You Must Stumble
The memorials are made of concrete and covered in brass. Each one is the size and shape of a small cobblestone, measuring 96 by 96 millimeters. They’re called stolpersteine in German. Stumbling stones.
Gunter Demnig first conceived of the stolpersteine in the early 1990s. As Kirsten Grieshaber recounts in The New York Times, “The idea…emerged when he was commemorating the deportation of 1,000 Gypsies from Cologne by painting a white line through the city, showing where decades earlier they had been chased through the streets to the train station.” Confronted by an elderly woman who told him that Roma and Sinti had never lived in Cologne—never, the woman insisted, never—Demnig began to think about how the erased past might be made visible and palpable in the present.
Within the next two years, he began embedding small commemorations in the earth. Each stone represents one person, the words “here lived” etched across the metal. Demnig positions the stone in front of the last place the person chose to live. “It goes beyond our comprehension to understand the killing of six million Jews,” the artist explains, “But if you read the name of one person, calculate his age, look at his old home and wonder behind which window he used to live, then the horror has a face to it.”
I first learned of Demnig’s project several years ago, while I was working on a book of poems. I wrote that history was “a rock protruding.” And, once I finished the poem, I forgot about the stolpersteine.
Or, perhaps, it’s more accurate to say I filed away this form of memorialization in the huge catalog of the Shoah that is stored inside of me. I have spent the last twenty years studying this field. Academic coursework. Summer and winter programs in the interdisciplinarity of the Holocaust, how history and literature and art and theory must overlap to tell the full story of the horror. I lived for two months in the town of Oświęcim, or Auschwitz as it’s more commonly known. For four months, I held a fellowship at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., where I researched the transmission of trauma across the generations, a philosopher sitting in the cubicle to my left and a historian to my right. I have read hundreds of books on the subject, seen hundreds of films.
In other words, I am able not to weep when I read Anthony Hecht’s poem “The Book of Yolek” to a roomful of students: “the electric fences, the numeral tattoo.” At a screening of Night and Fog, I barely gulp with nausea when the bulldozers—with their huge, mechanical claws—shovel the knotted shapes that used to be people. If I give a presentation about the work of poets attempting to represent atrocity on the page, my focus is research and rigor; it is ethos and logos rather than pathos. “People often rely too heavily,” I warn the audience, “on the horror of the narrative to do the intellectual and emotional work of the text.”
In the stolpersteine project, every stone is grounded in research, the rigor of getting the names and dates right. The brass shines yellow-orange but is no less powerful for the coldness of its gleaming. In fact, if a pedestrian were to kneel before a stumbling stone, she might discover her own face reflected in its smooth surface.
I keep tripping over the crack between presence and absence. On Yom Kippur, I receive an email from a third cousin in London: a woman whose name I have never heard before. She is writing, my third cousin says, to repair the damage of a feud—”a broigus,” she calls it—that occurred between her mother and my paternal grandmother fifty years ago. After all, she says, it is the High Holy Days. In this season, we atone. We throw scraps of paper in the water and watch them float away. We acknowledge the dead.
When I tell my father about the email, he shakes his head. “I have no memory of any of this,” he says—not the fight from five decades ago, not the woman who was once so close to his own mother (both of them named Johanna for the same ancestor), none of it. How is this possible? I wonder. How can a quarrel have so hurt these distant relatives, while on our side of the family, the conflict became not so much silence but nothing, a hollow where a story could reside?
Along with the email, my third cousin sends me a series of charts indicating how we are linked. In one of the boxes on the chart, I locate my great-grandfather, Markus Meyer, born August 12, 1876, in Mülheim, a city in the western corner of Germany. According to the chart, Markus died on May 2, 1942, in Łódź.
Łódź. 1942. I know the story of this place.
I write to my third cousin, asking about my great-grandfather. I want to know: “Did Markus die as a result of the horrible conditions in the ghetto? Or was he part of one of the liquidations to Chełmno?”
