The New Yorker
Oskar Gröning, who has become known as “the bookkeeper from Auschwitz,” was born on June 10, 1921, in Nienburg, a town about thirty miles south of Bremen. His father, a textile worker, was a fierce German nationalist and a member of Der Stahlhelm (the Steel Helmet), a paramilitary group that opposed the Treaty of Versailles and the Weimar government. While Gröning was growing up, his family lived next to a metal shop owned by a Jew. Gröning used to play marbles with the shop owner’s daughter, Anne. When the Nazis were coming to power, picketers appeared in front of the shop with a banner that said, “Germans, do not buy from Jews!” Gröning continued to play marbles with Anne, only now in a courtyard rather than out on the street. At the age of twelve, he joined the Stahlhelm’s youth league. He loved the uniforms and the military music.
An indifferent student, Gröning graduated from high school in 1938 and went to work at a local savings bank. He became a member of the Nazi Party just as the war broke out, and then, not long afterward, volunteered for the Waffen S.S. He had seen pictures of S.S. men in magazines and he thought they looked dashing.
“It was spontaneous enthusiasm, a sense of not wanting to be the last one in the game, when the whole thing was practically over,” he recalled more than six decades later, when asked about the decision to sign up. A photograph of Gröning from this period shows a fresh-faced young man wearing wire-rimmed glasses and a cap adorned with an eagle and a skull.
Perhaps because of his banking experience, Gröning’s first assignment with the S.S. was to work in a payroll office. From there, he was transferred to Auschwitz. Once again, his assignment was, in a manner of speaking, bank-related. The prisoners brought with them all sorts of money; Gröning’s job was to sift through it and periodically deliver it to Berlin.
“I saw practically all the currencies of the world,” he once recounted. “I saw them from the Italian lira to Spanish pesetas to Hungarian and Mexican currencies, from dollars to the English pound.”
Gröning knew that the prisoners had come to Auschwitz to die. This didn’t much bother him. Jews, he’d been taught since his days in the Stahlhelm youth league, were the enemy. They were conspiring against Germany and so had to be dealt with. As for the gas chambers, those were, as he once put it, just “a tool of waging war—a war with advanced methods.” But certain things he saw did upset him. One day, he was stationed on the Auschwitz ramp, where incoming prisoners were sorted into groups. When the process was over, the place, in his description, looked “just like a fairground. There was lots of rubbish left. And amongst this rubbish were people who were ill, who were unable to walk.” A child lay on the ramp. A guard pulled the child by the legs, and “when it screamed, like a sick chicken, they bashed it against the side of a truck, so it would shut up.” Gröning complained to his supervisor. If Jews needed to be eliminated, “then at least it should be done within a certain framework.” The officer assured him that such “excesses” were the “exception.” At one point, Gröning requested a transfer. His request was denied. Finally, toward the end of 1944, he was assigned to an active combat unit, which was sent to fight in the Battle of the Bulge. Gröning was shot in the foot, and a few months later he was arrested by the Allies. He spent two years in Britain as a prisoner of war.
Back in Germany, in 1948, Gröning took up his life more or less where he’d left off. During the war, he’d married; by 1950, he had two sons. He told his wife that he didn’t want to answer questions about his service, and his wife, who’d been a leader of the girls’ wing of the Hitler Youth, didn’t want to ask any. Gröning got a job as a clerk in a glass factory and eventually became the head of the human-resources department.
He retired in the mid-nineteen-eighties, and it was then that something changed—or maybe broke down—for him. A devoted philatelist, he got to know a fellow stamp collector who, it turned out, was a Holocaust denier. The collector gave him a pamphlet called “The Auschwitz Lie.” Gröning felt compelled to point out that the supposed “lies” were true; all the horrors that were said to have taken place at Auschwitz had indeed happened. He should know, since he was there. Gröning sent the pamphlet back to the collector, with his comments. A few months later, the comments appeared as a letter to the editor in an extreme right-wing magazine. Gröning, the onetime Nazi, began getting phone calls from incensed neo-Nazis.
