Guest Post: Our Roots trip to Germany – How the Stolpersteine project was born

This is a guest post by Heinz-Otto Haag, who together with his wife Heidi was our host in the town of Michelstadt during our recent roots trip to Germany.


Heinz-Otto and Heidi Haag and Klaus Schimmel

 The Haags also did extensive research on our behalf to help us locate sites of family interest in Frankfurt. Below he explains how the Stolpersteine project – those “stumbling blocks” placed on the pavements – began and was carried out by Heidi and himself, and many of their friends and town officials.

Brothers stolpersteine

The Stolpersteine, “stumbling blocks”, commemorating my mother’s 3 brothers David, Herbert and Uri in Michelstadt

The idea was first proposed by a Cologne artist about 20 years ago and has since then spread to all the countries and territories which the Wehrmacht had occupied during WW II. Stolpersteine are 10 x 10 cm brass plates inserted in the pavement in front of the houses in which Shoah victims had once lived. Each such plate bears the name of the victim, his year of birth, and the date of deportation and/or death in the camps. More than 50.000 Stolpersteine have meanwhile been installed in more than 750 towns and cities throughout Europe.

The purpose behind this idea is threefold:

Firstly, Stolpersteine shall keep the memory alive of the victims and remind passers-by of this part of German history.

Secondly, they give the victims their names back. Every deported person who was not killed right away without any registration had his name taken away and replaced by a number. He had lost his identity. Stolpersteine are thus also a means of restoring the victims’ identity.

Thirdly, the victims have no graves or, as Paul Celan put it, “Sie fanden ihr Grab in den Lueften”. Remembering this, Stolpersteine are also a place where survivors and descendents can mourn and pray for their dead.

The initiative for installing Stolpersteine in a town may be taken by the town administration, by schools or other institutions , or by private groups or individuals. The activity is normally financed by private sponsors.

Stolpersteine before embed

Photo of the “stumbling blocks” before they were implanted in the ground

In our little town of Michelstadt, we started in 2008 with a group of five or six people asking locals to contribute money to our activity. In 2010, we were thus able to have a total of 59 Stolpersteine installed in our town.

Through our Stolperstein research we found contact to many descendants of Shoah victims from Michelstadt. Most of them let us generously have whatever documents, photos etc. they still had in their possession and told us their family stories. It was only natural therefore that we collected all this material and wrote a book about the Jewish families of Michelstadt which appeared in 2013 under the title “Ich gebe ihnen einen Namen” [These words “I give them a name” come from the Hebrew, from the Prophet Isaiah 56:5: ונתתי להם בביתי ובחומותי יד ושם – Venatati lahem beveiti uvechomotai yad vashem: “And I will give to them in my house and within my walls a memorial, lit: Yad Vashem, whence the name for Israel’s Holocaust Museum. -Ed.] Thereafter, we prevailed upon our town administration to send out an official invitation for a one-week’s visit of Michelstadt to all the descendants with whom we had been able to establish contact. In order to finance this initiative, we again collected money from local sponsors and in this way have meanwhile enabled our town fathers to welcome some 20 descendants of former Michelstadt Jews.

Michelstadt annual ceremony

The people of Michelstadt at the annual commemoration at the Stolpersteine

In all our activities, our primary objective was to cooperate closely with the Christian, Jewish and Alevitic communities of Michelstadt and, above all, with our local schools. In this way, we have since 2010 each year held a ceremony on November 9th (the anniversary of Kristallnacht) during which students of our schools lay a rose and a pebble next to every Stolperstein as a Christian and a Jewish symbol to honour the dead. The ceremony ends in front of each house by the crowd taking one another by the hand and together pronouncing in Hebrew and in German the words “Shalom alejchem! Friede sei mit Euch!”

Heinz-Otto and Heidi sent us the following beautiful message after we returned from our trip:

It has been a great pleasure for our Stolperstein-Initiative to welcome Anne Klausner and her husband, as well as her brother David Prager and his wife, here in Michelstadt – the place from which their grandparents had once been expelled during the dark Nazi era.

We are fully aware that for them the decision to set foot on German soil was not an easy one and we are deeply grateful that they have come nevertheless.

For us, the days which we were able to spend together with the two couples have been a wonderful experience and we have learnt a great deal during this visit. We were able to exchange opinions in an atmosphere of frankness and openness which has greatly impressed us. All topics could be discussed between us without any political taboos on either side. We will never forget this experience which has so much enriched us. It has also given us courage to continue our work, especially in contact with our local schools, in order to ensure that the coming generations may never forget this part of our history and defend our democratic system against any resurgence of neonazism.

Anne adds:

Heinz-Otto, thank you for this very interesting explanation of the Stolpersteine project.  This wonderful initiative raises many emotions in all those who read about it. May G-d grant you and Heidi the courage and strength to continue with your blessed work.

We wish to thank you for arranging a fascinating, educational, enlightening and emotional visit to Germany. You helped us to reconnect to our family history and also to the history of the Jews in Germany, something which too many people are not fully aware of. We also thoroughly enjoyed being in your company, just being able to get to know each other as regular friends.

The meticulous planning and arrangements for all our visits and trips were greatly appreciated, and of course how can we adequately thank you for hosting us at that beautiful hotel, Zum Gruenen Baum.

Since we’ve returned, all our friends and acquaintances, and especially our family, have been very interested in hearing about our experiences and have reacted very enthusiastically to our reports.

May G-d bless you all for the good work you are doing, for your courage and persistence in the face of objections, for fighting to preserve the memory of the Jews of Michelstadt.

One final postscript to our story. We were put up at a beautiful historic hotel in Michelstadt, Zum Gruenen Baum.

