Just around the corner from the hotel where we stayed in Berlin, in cobbled and tree-lined Fasanenstrasse, I found outside number 42 eight small brass plaques embedded in the pavement. They record the deportation from this town house of eight Jewish Berliners to their deaths in the east.
These small brass memorials are called stolpersteine (stumbling blocks) and there are now more than 5000 of them in Berlin (plus another 38,000 in 800 towns and cities across Europe), each one commemorating a victim of the Holocaust: whether Jew or Roma, dissident or homosexual, an individual consigned by the Nazis to prison, concentration camp or extermination camp, as well as those who responded to persecution by emigrating or committing suicide.
Stolpersteine are the creation of the Berlin artist Gunter Demnig, their name recalling the old custom in Germany for non-Jews to say, when they stumbled over a protruding stone, ‘There must be a Jew buried here’. The first fifty stolpersteine in Berlin were laid by Demnig without permission from the local authorities, but now there are initiatives in every Berlin neighbourhood – sometimes affiliated to museums, community groups or local churches – which organise the laying of stolpersteine, largely on a voluntary basis. There are many Holocaust memorials in Berlin, but for me the many stolpersteine encountered even during our brief stay in the city were the most effective in challenging even the casual passer-by to pause and reflect on the circumstances that led to 56,000 Berlin Jews being deported and killed between 1941 and 1945.
The Nazi deportations began late on the night of 18 October 1941 when groups of Gestapo agents spread out over Berlin and began pounding on the doors of Jewish homes yelling out that they were ‘hoarding goods’. Jews were torn from their daily lives, permitted to pack one small bag before being marched through the streets to collection centres – then deported to ghettos and killing centres in eastern Europe and concentration camps, including Theresienstadt and, later, Auschwitz.
After the Nazis came to power in 1933 a succession of ever more repressive laws restricted what work Jews could do, who they could meet and where they could go. Most Berlin Jews were fully integrated into German society and many hardly considered themselves to be Jewish at all – not practising the Jewish religion at all or being converts to Christianity – but this made no difference in the implementation of Nazi racial laws.
BORN 30 MARCH 1905 IN BERLIN
DEPORTED 2 APRIL 1942 TO WARSAW GHETTO
BORN 27 MAY 1901 IN BERLIN
DEPORTED 2 APRIL 1942 TO WARSAW GHETTO
The Erlich brothers – Ernst, 41, and Hans, 37, were the first residents of the house at 42 Fasenstrasse to be deported. Like many of those rounded up in the first few months of the deportations they were transported to one of the ghettos or killing centres in the east. For Ernst and Hans, their destination was death in the Warsaw ghetto.
LUCIE COHN (NEE. ABRAHAM)
BORN 19 FEBRUARY 1887 IN BERLIN
DEPORTED 17 AUGUST 1942 TO THERESIENSTADT
MURDERED IN AUSCHWITZ
BORN 19 NOVEMBER 1869 IN KROTOSZYN, POLAND
DEPORTED 17 AUGUST 1942 TO THERESIENSTADT
MURDERED 27 JANUARY 1943 IN THERESIENSTADT
Three months later they came for Lucie Cohn and her husband Markus. Lucie was 55 and had lived in Berlin all her life. A few blocks away, outside 120 Kantsrasse, is a stumbling block for Lucie Cohn’s sister Erna Ewer.
Markus Cohn was a senior manager at Carl Cohn & Co Shoe Wholesale Company in Rosenstrasse in Berlin city centre. The company was owned by his brother Carl. It was liquidated in 1937 under the Nuremberg laws.
On 17 August 1942 Lucie Cohn and her husband were among the 1002 people crammed on the train which left platform 17 of the Grunewald railway station, bound for the concentration camp at Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia. They were both murdered a few months later in Auschwitz.