Gröning set out to write a chronicle of what he had seen. He had copies of the manuscript bound and gave them to his sons. His older son didn’t respond. His younger son handed his copy back with questions in the margins. Gröning rewrote it. He continued to revise the manuscript for twenty years. Meanwhile, in 2003, and then again in 2004, he sat for lengthy interviews with the BBC. In 2005, he gave another long interview, stretching over more than five hours, to the German magazine Der Spiegel. (These two sets of interviews are the source for Gröning’s words, and also for the thoughts and feelings I’ve attributed to him.)
In 2013, he gave a brief interview to the Hannoverische Allgemeine Zeitung. “I do not feel myself guilty,” he said, “because I didn’t give anyone so much as a slap in the face.”
Gröning is now ninety-three. He is widowed and has trouble walking. A few months ago, he was charged with three hundred thousand counts of accessory to murder. His trial, to be held in the city of Lüneburg, is supposed to begin in April.
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” So runs Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s famous line, and it is one way to make sense of the seventy-year interlude between the war’s end and Gröning’s prosecution. This, at least, was the thought that occurred to me when I first read about the charges filed against him this past September. I was preparing at the time to make a trip to Berlin, to attend the raising—or, really, embedding—of a small memorial, known as a Stolperstein, in honor of my grandfather’s mother, who was murdered at Auschwitz. Probably, I thought, she had taken her last Reichsmarks with her when she was deported, which meant that those bills had passed from her hands into Gröning’s. It was a deeply creepy kind of connection, and I was led from it to others. Like Gröning, my grandparents rarely talked about the war, though they talked about everything else: my grandfather’s childhood in a small town near the Oder; my grandmother’s more cosmopolitan upbringing in Grünewald; the years just before the war, which my grandfather spent tutoring law students (including, he was proud to report, Kaiser Wilhelm’s grandson); the difficult first months in New York, when my grandmother cleaned houses in the furs she’d brought with her from Berlin. I do not know why my great-grandmother stayed behind when my grandparents emigrated. It was too difficult to ask about while my grandfather was alive, and now he is dead. So, too, is my grandmother.
When Germans discuss the Second World War, they often do so in terms of generations. There is the Tätergeneration, or perpetrator generation—the cohort that carried out the war. This is Gröning’s generation and that of my grandparents, except that in their case, instead of Täter, they became refugees. Then, there’s the zweite Generation. These are children of the war—Gröning’s sons and, in a certain sense, my mother, who was born in Berlin. The zweite Generation, too, is aging, and power is now passing to the dritte Generation, which is to say the perpetrators’ grandchildren.
The effort to bring Nazi war criminals to justice, if that is the right word for it, also divides roughly in three. The initial phase was the one scripted for the movies. The villains were demonic, the rhetoric stirring, and at the end came the satisfying snap of the hangman’s noose. At the first Nuremberg trial, which was conducted in front of four judges—one each from France, Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union—twelve Nazi leaders, including the commander of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Göring, and the Third Reich’s minister of foreign affairs, Joachim von Ribbentrop, were sentenced to death. (Hitler’s secretary, Martin Bormann, was tried in absentia; it was later discovered that he had died in the war’s final days.) Göring committed suicide before he could be put to death. The rest were executed. Their bodies were cremated and their ashes scattered on the Isar River. The United States conducted a dozen more trials of high-ranking officials in Nuremberg; these resulted in twelve additional death sentences and eighty-five prison terms.
The next phase involved lower-ranking Nazis, those who’d been responsible for the day-to-day business of extermination. A line had to be drawn between the innocent and the guilty. But where? Was every soldier who had worked in one of the camps, or who had rounded up the prisoners sent to them, to be pursued as a criminal? In his interview with the Hannover newspaper, Gröning argued that, if someone like him were to be prosecuted, “then where would you stop? Wouldn’t you also have to charge the engineer who drove the trains to Auschwitz? And the men who ran the signal boxes?”