Michelstadt Zum Gruenen Baum

Zum Gruenen Baum Hotel, Michelstadt

The hotel has been in the same family’s hands for over 350 years. Barbara, the charming owner of the hotel, showed us a very old photo of the grounds of the hotel, from around 100 years ago, which hangs in the dining room where we had our gala dinner. In that drawing one can see the back of the synagogue where my grandfather prayed, and also the house next door which became my grandparents’ and my mother’s home. That house does not exist any more. What was of even greater interest was the little shack between the synagogue and the hotel. As Barbara explained, in that shack was the Mikve, the Jewish ritual bath, which was fed by the local river.  The river and the shack were both on the hotel grounds, but the family gladly allowed the Jewish community to use the ground for their own community’s use.

Michelstadt Zum Gruenen Baum pic shul and mikve

Behind the hotel Zum Gruenen Baum 100 years ago, showing the synagogue and the Mikve

Michelstadt Zum Gruenen Baum carpark

Behind the hotel today. The shack and the house are gone.

We saw this as an excellent example of the way the two communities, Jewish and Gentile, communicated and cooperated all through the ages until it was all destroyed.

Having travelled to our parents’ home-towns and spoken to many Germans, we came back to Israel with a great appreciation of the sincere efforts of so many good people to atone for the sins of the fathers, to make amends with the next generation of Jews, and most importantly to educate the next generations that such a terrible crime as the Holocaust shall never be able to happen again.

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7 Responses to Guest Post: Our Roots trip to Germany – How the Stolpersteine project was born

  1. JudyPt says:

    Hi Anne ,I very much enjoyed all your posts and photos of your trip,you squeezed an enormous amount of activity into the few days there.I was a bit tempted to join you ,but didnt quite have the desire to go to Germany ,after all that my family had endured.You are the next generation so its not quite as close but I still think it was a great idea to do this journey.I am Annes mum so these places have a special meaning for me, despite me being too young to remember the places.

    • anneinpt says:

      Thank you for your encouragement and support of our journey, even though we know it must have brought up some painful memories for you. I hope our journey can bring some closure to you and to all the family while educating the next generations about our family history.

  2. cba says:

    Otto, I want to thank you for your wonderful guest post here (as well, of course, for all the things for which Anne herself thanked you).

    This post brought me to tears. I am so moved by what you wrote, as well as fascinated to learn all you did.

    Would you consider writing another one?

    I have so many questions:
    – How did you hear about the Stolpersteine project?
    – What was your first reaction? When did you decide you wanted to implement it in Michelstadt ?
    – Were you nervous about approaching survivors and their descendants? Were the reactions what you expected? Were there any negative reactions?

    In closing, I would like to echo Anne’s words: “May G-d grant you and Heidi the courage and strength to continue with your blessed work.”

    • Heinz-Otto Haag says:

      good evening, cba, let me first of all thank you for your interest in our work!
      We first came across Stolpersteine during a visit to Hamburg where my wife Heidi was born. Hamburg is more liberal than most other cities in Germany and had the first Stolpersteine installed already before the turn of the millenium. My home town of Michelstadt, on the other hand, never cared much about its Jewish history although we had had a very lively Jewish community before the Nazis put an end to it. This was reason enough for us to get started. When we began, we had to face quite a bit of political opposition and many people regarded us as troublemakers. This situation has in the meantime changed for the better.
      As regards survivors and their descendants, they were all very helpful when we approached them, and we had the feeling they had been waiting for someone from their former home town to contact them. There were no outright negative reactions, but some of them just didn’t want to have anything to do with Germany any more – an understandable reaction!

  3. Brian Goldfarb says:

    Having been away for the whole period of Anne’s trip, I decided to wait until it was over to make any comments of my own.

    I can’t emulate Anne and her family, as my grandparents were born in Poland (paternal side) and Lithuania (maternal) respectively, and my parents were born in the UK early in the 20th C, and my wife’s father in Poland, while her mother’s family have a longer history in the UK.

    However, we both share Anne and her family’s ambivalence about visiting Germany. Despite this, we planned a trip with the two friends we went to Israel with and two other Jewish friends to Berlin. In the event, the “Israel friends” couldn’t make it, so just four of us went.

    In the event, it was interesting, even if, as Ros commented, we didn’t leave our hearts there (unlike certain other places we’ve visited). We saw the Stolpersteine, and had their meaning explained to us when we went on our “Jewish Berlin” walk. We were also taken to the station in West Berlin from which the Jewish population of Berlin were deported (those who watched the BBC programme by Alan Yentob on and with Judith Kerr (author of “When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit) will be familiar with this), and shown various buildings which used to be owned by prominent Berliners who were Jewish at the wrong time in German history.

    We also visited the Jewish Museum, especially its new Daniel Liebskind extension, which I found more effective than the others. What struck all of us was the fact that the steps to link from the new to the older part of the building just ended in a blank wall (in fact one turned left to explore the rest of the museum), but the steps were so organised as to appear to carry on through the wall: but not for the former Jewish population of the city.

    All that said, we all four felt that we had done it and we wouldn’t go back. Or at least we did then: we visited just as Protective Edge was kicking off (and we walked past but ignored a Palestinian demo near the Brandenburg Gate of rows of baby-sized coffins. One doesn’t need to be a political science genius to know what message that was meant to convey) and then, of course came the Charlie Hebdo massacre. And of all the European leaders, only Angela Merkel really came up trumps (shades of Anne’s armoured German police humvee).

    So perhaps we should be prepared to revise our view in due course.

    • anneinpt says:

      Thanks Brian for your interesting comment about your visit to Berlin. My husband was in Berlin a couple of years ago on business and couldn’t get over how much the Holocaust imbues the whole atmosphere there. He had not expected that. He said it seemed to be everywhere.

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