My grandmother was a Nazi. During the war she worked as a nurse and was betrothed to an SS officer. My mom always added the context that Hitler Youth was compulsory, but she’d also likely admit that her mother-in-law may have been one of the more enthusiastic participants. That’s not to say that I didn’t love her. Her willpower always inspired me. After smoking unfiltered menthols for over 70 years, she quit cold turkey one day because she decided she didn’t want to smoke anymore. From that day till the end of her life she would always give the money she saved from not smoking to a different person each week.
She was a survivor. She scavenged or stole whatever it took to keep her mother and younger sister alive. After her fiancé died on the front and Hitler capitulated, she married an American soldier who whisked her away from Germany as his war bride. Together they raised four kids, the oldest of which was rumored to be the love child of the SS officer. My father was the youngest.
None of them learned much German. All my aunts and uncles can order a beer, but none of them really took the time to learn the language of their heritage. Why? I never asked my grandmother, but I have a few theories. Perhaps she didn’t want them to grow too close to the land she almost died for many a time. Perhaps, after the early passing of my grandfather, single-handedly raising four kids was enough of a challenge without the addition of family language lessons. Or maybe her kids didn’t care to learn. Perhaps their heritage, like that of millions of Americans before them, simply got washed away in the assimilating churn of our country’s unrivaled melting pot.
My dad died when I was young. The death of a parent at any age is always a tragedy, but four is a fascinatingly wicked age to lose a parent. You’re not old enough to have built up a treasure trove of memories by which to know who your parent really was, but you’re not young enough to have no recollection at all. Instead you’re left with a smattering of hazy memories. You know your parent like a word on the tip of your tongue that your lips never seem to fully form.
My grandmother showered me with so much gingerbread, advent calendars, and lederhosen throughout my childhood (seriously, I’m not sure I have a picture of me not wearing lederhosen from age 3-8), constantly reminding me that my dad had somehow come from Germany. Subconsciously my brain decided that if I wanted to better know who my dad was, then I’d have to go to the land of his heritage to find out. While my classmates picked out which colleges they’d be at the following Fall, I applied for a scholarship to Germany.
Without speaking a word of the language (Spanish is usually a better bet around here), I took a gap year and moved to a village of 2,000 to live with a host family and go to a German high school for a year. In the decade that’s passed since then, I’ve lived in Germany two more times, both in Berlin, once working in Parliament and until last December for Berlin’s Green Party. I speak German fluently now, and long ago fell in love with their often misunderstood culture.
If I was to poll y’all here tonight and ask, “What is German culture?” I’d likely hear some good things about fancy cars, punctuality and beer, but I’d also likely hear some stale tropes about their lack of a sense of humor or their supposed love of Hitler. Even if some Americans haven’t noticed, Germany has long moved on from the days of the Nazi regime. You might think that’s just what time does, and sure, 70 years have passed since the end of World War II, but anyone in the former capital of the Confederacy who’s been living through the Black History Month we’ve been having should know that some societal wounds don’t just heal with time. If not treated, some wounds fester.
As a country whose national pastime is process optimization, Germany doesn’t let anything fester. Over the past 70 years, German society has cultivated a culture of confronting head-on the worst atrocities of their past.
They even have a word for it: Vergangenheitsbewältigung — a coming to terms with the past. This process of accounting for the horrors of the Nazis, the Stasi, and, as of late, also those of their colonialists takes place in ways big and small. Anyone who visits a German city will inevitably stumble across the simultaneously tiniest and largest form of Vergangenheitsbewältigung should they notice among the cobblestones one covered in brass.
A Stolperstein — or “stumbling stone” in German — is a cobblestone bearing a brass plate inscribed with the name and life dates of a victim of Nazi extermination or persecution. Artist Gunter Demnig began the project in 1992 to commemorate individuals at their last place of residence before they fell victim to the Nazis through euthanasia, eugenics, a concentration or extermination camp, or escaped it all by committing suicide.
He chose the name Stolperstein for several reasons: 1) When someone tripped in the Nazi era, people would say, “hier könnte ein Jude begraben sein,” meaning “a Jew could be buried here!” Why would people say that? Our modern ears don’t find this antisemitism funny, but the point of any form of prejudice, whether it’s antisemitism, racism, sexism, or homophobia, isn’t to be funny. The point is to hurt and dehumanize. 2) Gunter saw Germany’s inability to cope with its horrendous past as the biggest potential stumbling stone on its way to becoming a modern society and shedding its pariah status. 3) The stones are designed and placed so that people will stumble across them at any moment. He wanted people to stumble across the stories that Nazis wanted to erase while going about their day.
The first stone Gunter laid was a rebellious act. He placed it in the ground in Cologne on December 16th, 1992, exactly fifty years since the day that Heinrich Himmler signed the Auschwitz-Erlass, ordering the deportation and extermination of the Roma and Sinti peoples that are sometimes derogatorily referred to as gypsies. Local authorities desperately wanted this Stolperstein removed, not because they were Nazis, but because Gunter hadn’t gotten a permit! It is still the land of rules and order. German officials stymieing Holocaust remembrance efforts is not a good look and they knew it, so they let it stay. Since that first stumbling stone was placed twenty-seven years ago over 70,000 Stolpersteine have been laid in 22 countries across Europe, making the project the world’s largest decentralized memorial.
We all know that over six million people died in the Holocaust, and that the vast majority of them were Jews. However, what many don’t realize is that the Nazis targeted a long list of people. The Nazis persecuted and murdered anyone who didn’t fit in with their far-right vision of society, including Quakers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, disabled people, pacifists, Sinti & Roma, communists, socialists, leftists, and anyone else who didn’t conform — such as queer people. We know that over 9,000 gay men were specifically targeted and killed in concentration camps. We also know that an additional 100,000 people were arrested because the Nazis deemed their gender or sexual orientation deviant. Out of those interned, an unknown number passed away from police brutality, starvation, and disease in prison.
Last year, while living in Berlin, I sponsored what will become only the 38th Stolperstein dedicated to queer victims of the Holocaust. To choose who I wanted to honor, I read dozens of pages filled with accounts of prejudice, cruelty, and death. I chose Fritz Dubinsky because my first love reminded me of the love he died for. He was born in Friedrichshain, Berlin in 1907 and emancipated himself from his abusive parents at the age of fifteen. He was a hard worker and found his own way in life, eventually becoming one of the capital’s hippest alcohol distributors (fitting for the venue in which this story was originally presented).
In 1944 he wrote to his partner of five years, who had been conscripted into fighting on the eastern front: “In this moment I lack a good and honest friend with whom I can share my joy and sorrows and bring life to these hours, for there is nothing left in Berlin but a dead wasteland.” Later that year, he was apprehended and sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp for his “unnatural fondness towards men.” After just a week in custody, a guard claimed Fritz had looked at him funny and proceeded to brutally beat him. Fritz was transported to a hospital, where he died of his injuries at the age of 37. Later this year he will receive a stone at his former address of Breslauerstraße 23: today’s Ostbahnhof train station.
You may now be asking: why did I spend 120 euros on a Stolperstein for a dead man I never knew? Because the wounds of our past fester if left untreated, and the legacy of my Nazi grandmother demanded a Vergangenheitsbewältigung.