META GRÄUPNER (NEE. LESCHNITZER)
BORN 12 JULY 1883 IN TARNOWITZ
DEPORTED 15 AUGUST 1942 TO RIGA
MURDERED 18 AUGUST 1942 IN RIGA
According to asset declarations from 1942, the 5½-roomed apartment at 42 Fasanenstrasse was home to the Cohn couple and four lodgers – Dr. Arthur Kallmann, Rosalie Okun and Martha Hirsch, and Meta Gräupner. At present, only Meta Gräupner is remembered with a stolperstein, just one of more than 25,000 Jews – men, women and children – who were deported from the German Reich to the occupied territories of the Soviet Union in the east. Meta Gräupner was deported on 15 August 1942 to Riga and murdered there three days later.
During the previous winter the ghetto in Riga had already been cleared in actions during which some 26,500 Latvian Jews were murdered in the woods outside the city by members of the SS and the police, as well as Latvian volunteers. As further transports arrived from the Reich, those regarded as unfit for work in the ghetto suffered the same fate. On 18 August 1942, Meta Gräupner was probably among those transported to the site of mass graves in the woods of Bikerniek and executed.
BORN 24 APRIL 1894 IN BRESLAU
DEPORTED 9 DECEMBER 1942
MURDERED IN AUSCHWITZ
Meta Brauer was born on 24 April 1894 in Breslau (now Polish Wroclaw). Her parents were Siegfried Brauer Brauer and Pauline, born Silbermann. After elementary school in Breslau, she trained as a milliner in industrial school before working for the Hugo Kohn fashion goods and clothing store. In 1910 she moved to Berlin and worked as a shop assistant. According to her brother Kurt, having achieved a well-established position and good income, Meta lived in a well furnished two-bedroom apartment, had an elegant wardrobe and fine jewellery.
In 1941 Meta was forced by the anti-Semitic laws to leave her job and her apartment and move in as a lodger at 42 Fasanenstrasse. Her last job – probably as a forced labourer – was with the company Hugo Prince in Spandau. On 9 December 1942, Meta Brauer was among about 1,000 Jews deported to Auschwitz, of whom 898 were murdered in the gas chambers.
MARIANNE ROTHENBERG (GEB. COHN)
BORN 28 NOVEMBER 1873 IN BERLIN
DEPORTED 20 JULY 1942 TO THERESIENSTADT
MURDERED IN TREBLINKA
The members of the Jewish population in Berlin had no idea of the fate which awaited them when they learnt of their imminent deportation to the East. They were led to believe that they were going to the newly-occupied eastern territories to populate and reconstruct those areas. They would have known, however, that Regulation 11 of the Reich Citizenship Law stipulated that a Jew ‘leaving the Reich’ would lose their nationality and their property. Guidelines stipulated that those selected for deportation could pack only absolute necessities. Moreover, the Jews themselves were required to pay for their deportation to death.
BORN 26 JUNE 1858 IN KÖLN
FLIGHT INTO DEATH
11 NOVEMBER 1942
Hundreds of Jews committed suicide rather than submit to the deportations. Aged 84, Auguste Zweig of 42 Fasenstrasse was one of those. In such cases the stolpersteine records the person’s departure from this life as ‘flight unto death’.
Marianne Cohn was born to a left-wing intellectual family of Jewish origin in Mannheim in 1922. Her family went to exile in Spain in 1934 and settled in France in 1938. When World War II began, her parents were detained at a concentration camp, while Marianne and her sister were sent to a farm. Marianne joined the Resistance and actively took part in the clandestine transfer to Jewish children to territories not under German control. She was arrested in May 1944, as she was driving 28 children to the Swiss border. Marianne was tortured in prison and then killed. She was 22 years old. She wrote this poem, ‘I Shall Betray Tomorrow’, before her death in July 1944:
I shall betray tomorrow, not today.
Today, pull out my fingernails,
I shall not betray.
You do not know the limits of my courage,
I, I do.
You are five hands, harsh and full of rings,
Wearing hob-nailed boots.
