The Individual Behind the Stone

Published July 10, 2018 by Peter Garry

Stolpersteine, Stumbling Stones, Belgium, Brussels, Gunter Demnig, Berlin, Germany, Abba Kovner, European, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Yad Vashem, Holocaust

Peter Garry reflects on using the Stolpersteine to teach secondary school students about pre-war European Jewish life.

2017/2018 USHMM Teacher Fellowship cohort

Last year, I was privileged to become a part of the 2017/2018 United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Teacher Fellowship Programme. Following an intensive five-day immersion in advanced historical and pedagogical issues associated with teaching the Holocaust at the museum in Washington DC, I returned to Belgium with the task of creating and implementing an outreach programme.

I wanted to try and create a teaching resource that would have both a local and European dimension. The aim of the local dimension was to show how the Holocaust affected Jews in Belgium, while the European dimension would allow the resource to be adapted and modified to suit any European country.

The Stolpersteine or Stumbling Stones offered me both of these dimensions. While the project began in Berlin in 1996, the first Stolpersteine were not laid in Belgium until 2009. Anecdotally, it seemed that very few people in Brussels even knew of their existence, let alone of their actual significance. Consequently, I believed that a teaching aid based on the Stolpersteine was opportune.

The artist Gunter Demnig

As already mentioned, the first Stolpersteine were laid in May 1996, in the Berlin district of Kreuzberg by the artist Gunter Demnig. The first fifty stones were placed illegally; however, since then, the Stolpersteine commemorative initiative has become the biggest decentralised monument in the world. Today, there are over 7,000 Stolpersteine in Berlin alone; they can be found in over 900 different areas across Germany and there are approximately 60,000 spread across 17 countries in Europe.

The Stolpersteine are a way of not only showing the diversity and vibrancy of Jewish life in pre-war Europe, but also of paying homage to those who were deported and, for the most part, murdered during the Holocaust. By stumbling upon them, the passerby quickly compares himself, members of his family or even his friends to the age of the person who was murdered. You start to think about what if it had been you or your family who had been deported. What might you have done, if you had seen your neighbours being deported in the middle of the night?

However, while I welcome the personal names being put on the faceless numbers, the emphasis is still very much on the destruction, annihilation and the erasure of European Jewish life. The poet and partisan leader, Abba Kovner said, 'how can you know what we lost, if you don't know what we’ve had'. To truly understand the lasting effect of the Holocaust on Europe, we must understand pre-war Jewish life. We must have some idea of the vibrancy and diversity of life that had preceded the Holocaust.

Ruth Kluger in her memoir, Still Alive wrote 'I'm not from Auschwitz, I just passed through there'. As a teacher and someone who has been involved in Holocaust education for a number of years, I have seen first hand that not only are a considerable number of students aware of the number of six million victims, but they are also very familiar with death camps such as Auschwitz and with the methods used to kill people; however, in my experience, very few knew anything about the multi-faceted nature of pre-war Jewish life.

Consequently as part of my project for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, I wanted to create a teaching resource that attempted to show the lives, however ordinary or mundane of the people commemorated by the Stolpersteine. Both the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yad Vashem estimate that there were some 66,000 Jews living in Belgium before the occupation of the country by the Germans in 1940. Approximately 90% of them were refugees or immigrants, therefore only 10% had Belgian citizenship. When deportations to the death camps began in 1942, it was the foreign Jews who were first rounded up. The deportation of those Jews with Belgian nationality did not begin for another year. While many Belgian Jews were able to go into hiding with the help of non-Jews, the Church, the Communist underground, and the Jewish self-help group Comité de Défence des Juifs, there was, nevertheless, like in other countries collaboration with the Germans and the denunciation of Jews who were in hiding. Approximately half of all Jews from Belgium were murdered during the Holocaust.

Considering the number of Jews who had lived in Belgium before the war and ever-increasing number of Stolpersteine in Brussels, Liege and even Antwerp, I, initially, believed that the research would be relatively easy. My students and I were to learn otherwise.

Despite the significant help offered to me by organisations such as mémoire de la Shoah and the Auschwitz foundation in Belgium, there is very little information available on many of those Jews who had lived in Belgium before the Holocaust. It is an unfortunate testament to the effective methods of destruction utilised by the Nazis. Despite however, these initial challenges, I eventually decided to initiate the project with the Stolpersteine of both Felix and Felka Nussbaum.

The Berlaymont building

The Berlaymont building located at the Schuman roundabout in Brussels houses the European Commission. Since its construction, it has become a symbol of not only the Commission, but also of the European Union's presence in Brussels. Less than a two minute walk from the symbolic Berlaymont building, in front of house number 22 in rue Archimède lie two Stolpersteine commemorating the lives of the German artist Felix Nussbaum and his wife Felka Platek.

The Nussbaum Stolpersteine in 22 in rue Archimède, Brussels

While clearly not as well-known as the Berlaymont, these two Stolpersteine are emblematic of the vitality, diversity and richness of pre-war European Jewish life which was almost entirely lost during the Holocaust. I hoped that they would allow me to convey to my students what Abba Kovner meant when he spoke about 'what we had lost'.

