This must be what it was like when German Jews were refugees

This must be what it was like when German Jews were refugees

This must be what it was like in the 1930s when Jews fleeing Nazi Germany created a major refugee crisis to which the response of Britain, the USA and other potential safe haven countries was a collective shoulder shrug of indifference – or outright hostility. This summer we have witnessed an unfolding crisis on a scale unprecedented since the Second World War, as desperate people risk their lives fleeing the civil war in Syria and the murderous advance of ISIS. With some noble exceptions, the prevailing response, especially here in the UK, has been once again to demonise fellow human beings. Continue reading “This must be what it was like when German Jews were refugees”

An encounter with Chagall in an old synagogue

An encounter with Chagall in an old synagogue

Marc Chagall, St Petersburg, 1910

Marc Chagall in St Petersburg, 1910

It was what some cynics might call a day of typical Mancunian gloom.  The mizzle was dreary and the light dismal as I stepped off the bus on Cheetham Hill Road and crossed over to the building that was my destination – a former synagogue that now serves as Manchester Jewish Museum.

With a history dating back two centuries, Manchester’s Jewish community is the second largest in Britain, one that grew rapidly during the first half of the 19th century as the city’s industrial growth attracted German-Jewish immigrants – shopkeepers and export merchants – as well as Sephardi traders from the shores of the Mediterranean. By 1851 there was a sizeable Jewish community, some of whom had begun to find homes in the semi-rural suburb of  Cheetham Hill to the north of the city.  In the next quarter century, three synagogues were established in Cheetham Hill, the last of them being the building I was making my way towards.

Manchester Jewish Museum

Manchester Jewish Museum, formerly the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue

In 1874, Jewish traders from Gibraltar, Aleppo and Corfu established the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue where a Sephardi, Ladino-speaking congregation would gather until the building became redundant as the Jewish population moved away from the Cheetham area. For a while, this must have been an intellectually vibrant community – just along the street stands another remarkable building – the former Cheetham branch of the Manchester Free Library,  built at almost the same time as the synagogue, in 1876.

In Monday’s mizzle and gloom the area looked less than vibrant. It has that typical inner-city look of clearance and absence: an empty street grid suggesting the disappearance of swathes of terraced housing and of a community, now replaced by one-storey small industrial and retail units.  There is evidence of the area being embraced by more recent migrants – on the next block Chappati Corner and Lahore Kebabish were doing good lunchtime business.

Jewish Museum 4

Inside the Manchester Jewish Museum

The old synagogue – a grade II listed building – re-opened as Manchester Jewish Museum in 1984 and tells the story of the Jewish community that settled here. Stepping into the main sanctuary, I spent some time studying its features, with the help of informative display panels and an enthusiastic guide who provided detailed answers to my questions.

Jewish Museum 1

The Torah scroll intended for Eichmann’s exhibition ‘Relics of a Defunct Culture’.

Stepping up to the bimah, the table from which the Torah is read, I found a Torah scroll displayed, one originally from Kutna Hora in Bohemia that formed part of a collection of Jewish religious items gathered by Adolf Eichmann in Prague in the 1940s and intended for an exhibition called ‘Relics of a Defunct Culture’. In 1964 Eichmann’s collection of 1,564 scrolls were brought to Westminster Synagogue in London. Most of the scrolls have since been distributed to Jewish communities across the world. This scroll is possul, blemished (not, I was told, because of its association with Eichmann, but because some of the words were now difficult to read, probably as a result of damp), so it cannot be used in a synagogue any more.

Jewish Museum 3

The Ark

With the Torah scroll before me, I looked across the hall towards the Ark – the most important part of the synagogue that contains the Torah scrolls. The original Ark was a gold box which held The Ten Commandments, given by God to Moses. Jewish communities across the world remember the original Ark with a replica in their synagogue. Instead of The Ten Commandments, a copy of the Torah is placed in the Ark and is covered with a pariochet (a curtain) just like the original.

Jewish Museum 3 Torah

Torah scrolls in the Ark

The Ark is on the eastern wall of the synagogue, since Jews face Jerusalem when they pray. Above the Ark is a stained-glass window with a design that incorporates a Menorah, the seven-branched lamp, symbol of Judaism since ancient times.

