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Passing Knowledge Down to Others

Knowledge is power.

My mission is to educate others about these incredible memorials, because change happens through groups of individuals who are passionate about a cause, as I am about this cause.

So when I was approached with the opportunity to speak to middle school students about the Stolpersteine project, I accepted the task without a hint of hesitation. I went home already planning my presentation… I couldn’t wait to share my story! I was told that my work with this project and my public speaking mission had inspired the religious school students to incorporate these incredible memorials into their “Mitzvah project”. This is when 7th grade students prepare for their Bar/Bat-Mitzvot by volunteering for something that they are passionate about and giving back to their community. I was honored that I had impacted these students and that they had chosen this as their service project.

At the religious school, I spoke to large groups of students about everything; from what the foundation and basic task of the Stolpersteine project is to what makes this project so special. I described my initial discovery of the memorials, and how it changed me as person, setting something so impactful on myself (and others) in motion. I displayed photos from my research in Europe and the unexpected information I had discovered, such as the Anne Frank family stones.  Finally, I shared my message of why this project is so meaningful, and how well-known it is in Europe, but not in America.

 

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Once I was finished with my presentation, I spent some time answering their questions about the project and my involvement in it. I assisted them in researching families that had stones placed and we learned their stories. I also shared some artifacts from the Holocaust that I’ve collected through my research, to engage them further in the topic. I had an amazing time working with them and educating them about something that means a lot to me.

Most importantly, I feel that it is necessary to share this information to children who represent the future, as well as individuals old enough to donate to the project, because they will be the ones to enact real change.

Death Despite Innocence in Missouri

The fact that racism continues to cloud our justice system is beyond me. Tonight Marcellus Williams is to be executed by lethal injection in St. Louis, Missouri after spending 15 years behind bars for a crime that he very clearly did not commit. Williams was convicted in 2001 for the murder of Lisha Gayle, despite a lack of hard evidence. There were no eyewitnesses present, no DNA evidence, and the footprint on the ground did not match Williams’ shoe size, nor were the hair fibers found his. Now, after losing 15 years of his life in prison, the government is willing to kill an innocent man for a crime that someone else clearly committed. The DNA tests that came back just recently show that the fingerprints on the murder weapon do not belong to Williams but to an unknown person, proving that he is innocent in the murder.

The Missouri Supreme Court, however, is not interested, and is continuing with their plan of the death penalty. Kent Gipson, Williams’ lawyer, is appalled at the situation. This case illustrates the devastating fact that our justice system, as well as society, still has a long way to go. When Williams was on trial for the murder, the jury, as well as the victim, were white. The jury specifically used a screening process in which they did not accept African Americans. Williams, an African American man, had little chance against a white jury and white victim, which is why he was found guilty with no hard evidence and was sentenced to death.

It is absurd that after so much time people in America still choose prejudice over justice. This case is just one example of the hate and racism that still exists in our country. Neo-nazi’s continue to target Jewish people and this is prevalent with the recent attacks, such as the destruction of synagogues in America, and the attacks on Stolpersteine in Europe. It is our job to continue to fight and fix these issues that weaken our society, allowing innocent men to be murdered by the government.

In Honor of Yom HaShoah – “The Same Day”

Written from an interview I conducted during my research in Rome (in first person of the man I interviewed):

“The Same Day”

Another winter is coming, the days growing ever-shorter. Right on schedule my knees are starting to bother me, just as every Sunday a small group of neighborhood children beneath my window decide who will be “it” first, to find the others who are hiding.

This time I watch them, a sturdy little boy was supposed to be “it,” but another one had to take his place. They all run in every direction to secure the best hiding places; the only one who doesn’t find shelter is the smallest, who runs aimlessly until he finds a hole, covered with blackberry bushes and sticks, where he hides: “If he stays hidden there, they’ll never find him,” I think, “and he will be the winner.” Just as I, at his age, hS hidden right there, the night when, for me and for so many others, it was life itself that hung in the balance.

That night, sixty years ago, was the last time I saw my father.

All I remember is that from that hole, I was barely able to glimpse a truck covered with a black canvas, surrounded by men in uniform who, in an unknown language, were forcing people to climb aboard.