But, nothing. She doesn’t respond. After fifty years of silence between the two sides of the family—a quiet I couldn’t hear until now—there is more unspeaking between us.
And because my third cousin has never written to me again, I am left to stare at the charts she sent me. I try to make a narrative of the names. I tell myself I will gather breadcrumbs in a forest where the birdsong sounds like shrieking. I will find a way to the candied house, to the cage or the oven.
I type in my internet search engine: Łódź ghetto 1942. “In January 1942,” The Holocaust Encyclopedia informs me, “German authorities began to deport Jews from Lodz to the Chelmno killing center. By September 1942, they had deported over 70,000 Jews and about 5,000 Roma to Chelmno.” I click on a hyperlink. I read that the Chełmno “was the first stationary facility where poison gas was used for mass murder of Jews.” Of course, I know from my studies that, in Jewish folklore, Chełm was also the great shtetl of fools, a town of tilting houses and tangled streets. The tales of Chełm show every problem is solved by making a different problem. A hole is dug in the ground to fill another hole. A man is selected to do the worrying for all the people in the village; his payment will be a ruble. But what then, the others wonder—with that kind of money in his pocket—will he have to have worry about?
I think of a story I used to teach in a class on American Jewish writers. Nathan Englander’s “The Tumblers” shows the intersection of the Chełm of literary tradition with the real Chełmno of genocide. In “The Tumblers,” a group of devout Jews disguises themselves as a troupe of circus performers to escape deportation. Costumed in scraps of upholstery fabric, they cartwheel and crabwalk for a crowd of Nazis. The story ends, not with murder but with the schlemiels still trapped in their tattered disguises, leaping forever in the “harsh and unforgiving” spotlight of history. They remain held between circles of glaring light and the dark beyond.
As writer Andreas Kluth explains, “Demnig calls his project ‘a decentralised monument’ or, alternatively, ‘a social sculpture.’” The earliest stolpersteine were placed illegally in Berlin. “Three months later,” says Kluth, “the plates—51 of them, all along one street—came to the attention of the authorities when the stones impeded construction work. They wanted to remove them, but the workers refused. Bureaucrats came to inspect the stones, and they were retrospectively legalized.”
Now there are more than 75,000 stumbling stones embedded in the streets and sidewalks of 24 European countries. All stolpersteine are “made by hand,” Demnig’s website states, “in direct opposition to the Nazi’s mass extermination policies,” the concrete blocks individually molded, the brass stamped with their painful specifics. There are hard stories beneath the feet of pedestrians. Sometimes the metal catches the light, and someone kneels down to read a name, a date. Here lived, says the ground.
This endeavor of making the forgotten visible recalls the work of American Jewish artist, Shimon Attie. From 1991 to 1996, Attie created a series of installations using photographic projections. In Berlin, for instance, he cast black and white images of exterminated Jewish life against the brick walls and old doors of the city. Then he photographed what he saw, his pictures illuminating the break between what exists now and what once was: an Orthodox man standing before a table, a woman leaning out of a window, a stranger staring at the display in a Yiddish bookstore.
James Young, the noted Holocaust scholar, writes of Attie:
He knows that this presence of the past is apparent only to those already familiar with a site’s history or to those who actually carry a visual memory of this site from another, earlier time … Without historical consciousness of visitors, these sites remain essentially indifferent to their pasts, altogether amnesiac. They ‘know’ only what we know, ‘remember’ only what we remember.
So too with the stumbling stones. Without the gleaming surfaces of memory—brass inscribed with a name, a date—these ordinary sites in Cologne and Prague and Salzburg would continue to know nothing, remember nothing. Without the stumbling stones, we would not be able to point to nearby buildings and say, “here lived and here and here.”
For a few days, I haven’t been able to leave The Holocaust Encyclopedia. I click on the link for gas. Under the heading for “Chelmno,” I learn that “[i]n 1941, the SS concluded that the deportation of Jews to killing centers (to be gassed) was the most efficient way of achieving the ‘Final Solution.’” I could go on like this, clicking forever, traveling the gray path of hyperlinks from gas to Final Solution to Kristallnacht to pogroms. In the circular way of fairytales, I might end up back again at Łódź, still trying to learn what happened to Markus.
