It’s the beginning of the fieldwork grind – the part where I put in a lot of work and make something out of this trip. Today I observed Gunter Demnig install Stolpersteine at three different sites around the northern Tiergarten area of Berlin (the Hansaviertel, as it’s known locally). They were very different and all very interesting.
We had no idea what activities would be going on at the different sites, but when Karen and I showed up at the first site we could make it to this morning (after a bit of a late start out the door…) we found not an empty sidewalk, but a gaggle of school children, teachers, and family members.
My initial instinct was to think that this group had to be an example of the school groups who help Gunter Demnig with the Stolpersteine project by doing the research about Holocaust victims’ last home or business. I asked around and ended up striking up a conversation with someone that I thought was a teacher accompanying the group. He said he was actually a social worker from the school, but close enough for me. He informed us that the students were from the local elementary school, and while they had not helped do the research for this site, one girl’s mother was the sponsor for the stones being installed. (Each Stolperstein costs about €95.) The students, it turned out, were the school’s choir program! So they sang several songs accompanied by their music teachers (on acoustic guitar – think of the style of Edelweiss from The Sound of Music. Yes, I know it’s technically Austrian, and technically that Rogers and Hammerstein wrote it. That’s beside the point.) At any rate, the students were very good at singing, and nearly every song was sung as a round with three parts to make it that much harder.
Herr Demnig was running nearly a half an hour late, so we had a lot of time to watch the children sing and talk to the social worker, who also introduced us to the sponsor. When Demnig arrived, the installation only took about five minutes, and then he hurried off to lay a few more stones in northern Berlin that I knew Karen and I would not be able to make it to fast enough by public transit. I found out that Demnig and his assistant travel in a red working van with a lot of room in the back for the stones, tools, cement, dirt, etc. So while Demnig and his assistant drove on to the next few sites, Karen and I stayed to listen as the patron told the story about the girls who lived at this site during the Nazi regime. I didn’t catch all of it, but the important part was easy enough to pick up: “Ermordet in Auschwitz.” Murdered at Auschwitz.
During this mini-lecture, the social worker came up to us and explained that there was another group of students who were also there – a group of middle school-age students from a nearby Jewish school, with their teacher and a rabbi (or at least, I assume he was a rabbi.) They were the group that helped with the research, and their teacher said a few words about the process as well before the rabbi sang a very haunting chant in Hebrew and said the Kaddish.
After this was over, and I handed out some of my business cards to people I thought would be nice to stay in contact with, Karen and I headed off to find lunch before meeting back up with Demnig for more installations. I have the entire list and a map of the locations, by the way, which is how I knew where to find him at different points throughout the day. I’ll be doing the same thing tomorrow.
After lunch, Karen and I went to the next site on the list and met back up, quite unintentionally, with the sponsor from earlier. She had evidently sponsored four more Stolpersteine at this location, and again we waited several minutes for Demnig to arrive. There was no ceremony at this site because the sponsor, Demnig and his assistant, a couple of people from the Berlin organization that coordinates the legal aspects of placing the stones, and Karen and I were the only ones there. Demnig was much more open and congenial at this site, and he didn’t seem at all rushed like he did when surrounded by 50 or so kids earlier in the day! He strikes me as a very kind man with a huge heart to take on a project of this size, despite a somewhat gruff exterior.
The third installation was much like the first. This time, a high school class promoting diversity and tolerance had researched victims who lived at what is now the location of their school. The three new Stolpersteine were added to several that had been placed in the sidewalk in front of the school. Demnig was again surrounded by the students as he worked, and again did not say a word. After the installation, he hung around for a few minutes as the some of the youth talked about fighting against racism but then headed off again for the next site.
I hope to follow him around tomorrow to several more installation sites, and hopefully can talk to him a bit as we go along. As always, I’ll keep you posted as time allows.