That night too they were deciding who would be “it,” but the numbers shouted out that way made me afraid.

I didn’t see my father climb aboard but I understood he had left with them only when, returning home, I found my mother in tears, amid the confusion of our belongings scattered across the floor.

The smallest child wasn’t found. Making one last attempt, the others divided up, moving out toward the Teatro Marcello and the Temple of Apollo, to look for him. It was at that moment that the little boy emerged and, running, ended up shouting “home free,” touching the wall where they had been counting, under the stone that gives the piazza its present-day name, “Largo 16 ottobre 1943.”

On the kitchen table, today’s newspaper bears the same date at the top, above the headline “VIOLENCE ONCE AGAIN ON THE DAY OF REMEMBRANCE.”

I read the article: there are still people in this world who do not accept differences in religion, sex, social class and race, and who resort to the same violence that so frightened me as a child.

Meanwhile the laughter in the piazza becomes louder; the smallest boy is now on the ground, in tears, curled up on one side, his hands on his stomach. Standing, facing him, with challenging expression still on his face, the sturdy little boy laughs at him. Around them, the other children have formed a circle, cheering on the winner. I am too late to react before they all race away, vacating the piazza.

The little boy is still there, on the ground, allowing time for the smug cries of those who had been his playmates to fade into the distance.

Looking at him slowly get back up, battered, brushing off the dust from his clothing and drying his tears to eliminate any trace of what had happened, I know that what really hurts him now is not the pain of the punches he received, but the inconsolable pain of an injustice suffered.

An Unexpected Discovery

I continued my research in Amsterdam, which is home to many stolpersteine, as many Jews were exterminated from the Netherlands. A major attraction in Amsterdam is the Anne Frank museum. There is always a long line with a 3-hour wait to get in. Of course, I visited it and waited because I was really interested to see her hiding place. However, because I was researching stolpersteine, I also found the home in which she lived before the family went into hiding. This is not a popular tourist attraction because it is just an ordinary house outside of the city center that people do not know about. The only thing about the house that signifies who previously occupied it is the stolpersteine in front of it. There are four in the ground, one for each family member. It’s crazy that the famous Anne Frank family has these memorials for them, yet most people who visit Amsterdam don’t know this. Across the street from the house is a small park. There is a statue in this park of young Anne Frank where people place fresh flowers, like I did.

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I was able to interview a woman I met while photographing stolpersteine near the famous Portuguese synagogue. She lived in a building that had a few stumbling stones in front of it and I asked her what she knew about them. She told me that she was actually present at the installation a year ago. She also said that relatives of the person being commemorated flew from Israel for the installation, one of them being almost 100 years old! It’s incredible for a person of that age to make the long trip and it shows how much these stones mean to family members of these victims.

Another interesting thing about Amsterdam is a different memorial, similar to stumbling stones. On one canal lay plaques with the names of people who lived in these buildings before they were taken and died in concentration camps. There are plaques in front of every house, some with more than ten names from one! This memorial is almost identical to the stolpersteine, however they lie only on one street in Amsterdam. As I walked down that street and read the names of all the innocent victims, all I could think about were the horrors they went through.

 

Never Forget – The Horrors of Auschwitz

** This post is in honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day **

When I decided to visit the concentration camp of Auschwitz-Bikenau, I truly thought I was mentally and emotionally prepared for it. I wasn’t. It was one of the saddest and scariest experiences in my life. I’ve been researching the holocaust for a while and I knew a lot about the horrors that happened there. But reading about the murder of millions of Jews and other prisoners and actually standing where it happened are two very different things.

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Originally, Auschwitz consisted of three camps: Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II (Birkenau), and Auschwitz III (Monowitz, also called Buna). After the war, Auschwitz III was completely destroyed. More than a million Jews were transported to Auschwitz from all around Europe. Most people where sent to this concentration camp (Konzentrationslager) to die and approximately 1.1 million were murdered in Auschwitz. Although the majority of these prisoners were Jews, other people were also placed in camps. Around 160,000 were political prisoners, who were Poles arrested for their activities in the resistance movement or during repressive operations. There were also Gypsies, Soviet POWs, Correctional prisoners, Police prisoners, Criminal prisoners, Jehovah’s witnesses (Germans imprisoned for their religious behavior), and Homosexuals.