At least in the West, the difficult task of drawing the line was left to the Germans themselves. To say that they failed at it is to be generous. A journalist named Ralph Giordano, whose half-Jewish family spent much of the war hiding in a basement, once called this the country’s zweite Schuld—its “second guilt.” Just as ordinary Germans had looked away during the Holocaust, afterward they looked away as those who had carried it out went unpunished. In the years immediately following the war, former Nazis found jobs in the civil service and also, in many cases, in prominent political offices. A list published a few years ago by the German Interior Ministry shows that, in the early years of the Bundesrepublik, government officials who had been members of Nazi organizations included at least twenty-five Cabinet members and a President. Hans Globke, one of the top aides to West Germany’s first postwar Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, had helped shape the Third Reich’s racial laws. (Referring to Globke, Adenauer is supposed to have said, “You don’t toss away dirty water when you don’t have any that’s clean.”)
It was not until 1958 that West Germany created a central office for investigating crimes committed during the war. It was granted no real power; all it could do was refer cases to district prosecutors. Meanwhile, the German judiciary, which was also filled with former Nazis, set about tying its own hands.
A crucial decision made early on was to set aside the charge of genocide. The term had been coined to describe the Holocaust by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish refugee who went on to advise American prosecutors at Nuremberg. With the adoption of the United Nations’ Genocide Convention, in 1948, many nations used Lemkin’s language to draft statutes that expressly addressed Nazi atrocities. But German jurists refused to make use of the category. It was, they argued, legally irrelevant, since, when the atrocities took place, the statutes against genocide had not yet existed. The same went for “crimes against humanity,” another postwar legal construction. To impose the laws retroactively, the jurists maintained, would be to repeat the sins of the Nazis, who had rewritten the legal code whenever it suited them.
If “genocide” and “crimes against humanity” were unavailable, then old-fashioned murder charges were still an option. Millions had, after all, been slaughtered. But the German judiciary was reluctant to pursue this path as well. In 1962, a key decision by the country’s highest appellate court held that those who acted “under the influence of political propaganda or because of the power of the ordering authority” should not be considered guilty of homicide, as they did not “exhibit the impulses” envisioned by “standard criminology.” An S.S. man who shot hundreds of Jews in the head or gassed thousands with Zyklon B was, by this account, not committing murder so long as he was acting on commands from above.
The net effect of all this was to draw the line between guilt and innocence awfully close to where the Nazis had. At Auschwitz, Belzec, and Treblinka, murder required sadism that went beyond camp protocol. And even in these cases—those of so-called Exzesstäter—the courts hesitated. How was a prosecutor expected to build a case when the witnesses, as well as the victims, had been exterminated? In 1974, an Auschwitz commander named Willi Sawatzki was put on trial for having participated in the murder of four hundred Hungarian Jewish children, who were pushed into a pit and burned alive. (The camp’s supply of Zyklon B had run short.) Sawatzki was acquitted after the prosecution’s key witness was deemed unfit to testify.
Approximately a million Jews were killed at Auschwitz, and along with them at least a hundred thousand Polish, Roma, and Soviet prisoners. According to Andreas Eichmüller, a German historian in Munich, sixty-five hundred S.S. members who served at the camp survived the war. Of these, fewer than a hundred were ever tried for their crimes in German courts, and only fifty were convicted.
Given this history, Gröning had little to fear from going public. After all, he had not, as he put it, so much as given a prisoner “a slap in the face.” What he did not foresee—and what no one else really did, either—was that there would be a third phase of prosecutions.
This phase began with the trial of John Demjanjuk, or, to be more accurate, with his second trial. Trial No. 2, which was held in Munich, began in 2009 and lasted almost two years. It is the subject of a forthcoming book, “The Right Wrong Man: John Demjanjuk and the ‘Last Great Nazi War-Crimes Trial,’ ” by Lawrence Douglas, a professor at Amherst College (and an old friend of mine). As Douglas, a war-crimes scholar, recounts it, the case is a key event in legal history and also the final act of a very black comedy.
Demjanjuk was born a year before Gröning, in a small town in Ukraine. He was drafted into the Red Army in 1940 but didn’t show up, because his family was so poor he lacked the requisite two pairs of underwear. He was called up again the following year. By this point, as Douglas notes, the Soviet Union had been invaded, and “no one cared about his underwear.” In 1942, Demjanjuk was captured by the Germans in Crimea, and converted from an enemy of the Reich to one of its henchmen. He became a member of a sort of auxiliary to the S.S., which was made up of East European collaborators, and was sent to work as a guard at Sobibór, an extermination camp in eastern Poland. At Sobibór, more than a hundred and fifty thousand Jews were killed in a matter of eighteen months. Somewhere along the line, Demjanjuk, like Gröning, received a blood-type tattoo on the underside of his left arm.
