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Stumbling over the past

In Berlin, more and more victims of the Nazis are being remembered
with Stolpersteine – brass plates, embedded in concrete, in the streets
where they lived. Andreas Kluth traces the stories behind the stones
On a hot July evening in 2012, Menasheh Fogel,
his wife and three children were returning from a
favourite haunt, the sandy beach at Wannsee, one of
the lakes on the western outskirts of Berlin. Fogel,
still in his beach clothes, parked near their home on
Bamberger Strasse, a charming street of old buildings
with high ceilings. As he unloaded their beach toys,
his wife started chatting with an older man on the
other side of the street. “He was just talking in English to anybody walking by,” Fogel recalls. “He came
off as a bit loony, but he was just emotional.” So Fogel,
still in his flip flops, walked over and started to listen.
The half-hour chat that followed changed the way he
relates to his street and city, its past and his present.
The man outside Bamberger Strasse 3 turned out
to be Howard Shattner, from Santa Rosa, California,

about an hour from Berkeley, where the Fogel family had lived until a year earlier. Like Fogel, Shattner
is American and Jewish. And this address was where
his family had lived before the war. In 1938, Shattner’s
father and two uncles fled Germany. But his grandfather Chaim and aunt Jente stayed. In September 1942,
the Nazis came to this building and took them away.
Twelve days before he met Fogel, Shattner had
commemorated his grandfather and aunt by embedding two Stolpersteine – “stumbling stones” – in
the pavement at Bamberger Strasse 3. He had come
back on this day to talk to residents and passers-by
about them. They are brass plates sitting on concrete
cubes of ten centimetres on each side. Printed into
each plate are the details of one victim of National
Socialism – Jewish, gypsy, homosexual or other – >

PHOTOGRAPHS MUSTAFAH ABDULAZIZ

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PLACES

> who had his or her last address at this spot. The
information is deliberately kept terse. The stone for
Shattner’s grandfather reads:
here lived chaim shattner
born 1867
deported 22.9.1942
theresientstadt
murdered 20.12.1943

Set in stone
The Stolpersteine
show the victims’ date
of birth, deportation
and death

There are now almost 40,000 such Stolpersteine
in several European countries, most in Germany,
thousands in Berlin alone. Some streets that used to be
centres of Jewish life teem with them. My own street,
in elegant Charlottenburg, is one. In front of my own
front door are five Stolpersteine, and they were among
the first things that my kids and I noticed when we first
came to look at the place. We bowed down and I read
the inscriptions out loud. My seven-year-old daughter
wondered what this might be about. Since she asked,
I began to tell them, for the first time, about the Holocaust. As I did so, some of our neighbours-to-be paused
and joined us and an ad hoc conversation arose – all
before we had even moved in.
In the same way, Fogel had also noticed Stolpersteine in the streets almost immediately after moving to Berlin. There were already several in his own
neighbourhood, Bayerische Viertel (Bavarian Quarter) in Schöneberg, not far from Charlottenburg. Built
by and for the bourgeoisie in the years just before the
first world war, this was and still is a well-to-do area.
Most of the streets are named after Bavarian cities,
hence the name of the quarter. But so many Jews once
lived there, Albert Einstein among them, that its other
nickname was “the Jewish Switzerland”.
Berlin, and all Germany, has many memorials
and monuments to the Holocaust. But for Fogel these
small blocks in the sidewalk made remembrance concrete and therefore more touching, immediate, even
eerie. “You can go to the Holocaust Museum in Washington or to the Holocaust Memorial here in Berlin
and it’s kind of impersonal and abstract. But this is
one person, in one place, and you can imagine what his
daily life was like.”
At first I assumed that the Stolpersteine were a
government project, organised by the city. Fogel had
thought so too. Then, during one of his German lessons, his language teacher told him that they were a
private initiative run by an artist, Gunter Demnig,
who was born in Berlin and now lives in Cologne.
“When I learned that the Stolperstein project was
actually a private art project and not something done
by a public agency,” Fogel says, “I actually got a little upset. I realised that while there are quite a few