Jewish Museum 2

The synagogue’s stained-glass window with Menorah design

In an alcove I found a small display marking the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night in November 1938 when the Nazis unleashed a series of riots against Jews in Germany and Austria. In only a few hours, thousands of synagogues and Jewish businesses and homes were damaged or destroyed.

Jewish Museum Kristallnacht 2

Jewish Museum Kristallnacht 1

Exhibits in the Kristallnacht display

The exhibits focussed on the limited numbers of Jews – mainly children – who were allowed to settle in this country in the months following Kristallnacht.  There was a steamship ticket with which one individual had made the journey from Hook of Holland to Harwich, photos of children arriving in Manchester as part of the Kindertransport.  The children were placed in British foster homes and hostels, often the only members of their families to survived the Holocaust.  There was an example of a leaflet urging public support for the Kindertransport, and a booklet produced to help refugees adjust to British society.

Tearing myself away from these exhibits I made my way to a small back room where the reason for my visit was displayed – an exhibition of paintings by Jewish emigre artists who fled poverty and persecution in Russia to settle and work in Paris in the early 20th century. Entitled Chagall, Soutine and the School of Paris,  the exhibition features work by Chagall and Chaim Soutine, and other early modernist pioneers who were part of the ‘School of Paris’, a group of Jewish artists who, because of their common background, tended to meet frequently and whose artistic output was shaped by their Jewish heritage.

The exhibition features around twenty works of art by 17 Jewish artists, all selected from the collection of Ben Uri Gallery at the London Jewish Museum of Art. These artists were either born within Russia, or in countries then within the Russian Pale of Settlement. In flight from the poverty, persecution and restrictions of their native lands, they converged on Paris, the ‘City of Light’ in search of personal and artistic freedom, mostly in the first two decades of the 20th century. The majority (among them Chagall, Dobrinksy, Henri Epstein, Lipchitz and Soutine) lived and worked together in the collection of studios known as La Ruche (‘the Beehive’) near the old Vaugirard slaughterhouses of Montparnasse. Many, probably including Ben Uri’s founder Lazar Berson, also studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and exhibited at the progressive Salon d’Automne; together they had a profound influence on twentieth-century figurative art.

Many of these artists settled in France, and some applied for French citizenship.  Then came the Second World War and the Nazi occupation which forced them into exile or hiding. Several were deported and died in the concentration camps.

Soutine, La Soubrette (Waiting Maid) 1928-33

Chaim Soutine, ‘La Soubrette’ (‘Waiting Maid’) 1928-33

One of the headline paintings here is Chaim Soutine’s, ‘La Soubrette’,  acquired by the Ben Uri Gallery at London Jewish Museum of Art in 2012 – the first time the painting has been exhibited outside London.

Soutine was born in 1893 in a shtetl near Minsk, now in Lithuania, the tenth child of a poor Jewish family. He began drawing at a young age with encouragement from his family, but encountered opposition in his community for his defiance of the Talmudic interdictions concerning images. After he drew a portrait of the local rabbi he was so badly beaten by the rabbi’s son that he received substantial damages. He arrived in Paris in 1913, where he lived in extreme poverty at ‘La Ruche’ and studied at theEcole des Beaux-Arts.

Jackie Wullschlager, in the Financial Times, described Chaïm Soutine (along with Marc Chagall) as one of ‘the two greatest Jewish painters’ of the twentieth century.  In the mid-1920s, Soutine made an important series of paintings of beef carcasses executed in an expressionistic style, influenced by Rembrandt and the Old Masters, painted direct from decaying animal carcasses hung in his studio, which were later to influence Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. His powerful character studies, which include pastry cooks, choirboys, boot boys, bell-boys and maids, dressed in the uniforms of their trade, strongly evoke the individual personalities of their sitters.

At the onset of the Second World War, Soutine – as a foreign national – was placed under house arrest.  He died in 1943 and was buried in Montparnasse cemetery.  Although Soutine has long been internationally recognised as one of the most influential painters of his generation, his work is poorly represented in UK public collections: the Tate holds three Soutine landscapes, but this is the only Soutine portrait in a UK public collection.

