Tag Archives: Holocaust

Stumbling Stones

Several weeks back, I looked over the notes I took years ago as my grandmothers regaled me with stories of our extended family history. I looked over the family tree that my grandmother’s cousin, who I’ve never met, had painstakingly put together, complete with full names and the dates and locations of births, marriages, and deaths. Somehow, the story feels different on this side of the world.

One evening heading home from climbing, an American friend asked how my family had responded when I said I was moving to Germany.

Later, a German friend told me he had been wondering that, too, but as a German, never would have asked. He walked with me through town and pointed out buildings the Nazis had built and used as offices. A small sign, so nondescript that it’s easy to miss, explains it. No fanfare.

It took several weeks of lessons before my German teacher told me she had been afraid to ask about my family history after learning my name for the first time.

My history students and I are studying the period of European diplomacy between the World Wars and it hasn’t yet come up that I’m Jewish. It might. What is obvious is the depth of understanding these young people have about propaganda, hate speech, power, victimization. They do not take today’s world for granted because they know what it cost.

Yesterday I photographed the first stumbling stones that I saw when I arrived here. Before I knew what they were. Before I knew how they got there.

Hier wohnte. Here lived.

Here lived.

Hier wohnte.

As a memorial, the stumbling stones, or Stolpersteine, are not without controversy. (Is there such a thing as remembrance without controversy?) As of December 2019, 75,000 Stolpersteine had been placed in Germany and they are in other countries, too. But not everyone agrees that accidentally tripping over a stone and then recognizing its significance, even if it forces you to kneel before the victim, is dignified. I can appreciate the disagreement because it means that people care. They care enough to argue about the best way to honour lives taken.

It is one thing to be steeped in history. It is another thing entirely to learn from it.

Do you not know that a man is not dead while his name is still spoken? – Terry Pratchett, Going Postal

Travel Guide: Leipzig

Many years ago, so many that I don’t remember quite when it started, I fantasized about moving to Europe and travelling around by train. Each time I have had the opportunity to sit on a train with a book in my hands and watch the world go by, I have smiled at the hopes and dreams we have when we are young. And then, this time, it happened: I have moved to Europe and I was travelling by train.

Located in the state of Saxony, Leipzig was first known as a merchant town in the Middle Ages. It later became the centre of East German life after the Second World War, and is now a home for history and culture, telling a story a thousand years old. It’s an hour and twenty minutes from Weimar on the regional train (no changes) and slightly faster with the ICE train (but there’s a change in Erfurt). A city of 600,000 people, Leipzig made for a nice change of pace and far broader food choices.

I left early and arrived just after 9am, which gave me time to get a coffee and something to eat before joining the free walking tour (I have so many good things to say about this in so many cities). It’s always a pleasure to wander, but wandering becomes something different when you know what you’re seeing. I will not relay the history of Leipzig here, but I will say that much of the old town has been reconstructed because two-thirds of it was destroyed during the war.

Leipzig University is a good example of the story architecture can tell. There was once a church here, the Paulinerkirche, which was destroyed in 1968. The reconstruction pays homage to what was while honouring the different values university communities often hold today.

Another prominent church is Nikolaikirche, which I came across on my own before our tour guide explained Leipzig’s experience as part of the German Democratic Republic (former East Germany). It made my heart soar when I first saw it, and even more so when I learned that this church was the site of the peace marches that signaled the end of communism and the beginning of a new era of life and politics. I have a great appreciation for any religious community that stands for what it preaches – justice, peace, and a better world for us all.

This mural tells the story better than I can:

Through a discussion with the tour guide, I learned that Leipzig has the largest Jewish community in central Germany and that there is also a tour of Leipzig’s Jewish history. I will have to return for this because it’s only offered once a month, so in the meantime I walked over to the Holocaust memorial. Situated on the site of the old synagogue, this memorial brought to mind not masses, but individuals. The modern restaurants and apartment buildings surrounding it demonstrate what I continue to find the most fascinating aspect of humanity – the world turns and life goes on.

Later in the afternoon, I walked south into a neighbourhood called KarLi, nicknamed for its main street. It did not surprise me that this is where many students live. Students have a way of developing areas to suit them, or perhaps it is the neighbourhoods themselves that have called students there. I currently live in a student neighbourhood and while my annoyance at their penchant for late hours is a clear reminder that I have left that world behind, I am grateful for the positivity, energy, and spirit that comes from being young and imaginative. These are, after all, the people who make the world go round.

I saw many examples of activism throughout Leipzig and that was heartening. There’s a lot to be active about right now, and while I’m aware that actions speak far louder than words, most actions begin as words. Even a whisper is better than standing idly on the sidelines.