Following the war, Demjanjuk spent several years as a displaced person, bouncing from one D.P. camp to another. When the Cold War prompted the United States to revise its immigration policy in favor of applicants from behind the Iron Curtain, he became a beneficiary. In 1952, he moved to Ohio and got a job at a Ford plant. In 1958, he became a U.S. citizen and Americanized his name, changing it from Ivan to John. He lived with his wife and three kids in suburban Cleveland until the Cold War again intervened.
By the mid-nineteen-seventies, it had become clear that lots of seemingly innocent refugees who had been admitted to the United States were, in fact, anything but. In one particularly infamous case, Hermine Braunsteiner Ryan, a housewife living in Queens, was revealed to have been the Stomping Mare of the Majdanek concentration camp, a guard known for brutally kicking prisoners with her boots. (When Joseph Lelyveld, then a young reporter at the Times, showed up at Braunsteiner Ryan’s door, her reaction was “This is the end of everything for me.”) The Soviets, as Douglas writes, saw the situation as an opportunity. In 1975, they gave a Ukrainian-American newspaper a list of purported war criminals living in the United States. On this list was Ivan Demjanjuk.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service began looking into Demjanjuk’s past. In the paperwork he had filled out as a D.P., Demjanjuk had neglected to mention his employment as a camp guard. But he had listed the town of Sobibór as his place of residence for most of the war. Since exterminating Jews had been the town’s only business during those years, that was certainly suggestive.
The events that followed could have been scripted by the Coen brothers. Several Holocaust survivors who were shown photographs of Demjanjuk told investigators that they recognized him; actually, though, they misrecognized him. Demjanjuk resembled another Ivan, who had been a guard a hundred miles to the north, at Treblinka. That Ivan had been so fanatically savage he was referred to by prisoners as Ivan the Terrible. Demjanjuk was stripped of his U.S. citizenship and extradited to Israel to stand trial.
Throughout his trial, in Jerusalem, Demjanjuk maintained that he had never been at Treblinka. What’s more, he claimed, he had never been in Sobibór—this was just a name he had picked off a map. “If I had really been in that terrible place, would I have been stupid enough to say so?” he asked. On the basis of often vivid testimony from Treblinka survivors—“I carry this demon within me; I see him everywhere,” one said—Demjanjuk was convicted and sentenced to death. (The last person who had been executed in Israel was Adolf Eichmann, in 1962.) Since the case was a capital one, it carried an automatic appeal, which should have gone swiftly but didn’t. As the appeal dragged on, the Soviet Union collapsed, making available vast archives of war-related documents. Among these papers was clear evidence that Demjanjuk had worked as a guard at Sobibór, as well as at two other camps, Majdanek and Flossenbürg. One camp he had not worked at was Treblinka. In 1993, the Israeli Supreme Court overturned his conviction.
From then on, Demjanjuk was effectively a man without a country. He was allowed to return to the United States, only to be stripped of his citizenship once more and deported to Germany, where he was tried again—this time as himself. Demjanjuk couldn’t be linked to any particular deaths or acts of cruelty. By 2009, virtually all the witnesses who might have been able to place him at Sobibór were dead. Demjanjuk, who spent most of the trial lying on a gurney or propped in a wheelchair, sometimes appeared to be dead, too, Douglas writes. It was widely assumed that his would be the last Nazi trial, and that, like so many earlier ones, it would end in failure.
“It is entirely bewildering how anyone familiar with the German legal system could expect a conviction of Demjanjuk with this evidence,” a Dutch expert on Nazi-era crimes, Christiaan Rüter, observed shortly before the proceedings began. In May, 2011, Demjanjuk was convicted of twenty-eight thousand and sixty counts of accessory to murder.
Much of what I know about my great-grandmother came out of a box. After my grandmother’s death, in 2009—my grandfather had died a decade earlier—I went with my mother to my grandparents’ house, in Flushing, Queens. There, in a chest of drawers, we found cartons full of old papers. One of these was a very elegant, polite letter, dated July 22, 1933, informing my grandfather, who had been working as a judge in Berlin, that he’d been “placed in retirement.” This was “owing to the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service.” (The law, published on April 7, 1933, forbade all Jews except those who had served in the First World War to hold government jobs.)