Stolpersteine throughout Berlin, the streets would
be literally covered in them if all of the victims were
memorialised. It really made me realise how many
people could easily be forgotten.”
And so the Stolpersteine dredged up every conflicted feeling that Fogel, as a Jew, had about living in
Germany. Nobody in his own family died in the Holocaust. On his father’s side, he is fourth-generation
American; on his mother’s side, he is fifth-generation.
But he is still Jewish. And not only does he now live in
Germany, but he works there – in information technology – for Bayer. Today, Bayer is known predominantly for Aspirin, which it invented. But during the
Holocaust, Bayer was part of IG Farben, a chemical
conglomerate that made, among other things, Zyklon
b, the gas used in the death chambers.
Fogel had made a sort of peace with his mixed
feelings about his career move. As a tech guy, he is the
linear and logical type. “My left brain overrides my
right brain,” he says. “I have nuanced feelings because
Germany has dealt with the Holocaust so openly and
modern Germany has some of the most progressive
politics in the world – environment, governance, companies and all that.”
And yet, the past is always there, sedimented
into every place. Take that sandy beach at the Wannsee, where the Fogel family had been swimming just
before they met Shattner. On a warm day, there are
kids splashing in the shallow safe area, bigger kids tumbling from the water slide farther out, and off to the
right the nudists are enjoying themselves. But looking
diagonally left from the beach, one can see, just across
the water, a grey mansion. This is the Villa Wannsee,
where 15 leading Nazis met on January 20th 1942 –
nine months before Chaim Shattner was deported – to
decide the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question”.
When Fogel talked to Shattner that day, he
realised that sponsoring a Stolperstein was an uplifting
way of acknowledging and embracing those unnerving
links between past and present. Doing so is surprisingly simple, as Shattner explained. Private individuals
– Germans who are curious about what transpired in
their building, schoolchildren doing a project, surviving relatives of a victim, anybody who is interested
– conduct their own research about a victim at a specific address. They submit this to the artist, pay him
a small fee (€120) and then wait for their installation
date. (Such is the demand, the wait is currently about
six months.) Demnig usually lays the Stolperstein himself, often giving a talk as well.
But how to start? At Yad Vashem, the centre for
Holocaust research in Israel, one begins with a name.

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But Fogel was starting with an address, and had to find
out if any victims had lived there. He began by asking
his landlord what he thought of the idea. The landlord,
whose grandmother was deported by the Nazis, was
enthusiastic, and they started their research together.
Registration records, old phone books, government databases – information started piling up but
yielded little. Two things helped, says Fogel, who has a
goatee and dark-rimmed glasses and would blend perfectly into Silicon Valley. First, he is methodical and
tech-savvy. A Google Docs folder was soon up and
running, keeping family trees and other records organised. Second, as he says, “I don’t give up that easily.”
He compared address books from the years 193643. Any name at his address that did not appear in a
following year could have been a victim. He then ran
these names through the Memorial Book of the Federal Archives, a German database of victims. At last,
this produced one match: Max Nartelski.
The victims’ archive also listed other Nartelskis
at different Berlin addresses. Fogel’s search took him
further. Slowly, an entire family began to emerge on
his computer screen. It was a clan of victims, survivors and descendants. One day, a fortuitous Google
search pointed Fogel to an American website raising funds for Alzheimer’s research, and thence to
one Evelyn Nartelski. Now living in Michigan, she
turned out to be Max Nartelski’s great-niece. This led
to his first live conversation with a relative of the man
who had lived in his house, who had perhaps slept in
his own bedroom. Evelyn Nartelski’s recollections
brought his database work to life.

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Even so, Fogel says, “all I really know about Max
is that he was unmarried and drove around in a big
white car. I think he was a fabrics supplier for suits,
in business with his brother, maybe gay, in one of
these huge beautiful apartments, maybe mine.” Fogel
thinks he has identified Max in the one grainy family
photo that he has come across. The picture (overleaf)
shows a wedding party in a stately room with a high
ceiling – the men wearing evening dress and sporting
the moustaches fashionable in Germany at the time,
the women in their finery, the tables well stocked with
wine, the air one of bourgeois sophistication. The
room could have been in Fogel’s flat.