I shall betray tomorrow, not today.
I need the night to make up my mind.
I need at least one night,
To disown, to abjure, to betray.
To disown my friends,
To abjure bread and wine,
To betray life,
I shall betray tomorrow, not today.
The file is under the window-pane.
The file is not for the window-bars,
The file is not for the executioner,
The file is for my own wrists.
Today, I have nothing to say,
I shall betray tomorrow.
After each Gestapo raid on 42 Fasenstrasse, the door of a now-empty apartment would be sealed with Gestapo stamps (an eagle gripping a swastika). In her magisterial and definitive history of Berlin, Faust’s Metropolis, Alexander Richie writes:
Howard Smith remembered catching a glimpse of the small apartment next to his which had belonged to a pair of old ladies who were taken away that night. Two little china cups stood on the table in the middle of the room, still half full of tea.
Alexandra Richie continues:
The frightened and lonely people had been betrayed by the city in which they had lived for centuries. Many Berliners turned away as the columns of Jews walked quietly to the stations or were loaded onto trucks late in the evening. […]
With the residents gone the Nazis would return to the deserted flats, break the seals and hold public auctions of for the sparse goods.
Fasenstrasse, just around the corner from our hotel, is now home to the Kathe Kollwitz Museum at number 24 (more about that in another post). The hotel is on Lietzenburger Strasse, where several buildings now have stolpersteine memorials placed on the pavement outside. One of them – at number 72 – I found particularly interesting.
BORN 14 SEPTEMBER 1907 IN SCHOENAU
EXECUTED 13 MAY 1943 IN BERLIN-PLÖTZENSEE
BORN 7 JUNE 1910 IN BOPPARD AM RHEIN
EXECUTED 5 AUGUST 1943 IN BERLIN-PLÖTZENSEE
Maria Terwiel and Helmut Himpel were resistance fighters against Nazi tyranny. They belonged to a resistance group that became known (erroneously) as the Red Orchestra. Their struggle against the Nazi regime took a variety of forms: they helped victims of persecution, wrote and duplicated pamphlets criticizing the regime (like the White Rose group to which Hans and Sophie Scholl belonged), and established links to other resistance groups in Berlin and Hamburg, as well as representatives of the American and Soviet diplomatic corps. Following their arrest, both were beheaded in Plötzensee prison.
Maria Terwiel’s father was a Catholic and Social Democrat. Rosa, her mother, was Jewish. Like her father, Maria wanted to become a lawyer and began studying law in Freiburg before continuing in Munich. In 1935 she was forced to abandon her studies because, under the Nuremberg racial laws she was designated a ‘half-Jew’ and would therefore have no prospect of working as a lawyer. Until 1942 she worked as a secretary in a German-Swiss textile company in Berlin.
During her studies in Freiburg she had fallen in love with a dental student, Helmut Himpel. The pair were engaged and lived together after moving to Berlin, where Himpel opened a practice. They were forbidden to marry because of their Jewish ancestry.
Maria Terwiel was a Catholic, while Helmut was an evangelical Christian. They both joined the Rote Kapelle resistance group in 1941 after reading the sermons of the bishop of Münster Clemens August von Galen which preached against the Nazi ‘euthanasia’ programme under which those considered ‘life unworthy of life’ – children or adults with psychiatric, neurological, or physical disabilities – were murdered in order to remove those the Nazis regarded as a financial burden on German society, part of the policy of ‘racial hygiene’.
The couple helped distribute pamphlets containing extracts from the bishop’s sermons and calling for an end to the euthanasia programme. Soon they were helping Jews in hiding by providing them with identification and ration cards, writing and distributing illegal handbills and putting up anti-Nazi posters.
After her arrest by Gestapo officers at the apartment at 72 Lietzenburger Strasse on 17 September 1942, Maria Terwiel was sentenced to death for treason on 26 January 1943 by the Reich Military Tribunal. She was beheaded by guillotine at Plötzensee Prison in Berlin on 5 August 1943. She was just 33 years old.
