A stone of her own

On the 77th anniversary of Kristallnacht, we take a look at the most ubiquitous reminders of the Holocaust in Berlin: Stolpersteine. Meet a Berlin woman whose quest for a Stolperstein on her block led her down the rabbit hole of Holocaust history.

Image for A stone of her own
Photo by Tania Castellví

From a simple-sounding quest to sponsor a Stolperstein on her street, Jule K. stumbled down the rabbit hole of Holocaust history. She retraces her path for us.

Pressed between cobblestones at Matternstraße 5 in Friedrichshain are three brass plaques engraved with the names of Ludwig Fass, Margarete Gosliner and Ernst Rosenthal. Between 1942 and 1943, these three Jewish residents were arrested, deported and murdered by the Nazi regime at the Auschwitz, Theresienstadt and Buchenwald concentration camps. Their names may well have faded into the pages of a memorial book if it weren’t for one German woman.

Why commit so many hours of her time to deceased people she’s never met? ‘I don’t think it’s because of my grandfather,’ she finally says…

Jule K. is sitting in an overlit Friedrichshain bistro a block away from her home at Matternstraße 4, next door to the Stolpersteine she sponsored. A large, lime green folder is on her lap, and she opens and closes it like an accordion, fingering through countless pages of scanned Third Reich documents, letters and old family photos. “It was a bit like a treasure hunt, without the treasure at the end.” That’s how the thirty-something music teacher and mother describes the painstaking research that brought her Stolpersteine into being.

First steps

It all began with a summer 2010 article in the free newspaper Berliner Woche. “This was the first time I read about ‘care sponsorships’… I thought it would be an honour to the victims to clean them, so that the names wouldn’t be forgotten. It was a small thing I could do to help right an injustice.” The Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg-Museum (FHXB) tasked her with scrubbing some stones around her neighbourhood. “The cleaning thing is kind of strange – how people pass by and look down at me. Only one guy on a bicycle once said, ‘Hey thanks, you’re doing a good thing.'”

Cleaning the Stolpersteine sparked Jule’s curiosity about her own building. “Who lived there? What could I find out about them? I reached out to the museum to see what victims once lived on my street.” After a quick check that her street name and numbers hadn’t changed during Berlin’s post-war reconstruction, Jule submitted her address to the FHXB, who ran the information through the Gedenkbuch der Jüdischen Opfer des Naziregimes, a memorial book with Nazi transport and death lists. The museum returned with the address next door – Matternstraße 5 – and three names, Ludwig, Margarete and Ernst, along with their deportation and death dates.

“But the book can be misleading,” says Jule. “Sometimes a victim’s last residence on record was not their last residence of choice.” At the end of the 1930s, Nazis habitually evicted Jews from their chosen homes, forcing them to relocate, to move in with friends or family, or into a so called Judenhaus (“Jewish House”). In order to verify the victims’ last residences of choice, Jule scrutinised Berlin address books with their logs of who lived where, when and for how long. She reels off dates and data as if the information is imprinted in her memory. Her mind seems to have mapped the folder as well. As she mentions a particular process, she flips to the related files. She refers to a full page of notes she made while searching through records dating back to 1898. “E means Eigentümer, or owner. That’s how I discovered Louis and Emilie Fass, who were maybe Ludwig Fass’ parents.” Ludwig inherited Matternstraße 5 in 1936. Margarete Gosliner and Ernst Rosenthal are both also listed as residents. “But according to a page of testimony, Margarete was not Louis’ daughter.” This contradicted Margarete’s online biography. “But I walked down many false tracks,” she admits.

With Ludwig, Margarete and Ernst’s last residence of choice verified, Jule submitted her formal request to sponsor the installation of their Stolpersteine at Matternstraße 5. FHXB promptly accepted her submissions. “But they said it could be two years before the stones were installed, and that I could spend this time researching the victims and their families.” They also told her how much she’d need to donate: €90 per stone, the original cost of €120 minus a €30 subsidy from the district of Friedrichshain. She reached out to friends and family for financial help. “People were very supportive,” she says. But while friends helped fund the project, none got so immersed in the research. “I did it all alone, with a little help from the archives and some descendants.”

Down the rabbit hole

Flipping back through her folder, Jule describes the many hours she spent at the Brandenburgisches Landeshauptarchiv, reading and copying records. She points to and translates a list of the Fass’ possessions. “Clocks, clothing racks, kitchen things, stools.” The top of the form is stamped with the eagle and swastika emblem of National Socialism. “Someone could just come by and take them. It’s terrible. They even kept track of how many kilos of potatoes they had.” She flips to the next page, “Look, 5.67 Reichsmarks left over from a gas allowance. They would take even just five Reichsmarks.” She’s at once amazed, revolted and embarrassed. “It’s so strange to see this German-like – well not German-like – but exact detail,” she says. “They kept it so well documented. It’s all here.”