My time in Leipzig lasted just over 24 hours. I was glad to be around more people, hear more languages, and taste different food. I appreciated the time in a new place, the ease of travel, and the excitement of learning something new. Leipzig is just down the road and there’s a literary festival in March – I suspect I’ll be back.

Building Peace Means Letting Go

I saw something beautiful yesterday.

I saw two small children, giggling. They were playing on what is supposed to be a pull-up bar in one of the exercise parks that are all over Singapore. The three adults with them held the children’s hands over the bar and pumped their legs back and forth. The children laughed and squirmed, ready to get down. Once on the ground, they ran off on unsteady, fat little legs. I watched tight little curls and wisp of a ponytail bouncing. The adults reached for the children’s hands and the children reached for each other’s. They couldn’t have been much more than two years old. I watched this scene until the group turned down a lane at the end of the road.

Those children will grow up fast. I wonder what the world will look like as they do. I hope it’s a more peaceful world than the one we have now, and I’m beginning to think that creating that world means letting go of much of what separates us from each other, what makes us see “us” and “them” and not just “people”.

War
Like every Ashkenazi Jewish family, my family has a Holocaust history. But since all of my grandparents and one or two great-grandparents were born in Canada, it’s such that those who didn’t come to Canada before the war (with one exception, I think) didn’t survive. We’ve been Canadian for a long time and it’s my grandparents’ stories about Canada in the 40s and 50s that I grew up hearing.

My sister and I were recently talking about our shared desire to visit Eastern Europe and the conversation revealed different understandings of the role that Poland, Russia, and Lithuania play in our lives. She spoke about feeling ancestral ties to those countries but also regret for not being able to see what our ancestors saw because none of that is there anymore. On the other hand, I’m interested in the people’s history rather than the government and military history that I learned in school. I’m interested in economic recovery and development. It didn’t occur to me to have ancestral ties to anywhere.

We also talked about the concentration camps, which my sister said she had never really been interested in seeing. We talked about the fatigue that is a side-effect of so much study of so much tragedy. There is a point at which you simply can’t take in any more and you stop. I was glued to Holocaust books as a kid and even into college. I haven’t read one since.

But I am and have always been interested in seeing the concentration camps. I’ve always thought of it as an act of defiance. An act of standing my ground and proclaiming my existence. You didn’t want me here. But here I am.

Reconciliation
A conversation with a friend about a month later, however, prompted me to rethink the whole thing. Going over both conversations in my head while out for a run brought a new realization to light and prompted me to write this post. It seems that the way I’ve been thinking about everything above is misaligned with my firm belief in the necessity of peace. I went through a transition with my thinking on peace last year, specifically when I revisited all of my ideas about Israel. It seems that I’ve taken a step back (or perhaps sideways, if I’m being generous to myself) and I would like to correct it.

This is began to understand on my run:

For as long as I can remember, I thought I’d visit the concentration camps with an attitude of victory. We won, you lost. And I’d never really thought past that. But in this scenario, there’s still an “us”, still a “them”. There’s still the misunderstanding and fear that lead to hatred, the result of which is all too apparent far too often.

But now I think that attitude actually misses the entire point. The camps have been preserved to bear witness, to provide evidence, to serve as a constant reminder of what happens when we separate ourselves, invent distinctions between groups, and cut one another off. The camps are a monument and a memorial. They are where the ghosts of the past urge us to do better, to be better. They are not about winning or losing.

So, it is quite another thing for me to visit the concentration camps the way I have visited the beaches at Normandy or killing fields of Cambodia. Visiting the camps in this light means mourning, paying respects to those whose lives were lost too soon. It means being a witness to what happens when we look at life through a lens that compartmentalizes individuals into categories. It means finding the courage, like countless others throughout history, to stand up for what is right in the face of the strongest adversity.

Peace
When I do make that trip to Eastern Europe, I need to make a dedicated effort to deepen my understanding of humanity and the importance of holding all humans together under one umbrella. As a teacher of peace, I cannot approach a conflict without first looking at the humans affected by that conflict. It’s when regular people become the focus of our teaching, our looking back at history, that we can hope to let go of everything that pulled us apart.

That is what peace means.

Peace means looking at the world that we live in and choosing to come together because it’s the only world we have. It means respecting each other’s losses, being happy for each other’s gains, and working for the good of all humanity. It means letting go of what separates us from each other and fighting to maintain what brings us together. It means doing whatever we can so that children the world over can laugh like the children I watched yesterday.

Peace has to come from me. It has to come from you. From all of us. I will do that by letting go of the anger that morphed into defiance that discolored my perception of how to move forward. Peace is not a contest. It’s not a race. There is no winning and there is no losing. Rather, peace is about opening my arms and letting in the world with all of its bruises, scars, rights, and wrongs. It’s about recognizing myself in you and you in me. Peace is about gratitude for having found you there.

This is where peace comes from. This is the way I want to live and the world I’m committed to building.