Helmut Himpel was born on September 14, 1907 in Schönau im Schwarzwald, and studied dentistry in Freiburg and Munich. While a student he met Maria Terwiel. In 1937 the couple moved to Berlin where Himpel opened a dental practice. He had many prominent clients as patients, among others the actor Heinz Rühmann, but he also
secretly treated free Jewish patients for free, sometimes in their homes so that they were not required to walk the streets wearing the yellow star.
In 1941 Helmut and Maria came in contact with the resistance group organised by the Luftwaffe officer, Harro Schulze-Boysen, which would later be labelled ‘the Red Orchestra’ by the Gestapo. From 1935, Schulze-Boysen gathered around himself a circle of left-leaning anti-fascists, including artists, pacifists, and Communists, dedicated to publishing anti-fascist writings.
Both Helmut and Maria took part in group actions, particularly in the distribution of leaflets and pamphlets – such as Distress about Germany’s future runs throughout the land which denounced the ‘culture of lies’ which the Nazis had foisted upon the German people:
Minister Goebbels strives in vain to throw more sand in our eyes … But no-one can deny that our situation worsens from month to month. … No matter what lies the High Command puts out, the number of war victims is rising into the millions. … The struggle leads to new fronts and new mass graves.
The pamphlet urged the people of Germany to heed the warnings of the Catholic bishop of Munster and the Lutheran bishop of Wurttenberg that Hitler was going down to defeat. ‘Write to soldiers at the front’, urged the pamphlet’s authors; ‘Let them know what is going on at home. Tell them that Germans are no longer willing to submit to the yoke of the Nazi party bosses. … Let the SS know that the people abhor their murders and their betrayal from their deepest souls.’
Drafted by Harro Schulze-Boysen and two other group members, the pamphlet was reproduced by Maria on her typewriter, while Helmut ran off around 500 copies on a duplicator. The pamphlet was mailed out to an extraordinary range of influential figures, including anti-Nazi religious leaders, Hitler’s half-brother Alois, and Johannes Popitz, former finance minister and a conservative anti-Nazi. Even more strking was the inclusion on the circulation list of Roland Freisler, the bloodthirsty state secretary for the Ministry of Justice who had just returned from the Wannsee conference on the ‘final solution’. Most of the recipients declined to circulate the pamphlet as requested, and immediately sent them on to the Gestapo. (Anyone who has read Hans Fallada’s novel Alone in Berlin will recognise the scenario.)
In early 1942, the Red Orchestra intensified its pamphlet campaign, extended its support to victims of persecution and strengthened its contacts with forced labourers. The group became increasingly open in its activities, leading to controversy within the group about the risks involved.
On the night of 17 May 1942, hundreds of leaflets were posted on walls and buildings across Berlin protesting a Nazi propaganda exhibition, ‘The Soviet Paradise’. Two members, Liane Berkowitz and Otto Gollnow posted roughly 100 leaflets in the vicinity of the Kurfürstendamm and Uhlandstrasse while pretending to be lovers.
But, in the summer of 1942 the resistance network around Schulze-Boysen was discovered. The Gestapo labelled the group as the ‘Red Orchestra’ (Rote Kapelle) in its investigations and sought to present them as a Soviet espionage organization. This misrepresentation of their motivations and goals continued to distort German public opinion of the group, even after the war.
In late 1942, the Reich Military Court pronounced the first death sentences in connection with the Red Orchestra, including those imposed on Helmut Himpel and Maria Terwiel. In total, more than fifty of the group’s members were murdered. Helmut Himpel was beheaded at Plötzensee Prison in Berlin on 13 May 1943.