Focusing on a single subject in an unadorned background, the painting depicts an anonymous, working-class figure in the uniform of her profession. Soutine’s gesturally expressive manner and tactile brushwork betray his direct engagement with his subject, so that he underlines the maid’s individuality rather than reducing it, capturing an expression somewhere between weariness and resignation.

Chagall, Praying Jew, c1920

Marc Chagall, ‘Praying Jew’, c 1920

Chagall’s first oil version of the Praying Jew was executed in 1914, modelled on one of the old beggars with tragic faces, who wandered into his mother’s shop in Vitebsk. This figure, wrapped in Chagall’s father’s prayer shawl, was the most overtly religious of the series and was one of the artist’s own favourites. Its combination of a Jewish subject, largely realistically painted but set against an abstract background, brought the picture immediate acclaim when it was first exhibited in Moscow in 1915. This version is from a series of 100 lithographs executed some time around 1920.

Chagall illustration Fables Jean de La Fontaine

Marc Chagall, The Horse and the Donkey, etching on paper, 1927

In 1927, Chagall began working on a project for the art dealer Ambroise Vollard – a series of etchings illustrating The Fables of La Fontaine, a classic text of 17th century France. The commission attracted controversy, with nationalist  critics objecting to the ‘Russian’ (an, no doubt unstated, Jewish) painter interpreting a beloved French text.  This compelled Vollard to defend his decision in an article: ‘Why Chagall? My answer is, simply because his aesthetic seems to me in a certain sense akin to La Fontaine’s, at once sound and delicate, realistic and fantastic’.  Buoyed by Vollard’s unwavering support, Chagall undertook the commission.

Sonia Delauney, Greeting Card for Galerie Bing, Paris, 1964

Sonia Delauney, Invitation Card for Galerie Bing, Paris, 1964

A nearby exhibit may date from 1964, but there is a Chagall connection.  In Paris before the First World Wasr, Chagall’s great friends were the painters Robert Delauney and his wife Sonia Delaunay. Sonia  was born Sarah Stern in 1885 in Gradizhsk, Russia (now in Ukraine). She grew up in St. Petersburg exposed to music and art, and learned several foreign languages. In 1905, she travelled to Paris, studying and discovering the work of Cézanne, Van Gogh, Pierre Bonnard, and Edouard Vuillard, as well as Matisse and Derain.  In 1908 she married the German collector and art dealer, Wilhelm Uhde. Through Uhde, Sonia encountered many painters, including Robert Delaunay who she married in 1910, after divorcing Uhde by mutual agreement.

Together Sonia and Robert Delaunay pursued the use of abstract colour in painting and textile design.  They were ardent promoters of abstract art in succeeding decades, and in 1964, after becoming the first living female artist to have a retrospective at the Louvre, the Galerie Bing mounted a solo show of Sonia’s  work – for which she produced the striking abstract design for the poster and invitation card, included in this exhibition.

Isaac Dobrinsky, ‘Head of a Girl’, c 1952

Isaac Dobrinsky’s father was a religiously observant Jew who made sure that his son was brought up in a traditional way: he studied in a heder (Jewish elementary school) and in a yeshiva (Jewish high school). Attracted to art, Dobrinsky moved to Kiev to study sculpture.  In 1912, he won a prize for his sculpture which allowed him to move to Paris where he lived until his death in 1973.

Dobrinsky spent the Second World War in hiding in southern France, returning to the capital in 1945. In 1950, he was invited by the founders of a home in Limousin which cared for children orphaned by the Nazis to paint portraits of the children. In the course of two years, Dobrinsky worked on about forty portraits of young boys and girls.

In Head of a Girl, Isaac Dobrinsky has portrayed a young girl, tight-lipped and with a blank stare. In contrast to her dark expression and bare surroundings, he uses a light, luminous palette and lively brush-strokes to capture her individuality.

