Scrubbing the stolpersteine

Scrubbing the stolpersteine

A chance encounter with a Righteous Gentile in Berlin

Pietra looks up from her self-assigned task — keeping the stolpersteine clean — and smiles at the author.
Pietra looks up from her self-assigned task — keeping the stolpersteine clean — and smiles at the author.

In a bit of historical irony, on this past International Holocaust Remembrance Day held in the last week of January, I found myself in Germany, where my husband and I are helping our daughter and son-in-law manage their two toddlers and a new baby.

(Our German-born son-in-law has begun studies at the Berlin Rabbinical Seminary, under the auspices of the Lauder Foundation.)

And this is where a chance encounter stopped me in my tracks . . . quite literally.

Maneuvering our grandchildren in tandem strollers down a street in Berlin, wiping noses and singing Raffi songs from distant memory, I barely noticed the woman crouching down on the sidewalk. Perhaps she was looking for a lost button or a dropped key?

Then I saw the glint of the afternoon sun reflected on the small brass squares that lay ahead. I recognized these immediately as stolpersteine, the “stepping stones” that mark the last known residence of victims of Nazi terror. Each stolperstein begins with the phrase “Here lived …” so these are not victims from somewhere else. No. They lived right here, where you are standing. We slow down to read the names of the Jews who had lived in this very spot, along with their dates of birth, deportation, and execution.

As we got closer, we saw that the woman had a sponge in her hand. We realized, stunned, that she was polishing the brass plates of the stones.

The inscriptions tell us that Hermann Marschner was placed under “protective detention” in Buchenwald. The term Schutzhaft was a perverse extra-legal euphemism that simply allowed for taking people into custody without a warrant. The entire Marschner family was murdered on November 25, 1941, in the Ninth Fort of the Kaunas Fortress, where 45,000 to 50,000 Jews were exterminated by the Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators. The Marschner children were, respectively, 1, 3, and 4 years old.

Almost dumbstruck, I asked this young German woman to explain what she was doing. She matter-of-factly told us that she lives in the neighborhood and feels it is important to respect and preserve the history of what took place here. She already had some metal polish at home, she added, so it wasn’t such a burden.

She asked if we had any connection to the Marschner family, whose names are engraved on a sidewalk in what is now a trendy Berlin neighborhood. Just that we are Jewish, we answered.

She told us that her name is Pietra and gave me permission to post her photo on social media.

So while dozens of Berliners continued their Sunday stroll along a fashionable boulevard, one person decided to spend her afternoon honoring the Jews who once lived in this place before their world was brutally extinguished. She insisted that she wasn’t doing anything special.

We could only say, “thank you.”

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