The camp looked scary and intimidating in order to oppress the Jews. Even the walls enclosing the Jewish ghetto that still stand in the Polish city of Krakow are shaped like tombstones. The bunks were small and crowded, cold in the winter, hot in the summer. The prisoners were murdered and tortured in many different ways. In the basement of one bunk, were many small rooms. Prisoners would go there as punishment if they did something wrong. One room had one tiny window and it was called the suffocation cube because the many prisoners in the tiny space would have very little air. Another room was the starvation corner where prisoners would be deprived of food. Lastly there was a standing room, where prisoners had to stand pressed against each other all night, work all day, and then go back and stand again. Imagining how these innocent people suffered made my heart ache. Another thing that really impacted me when I visited Auschwitz were the belongings of the Jews that were taken from them before they were killed in the camps. There are rooms filled with shoes of all shapes and sizes, hairbrushes, pots and pans, clothing, and more. One room holds the hair of victims that was discovered when the camp was liberated. To see it is so powerful and even more devastating.

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For me, the gas chamber was the most difficult part of the tour. As soon as I stepped in, I felt this awful feeling and all I wanted to do was go back outside where I could breathe better. It was the most horrible place I had ever been. I thought of all the people that died there, in the very place I was standing, terrified because they didn’t know what was going to happen. When the prisoners were sent to the gas chambers, they were told that they were taking a shower. They would undress and go into a room that looked like a washroom. And then the doors would close. And that was it. They could kill thousands of Jews within 20 minutes with gas. Many of the prisoners would be sent directly to the gas chambers when they arrived. Old people, disabled people, children, and pregnant women were immediately sent to their death because they couldn’t work so they weren’t useful.

Auschwitz-Birkenau is full of horrific memories and the suffering of millions of people. However, I believe it is a place every person should visit once in his or her life because what happened there can never be forgotten. Even more importantly, we need to make sure it is never repeated.

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A Necessary Trip to Poland

I made sure to stop in Poland as part of my research because it is a very sad place in Jewish history. A country that once had 3.3 million Jews is now home to only 20,000. This was one of the largest exterminations of Jewish people in all of Europe. To this day Stolpersteine are not allowed in Poland, which is why there is not a single one in the entire country.

I stayed in Krakow, a small city, with the plan of visiting Auschwitz-Birkeanu, a former concentration camp that is now a museum open to the public. The old city of Krakow is full of tourist attractions relating to its Jewish history, but there are barely any Jews currently living there. Walking through the town we heard Klezmer music in restaurants and went to outdoor markets full of Jewish artifacts. I had never seen so many synagogues in such a small area. Interestingly enough, just days after returning home from Eastern Europe, I came across an article in the New York Times titled In Poland, Searching for Jewish Heritage. The author, Joseph Berger, compared Krakow to “A Jewish Disneyland without actual Jews”, which is exactly how I felt while I was there but didn’t know how to describe it.

One of the most prominent memorials was a wall from the ghetto built during World War II. Every Jew was placed into this small section of the city, only to be humiliated, abused and tortured before being sent to concentration camps, if they survived that long. The ghetto wall was tall, dark and shaped like a tombstone, looming over the people inside. Even staring at the wall for a short period of time made me feel trapped and morose, almost lifeless. I imagined how the thousands of Jews must have felt gazing at the walls for hours, day after day. I later learned that the Germans purposely shaped the walls to resemble tombstones in order to oppress the Jews.

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Although I knew I would not find any Stolpersteine in Poland, it was necessary to visit because of its tragic Jewish history.