Leon Bakst, La Peri, 1911

Leon Bakst, ‘La Peri’, 1911

Léon Bakst was born in 1866 in Grodno (Hrodna, now in Belarus) and studied at the St. Petersburg Academy and then in Paris before beginning his career as a magazine illustrator. After travelling through Europe, he returned to St Petersburg, and in 1906 became a teacher of drawing at a private art school where, among other students, he taught Chagall.

Rebelling against the dull and literal stage realism of the previous century, Bakst turned his painting skills to theatre design and in 1909 Bakst began a collaboration with Diaghilev, which resulted in the founding of the revolutionary Ballets Russes, of which Bakst became artistic director. His stage designs quickly brought him international fame. Most notable are his costume designs for The Firebird and Sheherazade (both 1910) and L’Apres-midi d’un Faune (1912). In 1910 Bakst was exiled from St Petersburg (as a Jew without a residence permit) and settled in Paris, where he died in 1924.

La Péri was commissioned by Diaghilev for the Ballets Russes in 1911 for a ballet composed by Paul Dukas. Bakst’s drawing evokes a sense of rhythmic movement enhanced by the exoticism of his decorative costume.

Henri Epstein, Forest of Rambouillet, c1931

Henri Epstein, ‘Forest of Rambouillet’, c 1931

Henri Epstein was born in 1891 in Lódz, Poland. His father died when he was three and he was raised by his mother who encouraged his interest in painting. He studied drawing in Lódz, then the School of Fine Arts in Munich. Epstein visited Paris in 1912 before serving in the Polish army, then returned to Paris and settled at La Ruche from 1913-38.

Although Epstein’s early art work was influenced by fauvism, he later adopted an expressionist technique. His work, lavishly and vividly painted, depicts landscapes, peasants working in the fields, fishermen at work, interiors, portraits, and nudes. Epstein lived for a time near the forest of Rambouillet, west of Paris and in this painting employs a predominantly green palette, free brushstrokes and generously applied paint to create a textured and vivid surface typical of his later expressive style.

Epstein bought a farm near Epernon, which became his refuge during the Occupation, until on 23 February 1944 he was arrested by Gestapo agents. Despite appeals by his wife and his friends, Epstein was sent to Drancy camp on 21 February 1944. He was deported on 7 March in convoy number 69 and killed in Auschwitz.

Chana Kowalska, Shtetl, 1934

Chana Kowalska, ‘Shtetl’, 1934

Kowalska was born in Wlockawek, Poland and was the daughter of a rabbi. She started drawing at the age of 16 and became a school teacher at the age of 18.  In 1922, she moved to Berlin and later to Paris. She worked as a journalist and wrote articles about painting for Jewish newspapers. In the Second World War, during the German Occupation of France, she worked for the French Resistance. Arrested by the Gestapo, she was first imprisoned with her husband, then deported and shot by the Nazis in 1941.

In Shtetl Kowalska depicts the traditional Jewish small town with its tightly-knit community common throughout Eastern Europe before the Holocaust.  Neighbours gather round the water pump at the town’s centre while a  horse-drawn cart winding up a street lined with traditional, single-storey houses records a way of life that was soon to disappear. Already in Kowalska’s vision, pavements, telegraph poles and street lights signify the arrival of modernity, while the dome in the distance suggests continuing tradition. Many of Kowalska’s paintings recall her homeland and their folk-like quality, bright colours and unnatural perspective suggest the influence of Chagall.

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Kristallnacht: the Nazi’s ‘aha! moment’

Kristallnacht: the Nazi’s ‘aha! moment’
A Jewish shop in Berlin on 11 November 1938, after the anti-Semitic violence of Kristallnacht.
A Jewish shop in Berlin on 11 November 1938, after the anti-Semitic violence of Kristallnacht

On this night 75 years ago, the Nazis unleashed a series of riots against Jews in Germany and Austria. In only a few hours, thousands of synagogues and Jewish businesses and homes were damaged or destroyed. For the first time, tens of thousands of Jews were sent to concentration camps simply because they were Jewish. This event came to be called Kristallnacht or Night of the Broken Glass, a reference to the shattered glass from shop windows that carpeted the streets of German towns.