The next week, I wander through the online database of Yad Vashem. Last / Maiden Name: Meyer. First Name: Markus. Place: Lodz.And here he is: Markus Meyer, born 1876 “to Isaak and Sara. He was married to Theresia nee Baer. Prior to WWII he lived in Koeln, Germany.” And here he is again: “During the war he was in Litzmannstadt, Poland. Markus was murdered in the Shoah.”
“Murdered in the Shoah” should be an answer to how Markus died. It isn’t. The phrase can mean death camps and gas, as well as mass shootings in an anonymous forest or field. It can mean the random killings that occurred during roundups and inspections. It can mean famine or sickness. It can mean so many different brutalities that it means almost nothing but entirely, entirely gone.
Furthermore, Litzmannstadt is not a place I recognize. I return to my search engine, type the letters in the box. And now, I’m back yet again at Łódź, because the Germans renamed the city Litzmannstadt. Names were always changing in that time, streets and even people. Even ordinary words—oven, for instance, and chimney—were transformed. They now held their own kind of terrible heat.
Suddenly, I’m remembering Judy Budnitz’s short story, “Hershel,” another text I know well from my teaching of contemporary American Jewish literature. In a tiny village in the “old country,” children were born with the help of the shtetl’s “baby maker.” He made each baby out of dough, kneading the form until it was the right consistency, then placing it in a bowl to rise. Once the dough was ready, Hershel molded it into the shape of an infant. “Then,” the narrator goes on, “he would slide the baby on its back into the oven…The babies shifted and bubbled as they baked, rocking on their backs.” The babies baked like this for nine months, until they were ready. “Nothing could compare to the sight of a new baby fresh from the oven, crisp at the fingernails, crying form the cold as Hershel held him aloft, checking for any mistakes in his handiwork.”
Reading “Hershel,” it’s impossible not to think of the other ovens, with their arched doors and their great capacity for burning. Although Budnitz’s story attempts to transform the oven back into a symbol of nourishment—a place where babies are born—the story ends by acknowledging how history can devour metaphor. The baby maker is just as entirely gone as my great-grandfather, so many of the fictional characters and real people who dwell within me, destroyed by the same genocide.
For the next few weeks, I type “Markus Meyer” and “Łódź” and “1942” in the search engine, clicking on links deeper and deeper in the pages of results. All this information is indeed a forest. “Midway in the journey of life,” Dante writes, “I came to myself in a dark wood, / for the straight way was lost.” In looking for what happened to Markus Meyer, am I coming to myself at the midway of my life?
I have become a fool of Chełm, digging one hole to fill another. Each time I search for Markus, I forget why I’m looking. I am lost in my own familiar ritual of research, losing sight of the man who was my great-grandfather. He is buried beneath facts and statistics about the millions of dead.
Or I have become a woman forever tumbling through the past. Look how I dance and crabwalk from one horror to another.
Or I am Hershel the baby maker, and I can’t decide if the oven is a box that bakes new life or burns it.
There is a choice to make in the dark wood. This pursuit of Markus’s death offers an answer about who I am. Or else it tells me nothing about myself and, in constantly returning to the Shoah, I have become unable to live in the right now of my forty-forth year. Flipping through the TV channels, I inevitably come upon a movie about a photographer in Mauthausen or a police procedural drama in which the plotline focuses on rare coins once stolen from a Holocaust survivor. I find genocide everywhere, as if my compass always points me toward mass graves and executions.
