MUNICH (MunichNOW News) — When 91-year-old Peter Jordan returned this week to Munich it was in spite of, and because of, his past.
He was just 15 when, in the summer of 1939, he fled the Bavarian capital and Nazi persecution of Jews to live in Britain.
His parents Siegfried and Paula stayed on and were deported and murdered in the Kauen concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Lithuania on November 25th 1941.
A decade ago Jordan returned from his adoptive home in Manchester as two brass plaques, dedicated to his parents, were laid in the pavement before their former home in the Mauerkircherstrasse.
The plaques, dubbed Stolpersteine or “stumbling stones”, are just 10cmsq. But their size belies their reminder that the Holocaust played out not just in Nazi Germany’s corridors of power, but also in leafy city streets when German Jews were led away under their neighbours’ noses.
There are over 6,000 such plaques in Berlin and over 50,000 around Europe. Project initiator Gunter Demnig says his plaques give back victims their identities.
“A Stolperstein before their home brings the remembrance of these people back into every-day life,” he said. But in June 2004, a month after the plaques were installed for Siegfried and Paula Jordan in the Mauerkircherstrasse, Munich city officials dug them up again.
“It was like my parents had been murdered a second time,” says Jordan.
Unlike almost all other German cities, Munich bans Stolpersteine in public pavements. Complicating matters, Munich’s leading opponent to the plaques is a Holocaust survivor. Charlotte Knobloch, an 81-year-old senior member of Munich’s Jewish community, disagrees fundamentally with Jordan and other Stolpersteine backers. For her, the plaques’ presence – not their absence – is the problem. For her, the Stolpersteine are a reminder of the humiliations she witnessed as a child in Nazi-era Munich, when Jews were forced to clean pavements with toothbrushes.
“People walk on the Stolpersteine or walk over them without taking notice, degrading the people once again,” she said.
The stones can be vandalised, spit upon or even smeared with dog excrement. Knobloch’s word was crucial in Munich city council’s ban. But opposition to this position has been growing ahead of today’s council hearing.
Knobloch refused to attend to explain her arguments again, attacking the event in a leaked letter as “tribunal” and “cross-examination”. For Terry Swartzberg, a member of Munich’s liberal Jewish community and leader of pro-Stolpersteine campaign, Knobloch’s letter changed the frame of the debate.
Today’s hearing, he says, is the consequence of several failed attempts to broker a compromise with Knobloch. “I’ve sat down with Charlotte and said ‘let’s make this happen without you being hurt and losing face’, but it hasn’t happened,” said Swartzberg (61). After years of unquestioning council support, he says backing for Knobloch has begun to crumble. Even her friends and supporters admit that her experiences as a Holocaust survivor do not give her veto powers on how to remember Munich’s 4,500 murdered Jews.
Munich city councillor Marian Offman, an ally of Knobloch who also lost relatives in the Holocaust, said he shares her distaste for the Stolpersteine. “The Shoah was the worst kind of humiliation, and it’s another humiliation to put its victims on show in public pavements,” he said. “On the other hand, it’s not for me to prevent other people doing this for their loved ones if that’s they want.”
For Jordan, this is the crux of the matter. In a letter to Knobloch he wrote: “How is it you believe you can speak publicly about what I find appropriate for my parents and other family members? It has as much to do with you as what I find appropriate for your family members.” The Stolpersteine debate has become part of a wider memory mosaic, a keystone in a public debate on how Munich and Bavaria has – or hasn’t – dealt with its history as the spiritual home of the Nazi movement.
As that debate rolled on, support has grown for the Munich Stolpersteine supporters from Jewish communities all over Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel and even Israel’s Yad Vashem memorial. Back in Munich this week, Jordan says he enjoys visiting his former home. But it still bothers him how “the past casts a dark shadow when people want to stand in the sunlight”. “I think many in Munich like to think of the city as a capital of art and culture and would prefer not to be reminded of the past,” he said.
“But I am an optimist and, at 91, I’ve seen many changes in my life. I am hopeful things are changing in Munich.”
— this story first appeared in The Irish Times