The more Jule dug through the archives, the more she discovered about the victims and their families – including Ernst Rosenthal, believed to be a subletter at the residence. “I first thought Ernst was maybe related to the TV and radio host Hans Rosenthal. But of course there are many Rosenthals in Germany, so that was unlikely.” Eventually, she arrived at a headstone at the Jewish cemetery in Weißensee with the engraved names of Ernst and his brother. “It says, Beide Söhne faschistische Opfer, or ‘both sons victims of fascism.’” From this headstone, Jule connected the limbs of an elaborate family tree and revealed that Ernst was Hans Rosenthal’s uncle. “I got in contact with Hans Rosenthal’s widow, who told me a lot of things about the family,” she says. This included Ernst’s defiance and the complicated circumstances of his death. “His mother was a Christian who converted to Judaism when she married. But she withdrew from Judaism in the 1930s because it was unsafe.” According to Nazi documents Ernst “refused to register as a Jew”, and was arrested and murdered over the technicality.

Jule’s efforts were full of obstacles – “there were all these dead ends” – but none was more frustrating than her research into Margarete’s husband, Hermann. “I found out that Hermann died in 1943 in a Berlin Jewish hospital. In 1943 there was no proper food or medical aid for Jews. So to me, he’s also a victim. I asked the museum if Hermann could get a stone and they first said yes, but a month later they said no. So I wrote to Günter Demnig.”

Demnig is the artist behind the Stolpersteine. He placed the first stone in Cologne in 1995, and since then he’s personally installed most of the 50,000 stones around the world. The proverbial buck stops with him. “Demnig agreed Hermann was a victim. Maybe his name wasn’t on the deportation list, but maybe he had a heart attack and didn’t get proper help because he was a Jew…Where do you draw the line?” Jule scans the folder to find a particular file, her fingers a few steps ahead of her mouth. “There’s an ongoing discussion on whether people who had to flee abroad are ‘victims’ or not. But they are, in a way.”

Jule’s research has expanded out beyond the archives. She spreads a set of letters out on the table showing wrinkles and creases and stamps and smeared ink. “These are from Susanne Sommer… I sent her the updates on the research progress.” A descendant of Louis Fass, Sommer fled Nazi Germany with her parents, first to the Philippines, then to California where Sommer now lives. She detailed their story in the book Letters 1938 to 1945: The Grunwalds’ Journey from Oppression to Freedom. Sommer was deeply moved by Jule’s contact. “She helped in my research and sent me this picture with of her with grandpa Wolff.” Jule shows an old photo with a cheerful young girl sitting atop her grandfather’s knee. “It touched me beyond words.”

The end of the road?

In June 2012, Demnig’s team contacted Jule and told her they’d be installing the stones for Ludwig, Margarete and Ernst on July 21. “It is very strict,” Jule says. “They’re there for only about 20 minutes, then they go to the next installation.” Demnig makes an efficient path through the city, tamping in plaques along the way. Jule puts a piece if paper on the table. “They recommended putting flyers like this on every door in the street, to tell people in the neighbourhood about the installation ceremony. So some people from the building attended.” She slides onto the table a printed page with photos from the event. “Here’s Günter Demnig. And here’s this 90-yearold Bulgarian woman who had an identity card that said she was an anti-fascist fighter.” In one photo Jule stands with her arm around the Bulgarian. In another one, she plays a longitudinal flute for the solemn crowd of 10.

As far as Jule’s concerned, those three stones were not the end. “I’d like to sponsor stones for all the people I got to know during the process. Him here and this son, and these other two.” She slides papers aside, maneuvering through the stack she’s built on the table, pointing at names with transport and death dates. “And him, and maybe these two because their last flat was in Berlin. And maybe these two who were brought to a collection point here…”

The young woman’s unyielding determination is astonishing. Has she ever wondered why she’s committed so many hours of her time to deceased people she’s never met? “Why?” is the first question she seems at a loss to answer. She turns uncharacteristically quiet and contemplative. “I guess I’m someone who cares. My family was and still is very much into politics. My parents were actively involved in the GDR opposition,” she says. “But I don’t think it’s because of my grandfather,” she finally adds. “It’s not because he was a Nazi.”

“My grandfather was 18 when he left school to become a soldier,” she writes in an email later. “He fought in Russia and Norway but never told us much about that time. But then I found his childhood drawings with marching SS officers and photos of his parents with swastika buttons. They were probably just ‘normal Nazis’ in their time… I don’t feel guilty. It is not my responsibility, what happened then. I am only responsible for what happens today.”

And for Jule, the motivation for ensuring that each one of those murdered Jewish Berliners she discovered in her research is commemorated with a name and two dates on small brass stones in her city’s pavement is unimportant. The act is what matters. “It’s just the right thing to do.”

Originally published in issue #142, October 2015.