But just as I’m beginning to question whether I should continue looking, I click on the images the search engine has found. And here is Markus once more. The first picture in the top row is a photograph of his name stamped on a stolperstein. It’s a close-up of a grouping of four stumbling stones, a pair of couples, Markus and Theresia Meyer placed above Ernst and Irma Schönholz, their four names forming a square configuration of the murdered. My great-grandfather’s stolperstein reads:
In English, this means:
In the photograph, tender stubs of green grow around the edges of the stones, and the brass still has the polish of newness. The file for the image is titled “Stolpersteine_Köln,_Markus_Meyer_(Mauritiussteinweg_81).jpg.” I return to the search engine, this time typing “Mauritiussteinweg 81” and “Köln.” I know it must be an address.
The internet gives me a view from the street of a beige apartment building at a shadowy time of the day. Thick vines crawl up the façade. There are blotches of blue graffiti below the windows on the first floor. Out front, cars are parked with only centimeters between the bumpers. The effect of the scene is entirely modern; I can’t imagine Markus stepping onto this same sidewalk, perhaps hurrying toward his butcher shop nearby. He was, my father says, the kind of Jew who didn’t identify as a Jew “until Hitler made him think of himself as Jewish.” I don’t have a photograph of his face and can’t reconstruct him like one of Shimon Attie’s projections of light. Here, let me try to make his image come alive: he is walking in his wool jacket on a Saturday morning, his head topped with a fedora or else bare, a newspaper tucked under his arm.
No, it doesn’t work. Markus lived in an entirely different Köln. He survived the hyperinflation of the Great Depression, carrying suitcases of money to buy goods—millions of marks for a loaf of bread—and then, as my father tells me, “did well and ended up wealthy.” The leap between that Köln and the one on my computer screen is too large to take.
This last time, after nearly five months of searching, I type Markus’s information—surname and first, year of birth—in the online database of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. There are four results, including one for a document titled “List of deaths reported on May 22nd, 1942.” According to the site, 51 Jews were reported dead on that day. I can request a scanned copy of the text, which is described as “moderately legible.”
Within minutes, the Museum has emailed the digital document. Kliger. Lindt. Braun. I run my finger down the length of my computer screen, following the list of handwritten names, many difficult to make out. The page was scanned at a slant, so that the columns lean sidewise as if with dizziness. Markus Meyer is number 38 on the page, his address a smudge. And what I hoped to find—a cause of death—is simply not there.
In Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel, Everything Is Illuminated, the narrator argues that Jews have six senses: touch, taste, sight, smell, hearing, and memory. “[M]emory,” Foer writes, “is no less primary than the prick of a pin, or its silver glimmer, or the taste of the blood it pulls from the finger. The Jew is pricked by a pin and remembers other pins. It is only by tracing the pinprick back to other pinpricks…that the Jew is able to know why it hurts.”
But there is little inside me that is pierced by the name Markus Meyer. And my father can’t remember before me. And my grandmother, who might have told me about the sound of Markus’s voice or how he drank his coffee or which were his favorite lieder by Schubert, has been dead nearly four decades.
I can only make a story out of absence. The mind lurches toward different endings—I can say Markus Meyer, a man who before the war was a successful butcher in Köln, finally ran out of food and money in the ghetto. He starved. Or I can make a story of the room where he lived with Theresia in a crowded building on a street in the Łódź ghetto called Hohensteiner. No heat or medicine. No clean water. I can say it was one of the many diseases that killed him, tuberculosis or dysentery, diphtheria.
I may never know how Markus died. My inability to find the details of his death angers me, as when I have failed to find an ending for one of my poems, the lines of language left unfinished, an image so heavy it cannot flutter its wings to lift into the air. And, yes, I know this analogy transgresses.
But more than my own failure at narrative, the pinprick of Markus’s memory hurts because I barely feel it. There is no point of blood at the tip of my finger. If I hold my hands out in front of me, I see the lifelines clear and deep across my palms, the legibility only of my skin.
When I first began studying the Shoah as a young graduate student, all of the texts I am now hardened to made me cry. It would be impossible to keep reading, I knew, if every description of a railcar made me want to rub my face in ash, tear my own sleeve, cover all the mirrors in my house, with every page sitting shiva over and over again for the innumerable dead and for those in my family, the ancestors I would never find, their names not handed down, their grave markers overturned or ground to sand, no pebbles left to remember, and all of the ground erased of them.