Another was a copy of a letter from the Military Intelligence Division of the War Department in New York, thanking my grandfather for the material he had “so kindly loaned.” My grandfather had sent the division some calendars he’d brought with him when he emigrated; these contained photographs of German vistas that he thought might be useful to the U.S. military in picking bombing targets. There were letters my grandfather had exchanged with New York’s Air Warden Service—he was upset that he could not serve as a warden, because the captain of his Queens precinct had dubbed him “an alien of enemy nationality”—and lots of pages of legal correspondence. (In New York, my grandfather went back to law school so that he could pass the bar.) Among the many legal-size and letter-size papers were several smaller pages, about the size of an index card. These were messages my great-grandmother had sent during the war, via the German Red Cross. My grandfather was her only child, and after she’d been widowed, in 1929, she had moved to Berlin to live with him. The notes were typed out on a form that said Höchstzahl 25 Worte! (“Maximum 25 words!”) My great-grandmother’s messages usually contained exactly that number.
“With great longing I am thinking of you,” one read, in part. “I pray to God that I will see you again.”
“Still no news from you despite my monthly letters,” another lamented.
“Beloved Children!” a third said. “I think a lot about you. I am very lonely.”
The notes were signed “Franziska Sara Maass.” My great-grandmother’s middle name was not Sara. Another Nazi legal invention was the Law on the Alteration of Family and Personal Names, which required Jews with first names of “non-Jewish” origin to take an additional one—Sara for women, Israel for men.
All of the messages from my great-grandmother were dated between March and October, 1942. On December 14th of that year, she, along with eight hundred and ten others from Berlin and surrounding towns, was put on a transport train to Auschwitz. On the record of the transport, she was listed as arbeitsfähig, or able to work. She was sixty-two years old.
After that, there were, of course, no more twenty-five-word messages. But my grandfather still hoped that she was alive. On May 5, 1945, three days before V-E Day, he sent nearly identical letters to the U.S. State Department and the Soviet Ambassador in Washington. (Originally Heinz Joachim Maass, my grandfather had by this point, like Demjanjuk, Americanized his name to John.) In the letters, he said that he would be “exceedingly grateful” for help in “tracing and assisting” his mother. He believed, he wrote, that she had been “deported by the Nazis with other Jewish residents of Berlin.” I do not know how he eventually learned that she had died. I also do not know exactly when she died, as that is information the Nazis did not record.
I hadn’t thought of doing anything to memorialize my great-grandmother until a couple of years ago, when friends who’d been living in Berlin told me about the Stolpersteine. They had spotted them all over the city. On some streets, there would be just one all alone; on others, whole groups.
When I looked into it, I learned that the Stolpersteine were a public art project, the work of a German painter named Gunter Demnig, who lives in Cologne. In contrast to most memorials, which aim to command attention, Stolpersteine are understated—literally underfoot. Each one consists of a block of concrete onto which a plain brass plaque has been affixed. The block, which is about the size of a Rubik’s Cube, is embedded in the sidewalk, or inserted among the cobblestones, so that the plaque’s surface lies flush with the ground. Every plaque is stamped by hand, as a gesture, according to Demnig, of opposition to the mechanized killing of the camps. A typical Stolperstein, in the neighborhood where I currently live in Rome, reads:
KZ MAUTHA– USEN
Demnig began laying down Stolpersteine—the word translates roughly as “stumbling stones”— in 1995. He placed the first ones on public land in Cologne, without the city’s permission. He installed a second group, in Berlin, the following year, also without permission. The very youngest members of the Tätergeneration were by then in their mid-seventies, and the ranks of survivors, too, were aging and thinning out. As the number of people who had witnessed the Holocaust shrank, interest in Stolpersteine grew, almost in inverse proportion. In Berlin, residents formed groups to find out who had been deported from their neighborhood. They then gave this information to Demnig. (The city eventually legalized the “stones.”) The effort spread to many other German cities—Hamburg, Frankfurt, Stuttgart—and then to other countries: the Netherlands, in 2008; Belgium, in 2009; Italy, in 2010; and France, in 2013. There are now more than six thousand Stolpersteine in Berlin, and more than fifty thousand across Europe. The project has been called the “largest decentralized memorial in the world.” Demnig installs most of the stones himself, and the project has more or less taken over his life.