We wanted to show the lives behind the Stolpersteine and to create a blog or website with the location of these Stolpersteine. In addition to the location, there would be some information about the person's life before and during the war, and also an audio file in more than one language about the person. The students would record the biographies in their own languages, which would hopefully also increase the eventual number of people who could use the resources.

Nussbaum family portrait

Felix Nussbaum was born in 1904 in Osnabrück in Germany. His parents Philip and Rachel were patriotic Germans; Philip was one of approximately 12,000 Jewish soldiers who had fought for Germany in World War 1. From an early age, it was clear that Felix had considerable artistic talents; he first enrolled in art school in Hamburg in 1922 and subsequently Berlin. In 1932, he was awarded a scholarship to study in Rome under the Berlin Academy of Arts.

Following their rise to power in 1933, Felix was forced to abandon his studies in Rome. He was no longer seen as a young, aspiring German artist, he was now considered first and foremost a Jew. His father, being a proud German patriot, belonged to the organization of World War 1 veterans, however, he too was also excluded following the National Socialist ascent to power. He had to surrender his membership and weapon. In his parting remarks, he said, 'for the last time, dear comrades in arms, I salute you as a loyal soldier... And if again I am called to the flag, I am ready and willing'.

Felix, his parents and his then girlfriend, Felka spent time in 1934 in Italy, however despite objections by Felix, his parents returned to Germany in 1935. They longed to return to the country they still viewed as home. This was to be the last time that Felix would see his parents.

Felix and Fekla first went to Paris and then later to the Belgian city of Ostende.

Above the Roofs, 1940

Following the aryanisation of Jewish businesses, Justus, Felix's brother, his wife, Herta, and their two-year-old daughter, Marianne left Osnabrück for Holland. Felix's parents would leave Germany for the last time in May 1939 to join his older brother in Holland.

The Germans occupied Belgium, along with Holland, in May 1940. Following interment in France, Felix managed to return to Brussels, where, along with Felka, now his wife, he would remain in hiding until 1944.

His paintings such as The Refugee, 1938, The Great Disaster, 1939, Above the Roofs, 1940, Self-Portrait with a Jewish Identity card, 1942 and The Triumph of Death, 1944 all capture the alienation, dehumanisation and ultimately murder that engulfed European Jewry. These paintings as well as several others by the artist give us a unique insight into the richness of Jewish life before the war and the descent to destruction following the rise of the National Socialists in 1933.

The Triumph of Death, 1944

On February 8 1944, Philip and Rachel Nussbaum, Felix's parents were deported from Westerbork to Auschwitz. In July 1944, Felix and his wife were arrested and sent to the transit camp at Mechelen, just outside Brussels. They were deported later that month to Auschwitz, where Felix was murdered on August 9. His brother, Justus, his sister-in-law, Herta, and their young daughter, Marianne were transported to Auschwitz on September 3. Three days later, Herta, Justus's wife, and Marianne, his daughter, were killed in Auschwitz. In late October 1944, Justus was sent to the Stutthof camp, where he would die of exhaustion some two months later.

Despite all the odds, Felix survived for more than ten years on the European continent, where following the Nazi rise to power, centuries of Jewish life were gradually obliterated. He began his life in Germany, spent time on the run in Italy, France and Belgium before finally being arrested and ultimately murdered by the Nazis in 1944. The Nussbaum Stolpersteine in Brussels commemorate the untimely end of an individual's life at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators. A mere two-minute walk from the most emblematic of European buildings and power in Brussels, one stumbles upon the Stolersteine of Felix and Felka.

Perhaps foreseeing the inevitability of his own death at the hands of the Nazis, Felix wrote, 'when I perish, do not allow my pictures to die with me. Show them to people'. By using the Stolersteine as a starting point, we see the affects of the Holocaust on European Jewry, and at the same time, the individual behind the statistic, the life the person led, before the Holocaust and ultimately as Abba Kovner said, 'understand what we have lost'.

Yehuda Bauer, in his book Rethinking the Holocaust, believes that there is no justification for turning Holocaust history into a hagiography of the victims. There is, however, ample need to illuminate the lives of Europe's pre-war Jewish inhabitants, no matter how ordinary their lives. It is only by studying the before, during and after that we can truly attempt to teach students about the Holocaust and in turn equip them with the necessary knowledge to fight the rise in populist anti-Semitic rhetoric that is unfortunately prevalent in many countries.

Since beginning with the Nussbaum Stolpersteine, we have started to research other Stolpersteine in Brussels such as those of Salomon Nysenholc, Lea Nysenholc-Frydman and the Sobol family. The poet Wladyslaw Szlengel wrote in 1943 in the Warsaw ghetto, 'I don't want to leave behind only statistics'. I hope in some small way our research is helping to ensure this.

Peter Garry is a PhD student at the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Studies, Trinity College, Dublin and has completed both the Bridging the Great Divide: the Jewish-Muslim Encounter and Jews, Christians and Muslims in Europe: Modern Challenges online courses with the Woolf Institute.We are currently accepting applications for Jews, Christians and Muslims in Europe: Modern Challenges.

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