Kristallnacht was a crucial turning point in Nazi Germany’s persecution of Jews, and a significant stage in the evolution of the Holocaust. As Simon Schama crisply put in on BBC radio this week:

It’s incredibly important.  You can’t really overstate its importance: not because a thousand synagogues were burned or 90 people were killed or twenty thousand people taken off to what were then concentration camps – not killing centres, but places like Dachau and Belsen and Orianienburg – but because it was a theatre for the public.  And once people were humiliated and defiled, and their property was looted and synagogues were burned down and nothing happened except the sound of applause, there was a kind of aha! moment in the core of the Nazi party itself after which … the Final Solution.

shattered stained glass windows of the Zerrennerstrasse synagogue
The shattered stained glass windows of the synagogue in Pforzheim after its destruction on Kristallnacht

Officially, Kristallnacht was launched in retaliation for the assassination on 7 November of Ernst vom Rath, a German embassy official in Paris, by a young Jewish refugee named Herschel Grynszpan. That same night, Nazi regional Party leaders were gathered in Munich to commemorate the anniversary of Hitler’s (failed) attempt to take over the Bavarian Government in 1923.

When the news of the assassination came through, the Nazi Propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, addressing the Nazi leaders, raged that ‘World Jewry’ had conspired to commit the assassination and announced that, ‘demonstrations should not be prepared or organized by the Party, but insofar as they erupt spontaneously, they are not to be hampered’. Goebbels’ words were taken as a command for unleashing a pogrom. After his speech, the assembled regional Party leaders issued instructions to their local offices. Violence began to erupt across Germany and Austria through the late evening and early morning hours of November 9-10.

Ober Ramstadt, Germany. November 10, 1938
On the morning after Kristallnacht, local residents watch as the synagogue in Ober Ramstadt is destroyed by fire. The local fire department prevented the fire from spreading to a nearby home but did not try to limit the damage to the synagogue.

The shop windows of Jewish businesses were smashed, the stores looted, hundreds of synagogues and Jewish homes were burnt down and many Jews were physically assaulted. Around 30,000 Jews were arrested and deported to the concentration camps at Dachau, Sachsenhausen, and Buchenwald, where they were subjected to inhumane and brutal treatment and many died. During the pogrom itself, some 90 Jews were murdered.

flames pouring out of a synagogue in Siegen
A synagogue burns in Siegen during Kristallnacht. In the early 1930s, about two hundred Jews lived in Siegen, a small city 100 miles north of Frankfurt, Germany. Today there are none. In Siegen during Kristallnacht, the windows of Jewish homes were smashed and 11 Jewish men were sent to concentration camps. In May 1939, 41 Jews remained in Siegen. Four committed suicide shortly before the rest were deported to the death camps in 1942-43.

The rioters destroyed 267 synagogues throughout Germany, Austria, and the Sudetenland. Many synagogues burned throughout the night, in full view of the public and of local firefighters, who had received orders to intervene only to prevent flames from spreading to nearby buildings. SA and Hitler Youth members across the country shattered the shop windows of an estimated 7,500 Jewish-owned commercial establishments, and looted their wares. Jewish cemeteries became a particular object of desecration in many regions.

A group of people stand outside a Jewish-owned shop in an unnamed German town on the morning after Kristallnacht.
A member of the SA posts a sign on a Jewish shop urging Germans not to buy from Jews.
Jews scrawled on the exterior wall of the destroyed synagogue in Buehl
‘Jews’ scrawled on the exterior wall of the destroyed synagogue in Buehl.
Residents in Graz, Austria, watch as the Jewish cemetery’s ceremonial hall burns
Residents in Graz, Austria, watch as the Jewish cemetery’s ceremonial hall burns on 10 November 1938.