Stones in Salzburg

Salzburg has a very rich Jewish history, and because of this history it is home to more than 200 stolpersteine, also known as “stumbling stones”. 200 stones may not seem like a lot, but Salzburg is a very small town, which was home to many Jews, and now to many stolpersteine. I was a part of several installations at this location and witnessed this moving process. The artist, Gunter Demnig, places every stone himself, which is why he is constantly traveling throughout Europe. I watched as he transformed just an ordinary city block into something truly special and meaningful. Demnig and his team of less than ten people perfectly installed each stone into the sidewalk, finishing it off by placing a fresh rose on the stolpersteine. A few people were gathered, such as curious outsiders, friends or family, and members of the Salzburg stolpersteine committee. Each town that allows stolpersteine to be installed has a committee of people that are in charge of making this happen through close communication with Gunter Demnig. They are present at every installation. In Salzburg, I had the pleasure of meeting a few of these committee members. One man named Stan Nadel, is a history professor at the University of Salzburg, but is from New York City. He even attended The Bronx High School of Science, which is where I am currently a student. Dr. Nadel is in change of translating the website and all the speeches from German to English. A brief biography of the person being commemorated was read and the glistening plaque lay on the ground, embedded into the street.

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There have been reports of vandalizing stolpersteine in Salzburg, orchestrated and carried out by Neo-Nazis. They cover them with black paint or tear the stones out to completely wipe out the existence of Jewish people. In January 2014, the Neo-Nazis painted a yellow star on the synagogue of Salzburg, like the ones Jews were forced to wear during the holocaust. Some of these vandals have been sentenced to prison but other cases still remain unsolved. It’s outrageous that people are destroying these incredible memorials that have inspired so many people.

 

Searching for Stones

A few years back, my family and I traveled to Rome for a vacation. Shopping, sightseeing, relaxing, dining – everything was made even better by beautiful springtime weather. Three years later, my second stay in Rome also sported sunny days with a slight breeze. However, this time my trip was about more than just eating pizza, although that part was great too. Now, I visited so that I could learn more about the Stolpersteine project I had recently heard about.

Because Rome has a rich and sad Jewish history, we were able to locate many stones, especially in the Jewish Quarter, also known as the Ghetto. As we were visiting the buildings and photographing the stones, we also asked around to see if anyone knew something about the people that used to live there. We thought it would be interesting to learn as much as we could about the history of the people being memorialized. We ran into one gentleman as he was entering his building, which had a few stumbling stones in front of it, and asked if he knew anything. He was enthusiastic and helpful, telling us that although he did not know the people on the stones, his apartment used to be the home of a Jewish family that was taken to Auschwitz and never returned. However, there are no records of these people so they do not have stolpersteine in place to remember them. The man also said that his daughter interviewed one of their neighbors who is a holocaust survivor and wrote a story about it. He even offered to share the text with us.

We stood and listened to his stories right where the people had been taken away. On an ordinary day people who lived normal lives in these very houses were taken away forever. They tried to get away and save themselves. He pointed out places where people were attacked and captured by the Nazi soldiers, and “nooks and crannies” where people hid. One of the truly incredible things about this man was that he was not Jewish, yet he wanted to help us as much as he could. These stones are not only memorials, but they are a way for people to come together and remember what happened.

Gunter Demnig – The Brain Behind the Stolpersteine Project

Gunter Demnig is a remarkable artist that has not only inspired millions of people with his work, but has been recognized as a great humanitarian. Born in Germany on October 27, 1947, Gunter studied creative education and industrial design in Berlin. He majored in art at the University of Kassel and following that, spent two years planning, managing, and building historical documents. In 1985, this young artist opened his own studio in Cologne and worked on multiple local projects. Mr. Demnig’s best and most powerful work is the Stolpersteine project, a memorial for those who were murdered during the time of the holocaust. Gunter is constantly moving from town to town across Europe, as he not only creates but also installs every stone himself.

When Demnig first tried to start the project, it was rejected and the stones were forbidden. However, Gunter did not take no for an answer and installed multiple stolpersteine in Salzburg. As three or more stones are considered a memorial, the government could not remove them.

As part of my journey to learn more about the Stolpersteine project, I traveled to Salzburg in hopes of meeting the man responsible for creating these inspiring memorials. When I was able to speak with Gunter at one of his installations he came across as kind and soft-spoken, a person who genuinely cares for this project and the people it is helping. In our conversation he was friendly and attentive, answering all of my questions with more information I could have hoped for. Gunter has devoted all of his time and energy into creating and placing stones with only one goal in mind: to alleviate as many people as possible. He is able to heal people everyday and to do something that really matters. With his stolpersteine project, Gunter Demnig has given thousands of people closure and a chance to be remembered.

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