The military judge in the trial of the ‘Red Orchestra’ members was Manfred Roeder, regarded by Hitler and Göring as one of the hardest and most loyal military judges. He shared responsibility for the dozens of death sentences handed down by the Reich court martial to Red Orchestra members. After Germany’s defeat in World War II, there were attempts by survivors, family and the US Army to investigate the prosecutions of Red Orchestra members and others, but Roeder was never convicted of any malfeasance or crime. Instead, Roeder was a visible and active member of the CDU, serving in a number of capacities, including deputy mayor of his town.
Most of the residents of 42 Fasenstrasse would have been deported on transports that left the suburban railway station at Grunewald, on the edge of the lovely and extensive forest that lies on the western edge of Berlin. One day, after an hour’s walk through the forest, we emerging into the wealthy streets of opulent villas that surround the station. It was here, on platform 17, that Jews would be herded into freight cars to be deported east. Today the old platform from which the deportation trains left has been turned into one of the most important and moving memorials to the Holocaust.
On the way to Gleis 17 we passed the memorial commissioned by the state of Berlin and created by Polish artist Karol Broniatowski. It’s a huge concrete block from which human silhouettes have been hollowed out to represent the journey to the platform for deportation – and the lives that disappeared from the city.
In 1933 the Jewish population of Berlin was about 160,000. Berlin’s Jewish community was the largest in Germany, comprising more than 32 percent of all Jews in the country. By 1939 Joseph Goebbels was expressing his longing to rid Berlin of Jews and make the city ‘Judenfrei’. ‘These aren’t human beings, they’re animals … one must operate here, and radically’, he wrote.
The first deportation of Jews from Berlin took place on 18 October 1941, when 1251 Jews were transported to the Lodz ghetto in Poland. By January 1942, about 10,000 Jews had been deported from Berlin to ghettos in eastern Europe, mainly Lodz, Riga, Minsk, and Kovno. Elderly Jews from Berlin were deported to Theresienstadt in 1942 and 1943. Beginning in 1942, Jews were deported from Berlin directly to the extermination centres, primarily to Auschwitz-Birkenau. In total, more than 60,000 Jews were deported from Berlin: almost all of them were murdered.
For many years, both the Bundesbahn in West Germany and the Reichsbahn in East Germany were unwilling to confront the role played by Deutsche Reichsbahn in the Nazi crimes against humanity. In 1985, when celebrating that 150th anniversary of the railway in Germany, the management boards of the railways in both West and East Germany still found it difficult to even mention this chapter of railway history.
But by the time the reunified railways were merged to form Deutsche Bahn attitudes had changed. As Deutsche Bahn admits on the company website:
No business company can whitewash its history or choose which events in its past it wishes to remember. To keep the memory of the victims of National Socialism alive, the management board decided to erect one central memorial at Grunewald station on behalf of Deutsche Bahn AG, commemorating the deportation transports handled by Deutsche Reichsbahn during the years of the Nazi regime.
A competition for the memorial was organised and the winning design came from the architect team of Hirsch, Lorch and Wandel. Inaugurated in 1998, the memorial is composed of 186 cast steel objects arranged in chronological order and set in the ballast next to the platform edge. Each object states the date of a transport, the number of deportees, the point of departure in Berlin and the destination. The vegetation that has developed at Platform 17 over the years has been left to grow between the rails and now forms an integral part of the memorial as a symbol that no more trains will ever depart from this platform.
I was overwhelmed by this place. I walked the length of the two platforms that surround the single track, studying each steel plate that records every one of the transports that left here. I was particularly disturbed by the last plate, recording the final deportation of 18 Jews that took place on 27 March 1945; by that time US and British forces had crossed the Rhine, and the Red Army was advancing across Poland. A month later Berlin would be completely encircled.
‘There Is a Last, Solitary Coach’ was written by David Vogel, a Russian-born Hebrew poet, novelist and diarist who fled to south-eastern France at the outbreak of World War 2. There, in 1944, he was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Drancy transit camp from where he was deported. Four days later he was murdered in Auschwitz.
There is a last, solitary coach about to leave.
Let us get in and go,
For it won’t wait.