In The Holocaust, Martin Gilbert writes:

The Jews who had been seized during the Kristallnacht, and sent to concentration camps, experienced a foretaste of what that vengeance might be. On November 23 the News Chronicle, a London newspaper, reported the arrival of sixty-two Jews, including two rabbis, at Sachsenhausen concentration camp, north of Berlin. The arrested men had reached the camp gates under police escort from Berlin. At the gates, the police were made to hand them over to an SS unit. The sixty-two Jews were then forced to run a gauntlet of spades, clubs and whips. According to an eye-witness, the police, ‘unable to bear their cries, turned their backs’. As the Jews were beaten, they fell. As they fell they were beaten further. This ‘orgy’ of beating lasted half an hour. When it was over, ‘twelve of the sixty-two were dead, their skulls smashed. The others were all unconscious. The eyes of some had been knocked out, their faces flattened and shapeless.

A vandalized Jewish shop covered with anti-Semitic graffiti on 10 November 1938.

Simon Schama rightly refers to Kristallnacht as the ‘aha! moment’ for the Nazi party.  Historians have noted that after the pogrom, anti-Jewish policy was concentrated more and more concretely into the hands of the SS. Moreover, the passivity with which most German civilians responded to the violence signalled to the Nazi regime that the German public was willing to accept radical racist measures. The Nazi regime now intensified measures aimed at removing Jews entirely from German economic and social life, moving towards the policy of creating a Germany ‘clean of Jews’ (judenrein) by deportation of the Jewish population to the East and, ultimately, their annihilation.

Members of the SA march Jewish men through the streets after their arrest during Kristallnacht. Erlangen, Germany. November 10, 1938
Members of the SA march Jewish men through the streets of Erlangen after their arrest during Kristallnacht.

The Nazi policy towards the Jews was implemented by degrees. They were excluded from professions. Their shops were boycotted and attacked. They were stigmatised by vicious propaganda and forced to wear a yellow star. They were segregated. They were rounded up and deported in conditions of extreme cruelty. They were held in camps of unimaginable horror. And, in their millions, in a mechanised industrial form of killing, they – men, women and children – were systematically murdered.
– Jonathan Glover, Humanity: A Moral History of the 20th Century

For the Nazi regime, the aha! moment of realization came to embrace not only the response of their fellow-Germans to Kristallnacht, but also the lack of any diplomatic response from beyond the borders of the expanding Reich – revealed in an exhibition of  previously unseen historical documents that has just opened at the New Synagogue on Oranienburger Strasse in Berlin. The exhibition, entitled From the Inside to the Outside: The 1938 November Pogroms in Diplomatic Reports from Germany, is important, as its curators argue, for what the documents reveal about the international response to Kristallnacht:

What is noteworthy about the documents is what they do not contain. In this respect, they point to the failure of the international community and its far-reaching consequences. The diplomats almost unanimously condemned the murders and acts of violence and destructions. The British described the pogrom as ‘Medieval barbarism’, the Brazilians called it a ‘disgusting spectacle’, and French diplomats wrote that the ‘scope of brutality’ was only ‘exceeded by the massacres of the Armenians’, referring to the Turkish genocide of 1915-1916.  Nevertheless, no country broke off diplomatic relations with Berlin or imposed sanctions, and only Washington recalled its ambassador. Most of all, however, the borders of almost all countries remained largely closed for the roughly 400,000 Jewish Germans.

German civilians watch as the furnishings of the Mosbach synagogue are burned in the town square
Germans watch as the furnishings of the Mosbach synagogue are burned in the town square.

The unwillingness of countries that were soon to go to war against Nazi Germany to open their borders to Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution is picked up by Martin Gilbert in history of the Holocaust:

On December 2, the first train bound for Harwich with German Jewish children on board arrived from the Hook of Holland: two hundred children, all of them orphans, who had left Germany at twenty-four hours’ notice, each with two bags of clothing. In Britain they found sanctuary, as had more than fifty thousand German and Austrian refugees. But while tens of thousands found sanctuary, there were neither permits nor funds for the hundreds of thousands. ‘The first effort’, noted the provincial Council for German Jewry in Hull, ‘will be to save the children.’

The persecutions in Germany continued. The only possibility of bringing pressure to bear on the German Government, wrote one British official, Roger Makins, ‘is by retaliation, expulsion of German citizens, and by a clear indication that until persecution or spoliation of Jews ceases, the policy of appeasement is at an end’. But the policy of appeasement was not at an end. Nor were the gates of immigration to be opened by any country to the extent required.

