The First Stolperteine in Wrocław
“The stones I install are tangible proof of the existence of people who never had any burial or grave because they died in gas chambers,” says the German artist Günter Demnig. On February 2, 2016, he laid his first two memory stones – Stolpersteine – in Wrocław.
First we have to make clear why we consider the stones laid in memory of the Zorek and Treitel families the first of their kind in Wrocław, even though there have officially been similar memorials installed here before.
Until now, there had been only one memory stone in Wrocław: it was cast in memory of the Catholic saint Edith Stein. She was born in a traditional, religious Jewish family and made her way from atheism to Catholicism. In 1933, Stein entered a Carmelite Sisters monastery and assumed the name of Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. She died in Auschwitz in 1942, and her canonization is still controversial as there are those who doubt whether Stein deserved to be recognized as a Catholic martyr as she most likely died because of her Jewish nationality. Her last words, said to her sister who had also become a Catholic nun, were, allegedly: “Come, we are going to die for our people.”
Edith Stein was born in Breslau in 1891 and may be one of its most famous residents. In 2008, a Stolperstein was laid in front of the house where the Stein family used to live, at 38 Nowowiejska Street. It was indeed the first Stolperstein in Wrocław, but it seems to belong in a different category than the stones laid in 2016. First because Edith Stein is the only member of her family who was commemorated with a brass plate with her name on it that was inserted in the pavement instead of the usual concrete tile. Only Edith was commemorated even though three of her siblings also died in the Holocaust: her sister Rosa (also a nun) in Auschwitz, and two others in Theresienstadt. That makes this particular Stolperstein a monument of sorts, paying respect to a prominent figure. As such, it has little to do with Günter Demnig’s egalitarian project, which does not differentiate between more and less “important” victims of the Nazi regime. The artist, who has been working on this project for the past 20 years, makes it clear that his goal is to commemorate every person who fell victim to Nazi terror. Maybe not literally every single person, considering the magnitude of the Nazi crimes, but there have been over 45,000 Stolpersteine placed all over Europe – and more are coming. The artist illustrates his idea with a quotation from the Talmud: “A person is only forgotten when his or her name is forgotten.”
The only other place in Poland where a Stolperstein can be found is Słubice, a small town neighboring the German town of Frankfurt on the Oder River. The plate, installed at the former Holzhofstrasse 18 (today Kopernika Street), commemorates Karl Ritter, a German who openly criticized the Nazi party. He was sent to a concentration camp in Sonnenburg and took his own life soon after his release in the summer of 1933.
Ritter’s stone was laid in 2009 almost as an afterthought, because many memory stones were being installed at the same time on the German side of the border. Moreover, in Frankfurt there is also a square named after Ritter; he is a well-known figure, an ordinary man who found the courage to oppose the NSDAP. However, when the borders were redrawn after the war, Ritter’s house happened to stay on the Polish side, and therefore his Stolperstein also had to be installed there. As was the case with Edith Stein, Ritter doesn’t really conform with Demnig’s idea of the project. The artist made it very clear that he doesn’t want local or national governments to be responsible for choosing the people who are to be commemorated. He wants to avoid the risk of decisions being marred by any kind of political reasoning or affiliation.
Most of the Stolpersteine have been installed in Germany. When Demnig brought up the idea of his project in Poland, back in the late 1990’s, almost every bureaucrat in every city administration he approached had their own idea as to how to improve on it. Some wanted the Stolpersteine to be installed on building walls (so they would not be stepped on); others were worried the plates would be stolen (because they are made of brass, which is expensive); others thought the memory stones should only be laid for famous people. Demnig was supposed to lay a stone in Warsaw, but the legal procedure was so complicated and blocked by so many institutions that the families had to give up. The project was finally carried out in Wrocław after many years of bureaucratic struggle.
It wasn’t easy, though. Michael Zorek, whose family was the first to be commemorated in Wrocław (you can read more about their story on page 44), spent almost two years getting all the necessary permits. He says that it was finally possible only thanks to his own tenacity and persistence. Perhaps he also had a bit of luck; city officials didn’t realize the whole process would take so long and they tried to help Michael as best they could. Michael made hundreds of phone calls and wrote hundreds of emails, all this despite the fact that he doesn’t speak a word of Polish. He would have never succeeded if all he did was follow the advice given to him in various city departments. But Michael was persistent and creative. When he was told that he needed to provide an up-to-date photo of the townhouse where his father used to live, he found it on Google Earth and then emailed the owner of a nearby bakery and asked her to take a photo of the house for him.
In response to Michael’s questions, an employee of the city Department of International Cooperation prepared an 8-step manual on how to obtain all the necessary permits. It included department names, officials’ names, email addresses, and phone numbers. But when other people tried to use the manual for the next project, it didn’t work. Since February of 2016 (so almost a year now), two other families have been trying to follow the procedure successfully pioneered by Michael, but to no avail. Stolpersteine for their families have already been cast and all that’s left to do is to have them installed. Even though they have Polish friends making the phone calls, nobody wants to talk to them. They are being sent from one department to another or told to ask the employee who helped Michael to deal with the request on their behalf. The employee maintains that the procedure is outside his competence and he simply doesn’t have the time to assist every single family that wants a Stolperstein installed.
The families whose relatives were connected to Breslau describe their struggle as a never ending, frustrating story. They have a manual that doesn’t work, and city officers ignore them as if they were just some pesky supplicants. And getting permissions for laying the stones is just the tip of the iceberg. The waiting time for Demnig to schedule a visit and come over for the installation ceremony is currently more than a year.
Michael Zorek expressed his view on the issue: “I hope that in the future the City of Wrocław will realize that as generations die off, the connection to their hometown might be lost. The placement of the Stolpersteine in Wrocław has made a connection for myself as well as my children and hopefully, for generations to come. They will know that Wrocław is where their family came from and where they have a place to visit and are welcome.”
Currently two other families are trying, with help from their Polish friends, to obtain all the required permits. They plan to give it some more time, but if it turns out that their efforts are getting them nowhere, they will contact the Mayor of Wrocław directly.
So far Stolpersteine have been installed in two locations in Wrocław: at 95 Jedności Narodowej Street (the Zorek family) and at 39 Świdnicka Street (the Treitel family).
Translation: Aga Zano
Proofreading: Barbara Pendzich
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