In search of the departed
Menasheh Fogel in his flat on
Bamberger Strasse, and BELOW the
paper trail linking his building to
Max Nartelski, a victim of the Nazi
regime

Max Nartelski, who turned 50 in 1938, was
one of nine brothers and sisters, most of them born
in Königsberg, East Prussia (today’s Kaliningrad).
At some point, the family moved to Berlin, settling
mostly around the Bayerische Viertel. An older brother, Jacob, lived around the corner on Regensburger
Strasse, in a gorgeous building above what is now an
Italian restaurant. It probably looked the same then as
now, Fogel says. Most of the quarter was destroyed
during two nights of apocalyptic bombing in March
1943 and another two nights in November of that year.
Beginning in the 1960s, the streets were restored to
their former style, with stucco colouring the stately
arches and turreted windows. Today, middle-class
families bustle about on the street, pushing prams in
and out of courtyards. Fogel imagines the Nartelskis
walking there in just the same way.
Jacob Nartelski, his wife and one son escaped >

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> Germany before they could be deported, and died in
America. Two other sons, Lothar and Günther, were
sent to Auschwitz but survived, and also died in America. Günther’s wife, Paula, and daughter, Rita, died in
Auschwitz, but with his second wife he had Evelyn,
who now lives in Michigan. And so it goes for every
branch of the clan, as for millions of other families:
some died, some survived, some now have living relatives. And of the living, many have lost their connection – to one another, and to the places they came from.
Gunter Demnig remembers one installation
where people from four countries came together,
knowing nothing about one another, and found they
were all related. Sometimes they come from as far as
New Zealand or South America, to some particular
spot where their family had once lived. At one installation near Bremen, where Demnig laid stones for a
whole family, including two daughters who had survived, “those two daughters showed up for the ceremony, and were unbelievably happy to be reunited in
this way with their parents.” They finally felt that they
had closure and could come back to Germany in peace.
Demnig calls his project “a decentralised monument” or, alternatively, “a social sculpture”. He
looks like a middle-aged version of Indiana Jones,
often wearing a Fedora and safari shirt that stretches
slightly around the waistline. But his voice has no bravado; it is high, almost timid, like that of someone who
spends his life questioning and thinking.
As the artist, he retains control over every part of
the process. Each Stolperstein is handmade because,
he says, any form of mass-manufacturing would
remind him of the mechanised and bureaucratic murder at Auschwitz. But to grow, the project relies on
the initiative of volunteers who grasp that, as a rabbi

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Extended family
The Nartelski clan
at a wedding. Fogel
thinks Max is the man
with dark hair and no
moustache just to the
left of the candelabra
and the right of the
doorway. His brother
Günther, who survived
Auschwitz but lost
his wife and daughter
there, is the young
man on the floor,
fourth from right.
Lothar, thought to be
the boy in shorts on
the right, also got out
of Auschwitz alive

in Cologne once told Demnig, “a human being is only
forgotten once his or her name is forgotten.”
Remembrance has been one theme of his art
career. Born after the war, in 1947, he remembers
rummaging through his attic as a boy and finding a
photo of his father, in Spain during the civil war, sitting in swimming trunks on a cannon that jutted out
“like an erect penis” between his legs. Demnig had
never really talked to his father about the war years,
but now realised that he had fought for Franco. He
was distraught. Like many in his generation of 68’er
Germans, he sought outlets to express his complicated feelings, in rebellion and in art.
Demnig began laying Spuren – “traces” or “tracks”
or “evidence” – of the past as art. In 1981 he drove from
Kassel to London, printing on the street a 4cm-wide
and 680km-long line of animal blood (250 litres, procured from butchers). In 1990, on the 50th anniversary of the Nazis’ first mass deportation of gypsies, he
walked with one of his strange printing-wheel contraptions through Cologne, chalking the words “May 1940
– 1,000 Roma and Sinti” on the pavement. When the
chalk began to wash off, he tried to make parts of that
Spur permanent with brass. And that’s when he had the
idea for the Stolperstein project.
At first it was purely conceptual since, as he
says, “laying 6m Stolpersteine in Europe seemed an
absurd notion”. Then he talked to a priest who said,
“Well, you can’t lay 6m, but as a symbol you could
start small.” In 1996 he laid the first Stolpersteine in
Berlin, illegally. Three months later, the plates – 51 of
them, all along one street – came to the attention of
the authorities when the stones impeded construction
work. They wanted to remove them, but the workers
refused. Bureaucrats came to inspect the stones, and
they were retrospectively legalised.