A man cleans up on 10 November 1938 after the violence of Kristallnacht.

Kristallnacht reminds us … what happens when we don’t live by values of fairness, justice, welcome, hospitality, graciousness.
– Alexandra Wright, Senior Rabbi at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, BBC Radio 4

The Gunter Demnig stolperstein marking the Berlin address in the 1930s of Margot Bendheim.

For many years the German artist Gunter Demnig has been engaged in a remarkable act of witness and memory.  In towns and cities across Germany and other European countries he has created stolpersteineStolperstein (in the singular) is the German word for ‘stumbling block’. Demnig’s stolpersteine are small, cobblestone-sized brass memorials for the victims of the Nazi regime. Set into the pavement in front of the buildings where Jews once lived or worked, they call attention both to the individual victim and the scope of the Nazi war crimes. Over 40,000 stolpersteine have been placed in several countries in Europe, making the project the world’s largest memorial.

Cambridge historian Joseph Pearson writes:

It is not what is written [on the stolpersteine] which intrigues, because the inscription is insufficient to conjure a person. It is the emptiness, void, lack of information, the maw of the forgotten, which gives the monuments their power and lifts them from the banality of a statistic.

This week, the NPR website has the story of Margot Bendheim, whose Berlin address in the 1930s is marked by one of Demnig’s stolpersteine (above):

“I did not hear fire engines and we understood then that they didn’t come because they wanted the synagogues to burn,” she says. “We never thought that Germans would stand by, and not do something about it.”  Friedlander’s family knew then they had to leave Germany, but their attempts to emigrate failed until it was too late. Her father left without them, and her brother and mother were deported to Auschwitz, where all three eventually perished. Margot went into hiding in Berlin.  And it is because of those few courageous, gentile Germans who helped her that she felt able to return to Berlin three years ago.

Friedlander spends much of her time with young Germans, visiting schools and sharing her valuable testimony. She is adamant they should not feel guilt, but a sense of responsibility. And responsibility is something the German state takes very seriously.

The same article adds this:

Stefan Redlich, spokesman for the Berlin police, states, “The Berlin police protects all Jewish schools, all hospitals, all kindergartens and all synagogues in the city,” he says, noting that 250 policemen stand guard in front of Jewish properties throughout the city.  But German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently said she is not proud of this fact: “I feel deep shame that there is not a single Jewish building in Germany without police protection because we still have to worry about anti-Semitic attacks.” Merkel’s concerns are justified. On last year’s Kristallnacht anniversary, vandals in the northeastern city of Greifswald removed a number of cobblestone memorials.

Stolpersteine in Berlin in memory of members of the Kroner family.
German Jews Pouring into this country Daily Mail, Saturday 20 August 1938
‘German Jews Pouring into this country’: Daily Mail, Saturday 20 August 1938 (from open Democracy)

In a letter in today’s Guardian a number of Kristallnacht witnesses, members of the British Jewish community, and other public figures write:

Many Jews left hurriedly to seek refuge in friendly countries, including Britain, but Britain was already in the grip of an “aliens scare”. Newspaper headlines declared: “Alien Jews pouring in”, and claimed that “Refugees get jobs, Britons get dole”. The media accused Jewish asylum seekers of “overrunning the country”. Despite wide public revulsion at the violence of Kristallnacht, powerful elements in British politics and business continued to admire Hitler and the Nazi regime.

Seventy-five years after Kristallnacht, racists and fascists inspired by the Nazis continue to attack minorities in Europe. In Hungary neo-fascists target Gypsies and Jews. In Greece Golden Dawn members and supporters brutally attack migrants and political opponents. Here in Britain, minority communities, especially Muslims, have been targeted in an atmosphere that is increasingly hostile towards migrants and refugees.

Mindful of this history, we are equally alarmed at continuing fascist violence and the toxic sentiments expressed by many politicians and much of the media against migrants, asylum seekers, Gypsies and Travellers. We stand shoulder to shoulder with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in their efforts to live here in freedom and safety, to contribute to society and be treated as equals. As Jews we stand together with all communities seeking to combat racism and fascism here and elsewhere.


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