I have seen young girls going softly
With sad faces
That looked ashamed and sorry
Like purple sunsets.
And chubby, pink children
Who went simply
Because they were called.
And I’ve seen men
Who stepped proud and straight through the world’s streets,
Whose large eyes went ranging
Far and wide,
They too got in calmly
And we are the last.
Day is declining.
The last, solitary coach is about to leave.
Let us too get in quietly
For it won’t wait.
In November 2011, the Polish artist Lukasz Surowiec brought 320 birches from the area around the former concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau to Berlin, to ‘work against forgetting’. The trees are spread over the
whole city, including this small stand outside Grunewald station.
From Grunewald station we rode the S-bahn two stops to Wannsee where we hopped on a bus to Am Grossen, a lane bordered by elegant villas with lawns and gardens that stretch down to the shore of the lake. Here, at number 56, stands the villa where the plans for the ‘Final Solution’ were discussed – and methodically recorded.
Wandering through the stately rooms of the villa, strolling in the garden through beds of beautiful flowers, or watching the yachts sailing past on the calm water of the lake, there could be no greater contrast between the idyllic setting and the terrible plans conceived there.
It is difficult to imagined the SS thugs strolling in the same garden, or – in the conference room itself that overlooks the rose garden – discussing how to murder men, women and children in the most efficient manner.
At noon on 20 January 1942, a meeting of approximately 90 minutes took place in the dining room of the villa which served as a guesthouse for officers of the SD, the Nazi security service. Under the direction of SS Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heidrich, arrangements for the organised deportation and murder of Jews in the occupied areas of Europe were agreed. Although the Nazi leadership were agreed on eliminating Jews not just from Germany but also occupied Europe, they were not exactly clear on what should be done with them. The purpose of the meeting was to sort out this vexatious problem.
The meeting was attended by representatives of the SS, the Nazi Party and various Reich ministries, and convened by Reinhard Heydrich, Head of the Security Police and SD. The subject of the meeting was the ‘Final Solution of the Jewish Question’. Heydrich’s aim was to involve key ministries and party departments in the preparations for the murder of the European Jews.
Adolf Eichmann, Head of the section for ‘Jewish affairs’ within the Gestapo, summed up the results of the meeting in a protocol. According to this document, Heydrich told those present that the deportation of all European Jews to Eastern Europe had begun on the basis of ‘prior authorisation’ given by Hitler. He stressed that he alone had ‘overall control for organising the Final Solution of the Jewish Question’, irrespective of geographical boundaries. There was disagreement on whether to include so-called Mischlinge (persons with Christian and Jewish parents or grandparents) and Jewish partners in ‘mixed marriages’ in the deportations.
In 1992, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Wannsee Conference, the villa was opened as a permanent memorial site housing an exhibition – which extends through all the ground floor rooms of the house – documenting the history of anti-semitism in Germany, the role played by the various Nazi organizations in the Holocaust, the decisions made by the Wannsee Conference, the deportations and the process of extermination in the death camps.
On the Slow Travel Berlin blog, Robin Oomkes has catalogued the struggle to preserve the Wansee villa as a permanent memorial to the Holocaust. He observes that since 1992:
The nation has dealt with the horrors and wounds of its darker past in such a sensitive yet unflinching way that it has become a role model for other countries dealing with the aftermath of conflicts.
- Stolpersteine in Berlin: includes a searchable database and biographies
- Stolpersteine: an art project for Europe by Gunter Demnig
- Memorialization of the Holocaust in Germany
- When the Red Orchestra Fell Silent: New York Times
- Deportations to killing centres: Holocaust Encyclopedia
- The Track 17 memorial at Grunewald railway station: DeutscheBahn website
- Gleis 17 Memorial – Berlin Grunewald: Information Portal to European Sites of Remembrance
- The House of the Wansee Conference: informative website
- House of the Wannsee Conference: post from Dead Emperor’s Society, an excellent Berlin history blog