

I wish I knew the teachers’ names, but everything happened so quickly, and the children had to return to school. I took pictures, and the residents of the building scattered roses around the stones. One invited me and Tatyana inside to show us the apartment. By 10:30, everyone had returned to their Monday morning routine, and a sense of peace descended on 6 Lottumstrasse.

After some quiet time for reflection, we walked back to our hotel, passing by the shul where my family davened and my father attended school, and the street where my great-grandfather had owned a butcher store. We collected our belongings, and before we knew it we were back at the airport for our return flight to JFK.

This Shabbos is Rosh Chodesh Elul. The sixth of Elul falls out on Aug. 17, the anniversary of the massacre at Mszana Dolna, the yahrzeit of Natan and Leibe Stern and the other 879 martyrs who share their grave. In Mszana Dolna, the mayor will hold a ceremony at the gravesite with the town’s high school students, as is done every year. And this year, at 6 Lottumstrasse, for the very first time, the friends I made in Berlin will say Kaddish for my grandparents and pay tribute to their lives.

The photograph of my family remains on display at the front entrance to the building, and the residents lovingly polish the stones on a regular basis.In Berlin, my family is remembered, and it brings me a small measure of solace.