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HOWARD SHATTNER

PLACES

By 2000, Demnig was laying Stolpersteine legally.
But they were never uncontroversial. Every now and
then, he meets resistance from landlords who would
rather not have remembrance thrust upon them. And
right-wing extremists hate the very notion: Demnig
says he has received three death threats.
Even among those who want to remember, not all
like the approach. Most notably, Charlotte Knobloch,
who was president of Germany’s Central Council of
Jews between 2006-10, feels that the Stolpersteine
are undignified because pedestrians are in effect
trampling on a victim’s name. Knobloch still leads
the Jewish community in Munich, where she survived Kristallnacht as a six-year-old girl, so that city is
among the few that, so far, do not allow Stolpersteine
in public spaces, though some residents put them in
their private pavements.
Sometimes people suggest that Demnig should
instead place plaques on walls. He never liked that idea.
It would mean getting the consent of every landlord
piecemeal, which would slow the project down. And
he feels that people rarely look up to the plaques that
are already on buildings (and there are many in Berlin),
whereas they constantly look down at the ground.
He also perceives the act of stepping on a nameplate quite differently from Knobloch. “The more
people walk over a Stolperstein,” he argues, “the
greater the honour to the person who lies there.”
His original vision was that pedestrians polish the
brass plates just by walking over them, thereby “refreshing the memory each time”. Instead, it turns
out, people usually step around the plates, perhaps
associating them with gravestones, which they are
not. This means that the metal oxidises and turns
brown or even black, which in turn, ironically,
makes it look as though the Stolpersteine were left
untended. Often, residents then polish them the
old-fashioned way. A lady in my building regularly
lights candles and strews white roses around the
Stolpersteine in our street.
There is also the idea of stumbling across something unexpected, as implied in the name. Demnig
feels this was put best by a boy aged about 14 or 15:
“You’re not stumbling physically, you’re stumbling
with your head and with your heart.” For children
especially, Demnig says, stepping over the name
of a victim in their own street day after day makes
the Holocaust concrete as nothing in their formal
education could do. And, he adds, “one of the most
beautiful pictures, I find, is this aspect that, when you
want to read, you have to bow, before the victim.”
I sometimes look out of my own window and see
pedestrians doing just that in front of my door.

The day Howard Shattner’s stones came to Bamberger Strasse 3, Demnig was laying stones in another
country, so two apprentices came to do the installation. Spontaneously, Shattner asked if he could lay the
stones, took the hammer and did it. When Demnig
returned to Berlin, Shattner was still there and asked
to accompany him for a few days, with a cameraman,
to make a documentary. He also brought along a rabbi, Walter Rothschild, and they went around Berlin,
looking at one installation after another.
“My feeling about Germany changed completely
after my experience this summer,” Shattner says, on
the phone from his home in Santa Rosa. “People were
friendly and helpful. On the one hand I still have these
fantasies – that the person on the train, the S-Bahn,
at another time he could have killed me.” But on the
other hand, he found his actual contacts
with Germans to be healing. In his documentary, he shows one installation where
the tenants in a building had got together
to sponsor a stone. “One of the most special moments for me was talking to that
group of Germans. I was so moved by the
fact that they had no connection to the
person remembered, other than that he
lived in their building, so they researched
and wanted to have that memorial. It’s
much more meaningful to me that people
are doing this from their heart.” Before he
knew it, he was giving each of them a long,
deep hug. There is little body contact in
German culture, but these embraces came
quite naturally.
So this is yet another connection that the Stolpersteine help to make: not only between residents and
the places they live, between schoolchildren and a
past that their ancestors were responsible for but that
seems unfathomable to them now, or between random pedestrians pausing to reflect and striking up a
conversation – but also between Germans and Jews.
“As a Jew living in Berlin,” Menasheh Fogel says,
“I felt the need to connect personally to the Holocaust. Nothing felt any more personal than sharing the
same space as someone who had been deported.” His
research is now nearing completion. Soon he will get
a calendar date for the ceremony of laying the Stolperstein he is sponsoring. It will say:

In demand
Gunter Demnig, the artist
behind the Stolpersteine,
has a waiting list six
months long

here lived max nartelski
born 1888
deported 15.08.1942
riga
murdered 18.08.1942 n

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