“I never imagined that there would be so many,” he told me, when I finally met up with him. “There’s no end.” Recently, I checked the project’s Web site; it warned that Demnig’s schedule for the coming year was already “filling up rapidly.”
Anyone can sponsor a Stolperstein—the cost is a hundred and twenty euros—and so, in the fall of 2013, I filled out the paperwork for my great-grandmother. Usually, the stones are installed in front of the last place a person lived before being imprisoned or shot or deported. In my great-grandmother’s case, this was a single room in an apartment building in a part of southwestern Berlin where all the streets are named for Wagner characters. (She’d probably been forced to move there as the Nazis pressed the city’s Jews into tighter and tighter quarters.) When she wrote her message to my grandfather about how lonely she was, the address she used was Sieglinde Strasse 1.
After I filled out the forms, almost a year went by. Then, late last summer, I got an e-mail informing me that Demnig would be laying the stone on October 16th at 11:50 A.M.
Not long after that, out of the blue, I received an e-mail from a couple in Berlin who live on Brünnhilde Strasse. They belonged to a neighborhood group that had researched and financed dozens of Stolpersteine in the area. The group had been looking into installing some stones on Sieglinde Strasse, including one for my great-grandmother, and had been searching for information on her. I soon realized that, thanks to the Third Reich’s meticulous record-keeping, they knew more about her final weeks than I did.
Even as the Reich was preparing to murder her, its functionaries were giving my great-grandmother forms to fill out. One was a long, detailed questionnaire about her assets, which she completed just a few days before her deportation. She didn’t, at that point, have any assets, so she left most of the questionnaire blank. On page 16, she signed a statement swearing that she had not kept any funds secret. She acknowledged by signing the questionnaire that she was “aware that any false or incomplete disclosures will be punished.” (The document is preserved in the Brandenburg state archive, in Potsdam.)
On February 2, 1943, the value of all my great-grandmother’s possessions— two single beds, two night tables, a chaise, a rug, an old quilt, some assorted linens—was assessed at four hundred and ninety Reichsmarks, or, according to the official exchange rate of the day, about two hundred dollars. By the time the assessment was made, she was almost certainly dead.
The Demjanjuk verdict upended five decades of legal thinking. Simply by virtue of having been a guard at Sobibór, the court said, Demjanjuk had been part of the “extermination machinery.” It didn’t matter that no specific deaths could be attributed to him; he was still guilty. The response to the verdict, both in Germany and abroad, was, generally, to applaud it. Der Spiegel described the ruling as a “turning point.”
“The unspeakable required untold numbers of helpers,” the magazine said. “It was easier to forget these hundreds of thousands than to put them behind bars. Just as so much was forgotten. That has now come to an end.” Writing in the Times a few days after the verdict, Deborah Lipstadt, a Holocaust scholar at Emory University, called it “proof that the rule of law works, however slowly.” Somewhat more diffidently, Douglas observes that the verdict “demonstrated the power of legal systems to modestly self-correct.”
In response to the verdict, Germany’s central office for investigating Nazi crimes announced that it was looking to build cases against fifty former Auschwitz guards. “In view of the monstrosity of these crimes, one owes it to the survivors and the victims not to simply say ‘a certain time has passed,’ ” the head of the office, Kurt Schrimm, said.
But, of course, time had passed—from an actuarial point of view, way too much time. In September, 2013, the office announced that nine of the fifty guards on the roster had, in the intervening months, died. Others simply could not be located. The list of possible defendants was whittled down to thirty. In February, 2014, investigators presented twelve of the suspects with search warrants; the youngest was eighty-eight, the oldest a hundred. Three were taken into custody, then quickly released. One former Auschwitz guard, Johann Breyer, was living in Philadelphia. A judge ordered his extradition, only to be informed that Breyer had died the night before the extradition order was signed. Meanwhile, Demjanjuk, too, had died, in a nursing home outside Munich, while awaiting his case’s appeal.