If I wanted to study the Shoah, then I needed to become less porous.
And, yet, the stumbling stone. After I see the picture of my great-grandfather’s stolperstein on the small field of my computer screen, I feel my body go both cold and hot. The hairs on my arms prickle. There is a sudden gravel in my throat.
Two days ago, a friend—knowing I was writing this essay—sent me an article written by a daughter of Holocaust survivors. The author, Helen Epstein, had three stolpersteine placed in Prague to honor her mother and two of her grandparents. “How to remember,” Epstein asks, “victims of mass murder who have no graves? For families whose members have survived genocide or other forms of mass murder, remembrance is private and visceral.”
I don’t know who commissioned Markus’s stone. Maybe it was my third cousin, gone silent again, my last email never answered. Maybe it was another name on the family tree she sent me, a stranger alive in a distant part of the world. There is so much of the story that will not be resolved. They are breadcrumbs my hands cannot find in a fairytale forest, and the birds go on making their throttled songs.
And then today, on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, as I am preparing to teach Anna Rabinowitz’s book-length Holocaust poem, Darkling, I come across this moment: “And it’s so hard to find the stepping stones. // Elsewhere is a long way away.” Near the end of Darkling, Rabinowitz writes, “you must stumble // you must stumble // these stumbling blocks in your hands.” Confluences. Everything converging. But even in these places of intersection, the gaps remain.
It’s time I decided whether to keep blundering into those absences or to step over them.
Earlier, I wrote of Markus Meyer, that the memory of him “hurts because I barely feel it.” It’s true. He doesn’t draw blood in me. The pain is the duller kind. I stub my toe against the not knowing of what happened to him. He is there in the bruise on my foot, the small twinge of choosing perhaps to walk away.
Aligheri, Dante. Hollander, Robert and Jean Hollander, trans. The Inferno. Anchor Books, 2002.
Budnitz, Judy. “Hershel.” Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction from the Edge. Perennial, 2003.
Demnig, Gunter. Stolpersteine. www.stolpersteine.eu/en/home/. Accessed 10 January, 2019.
Dubrow, Jehanne. American Samizdat. Diode Editions, 2019.
Epstein, Helen. “How Do We Remember Victims of Mass Murder? A Holocaust Survivor’s Daughter on How She Honors Her Family.” TIME, 24 January, 2020. time.com/5771188/remember-victims-holocaust-survivors-daughter/?fbclid=IwAR2cYLWcjUHDTJH0RLcAL0f50pg7Ew-a_wUl4F7H5rXURto1sx6mGRjQy6g.
Grieshaber, Kirsten. “Plaques for Nazi Victims Offer a Personal Impact.” New York Times, 29 November, 2003. www.nytimes.com/2003/11/29/arts/plaques-for-nazi-victims-offer-a-personal-impact.html.
Hecht, Anthony. Collected Later Poems. Knopf, 2005.
Holocaust Encyclopedia. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. encyclopedia.ushmm.org.
Kluth, Andreas. “Stumbling Over the Past.” 1843 Magazine, May/June 2013. www.1843magazine.com/content/places/andreas-kluth/stumbling-over-past.
Rabinowitz, Anna. Darkling. Tupelo, 2001.
Safran Foer, Jonathan. Everything Is Illuminated. Perennial, 2003.
Young, James. At Memory’s Edge: After-Images of the Holocaust in Contemporary Art and Architecture. Yale University Press, 2000.
Jehanne Dubrow is the author of nine poetry collections, including most recently Wild Kingdom (Louisiana State University Press, 2021), and a book of creative nonfiction, throughsmoke: an essay in notes (New River Press, 2019). Her poems, essays, and reviews have appeared in Poetry, New England Review, Colorado Review, and The Southern Review. She is a Professor of Creative Writing at the University of North Texas.