Saturday, April 17, 2010

A Question of Memory

Last weekend I saw a thought-provoking film which spoke to the question of memory. The film, Stolpersteine or Stumbling Stones, addressed how subsequent generations deal with the murderous history that occurred on their soil.

In reading the book “A Hole in the Heart of the World”, I found myself wondering how Jews who lived through the Holocaust were able to resume life in the same city as the people who sought their extermination. As those original people have died, both victims and those who murdered or looked the other way, the next generation was left to come to terms with this past. The film follows the story of Gunter Demnig, a German artist who creates “stumbling stones” , concrete cubes with a brass plaque that reads “Here lived”….together with the name, birth date, date of deportation and fate.. With the support of local municipalities, Gunter installs these in front of the homes where Nazi victims lived. Funds are raised locally for each stone and demand has grown substantially over time. Today there are 8000 stumbling stones in Germany, Hungary, Austria and the Netherlands.

What struck me in the film were two middle-aged women who polished the stones in Germany. They had gotten involved in the project through their women’s group. One spoke about how her father used to get angry if they raised questions about the war. He had been an SS officer. Since he died, his daughter has sought a way to respond to this troubling history. The stones are often controversial with Munich refusing to allow them while other cities anxiously seek to install them as soon as possible. I am struck with the different responses to memory, be it denial or an effort to set right the unthinkable.

I was touched with the efforts of Demnig and his partner as they painstakingly sought to restore each name to the victim, to acknowledge them in life as well as in death. Demning makes each stone by hand, resisting the ease of systematizing the process as that echoes too much of the Nazis’ process of systematizing murder. As each stone represents a life, he nurtures it into being. I saw a similar commemorative spirit when I went to Bad Arolsen, Germany. In a nearby village a man had created a museum to commemorate the Jews who once lived in his community. His effort was a heart-felt one and softened the unease I had carried with me on my first trip to Germany.

On a related note, through correspondence with a cultural center in Radom, Poland, I learned about a series of programs on the traces of the Jewish community in Radom. They asked if I would be interested in speaking with a group of high school students who are very interested in learning about the Jewish community that once represented 30% of the population of their city. In preparing for my travels to Radom, the one-time home of my grandfather, I have already connected with a young high school girl who was studying the Jews of Radom. I had shared information with her and she has offered to assist us while in Radom. So what is the source of this interest among young Poles?

I have read that Jewish culture is of growing interest within Poland. I am curious as to what feeds this interest. Perhaps the generation that lived through that time had to pass on before future generations could come to terms with the past. Poland was the site of pograms post-war as Jews returned from the camps to their homes which Poles had taken over. In Kielce, a city 45 miles from Radom, forty Jews were killed in a pogram in 1946 by the local Poles. This pogram began an exodus from Poland of the surviving Jews who concluded they were not safe in the cities of their birth.

The Holocaust is taught in the schools in Poland. So how does Poland process this past? What is the view of young people who are learning about this today? All questions I hope to learn more about in my travels.

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