In principle, the Demjanjuk verdict opened up “hundreds of thousands” to prosecution; as a practical matter, hardly any were left. And this makes it difficult to know how to feel about the latest wave of investigations. Is it a final reckoning with German guilt, or just the opposite? What does it say about the law’s capacity for self-correction that the correction came only when it no longer really matters?
Martin Luther King is eloquent on the long arc of justice and also on the short time available for action: “In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late.”
Last summer, I tried unsuccessfully to get in touch with Gunter Demnig. The e-mails I sent inquiring about his Stolpersteine project went unanswered. After some asking around, I learned that he would be laying several stones in Berlin the day before the installation on Sieglinde Strasse. I got a list of the addresses and decided to show up at the first one.
It turned out to be an apartment building on a busy street in the Kreuzberg section of the city. When I arrived, a few people were standing around in front of the building, chatting. Demnig soon pulled up in a red Peugeot van. He nodded a greeting, and immediately set to work. Demnig has wild gray hair and sad eyes, and he reminded me a bit of Bert Lahr in “The Wizard of Oz.” He was wearing a felt hat, clogs, and khakis, and had a pad strapped on one knee. He knelt down and dug some cobblestones out of the sidewalk. Then, in the hole, he placed the Stolperstein, which he’d brought with him in the back of his van. He sprinkled some cement powder around it and replaced most of the cobblestones. The Stolperstein, in memory of a writer named Erich Knauf, had an unusually detailed inscription; Knauf, it said, had been denounced, sentenced to death owing to “defeatist utterances,” and beheaded on May 2, 1944. (I later learned that Knauf’s widow had been presented with a bill for five hundred and eighty-five Reichsmarks to pay for the proceedings.)
Demnig still hadn’t said anything, and no one else had, either, though some of the bystanders had brought flowers, which they placed on the sidewalk by the stone. I introduced myself to Demnig, and, with some reluctance, he agreed to give me a ride to the next site. Things went much the same there, as Demnig installed stones for Martin and Erna Wedell, a couple who were both deported on March 2, 1943, and killed at Auschwitz, and at the third site and the fourth. As we drove along, Demnig explained how the project had originated. Back in 1990, he’d decided to commemorate the deportation of hundreds of Roma from Cologne by painting a white line on the streets showing the path they’d been herded along to the railway station. A few years later, the idea for the stones occurred to him. We talked a bit about his family. Demnig, who is sixty-seven, belongs squarely to the zweite Generation. His father fought first in Spain, when the Nazis went to the Nationalists’ aid, and then in France. After the war, Demnig told me, his father refused to talk about it: “You couldn’t get anything out of him.”
“He is long since dead,” he added.
The next day, Sieglinde Strasse was the eighth installation on Demnig’s schedule. My parents had come from New York, and they like to be early for things, which in this case was lucky. When we reached the street, fifteen minutes before the time we’d been given, Demnig was already packing up his tools. He had seven more stops to make that afternoon, and he soon drove off in his red van. Other people began to arrive. My parents had invited some friends from Hamburg and some from Munich. The couple from Brünnhilde Strasse came. They had taped a notice on the door of the building—a four-story apartment house that now looks quite elegant—announcing the laying of the stone. On it, someone had written, “Super! We welcome this action.”
It was gray and raining, and, with the Stolperstein already installed, no one seemed sure how to proceed. The only person there who had ever spoken to my great-grandmother was the daughter of my grandfather’s secretary, who had met her as a small child and who still lives in Berlin. She offered a few words. My mother, who was six months old when she left Germany, said a few words. She had brought along some yellow roses and arranged them on the sidewalk. As a ceremony, it was anticlimactic, which, as I was walking away, down the Wagnerian-themed streets, struck me as appropriate.
There was never going to be justice for the Holocaust, or a reckoning with its enormity. The Stolpersteine, in a way, acknowledge this. They don’t presume to do too much. That is perhaps why they work. And perhaps the Gröning case and any others that may follow should be approached in a similar spirit. They should be regarded less as trials than as ceremonies—another kind of public art on the theme of its inadequacy. ♦
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