IT WAS OCTOBER, 2015 -- 75 years since the deportation of the Baden Jews to Gurs -- when Steve and I traveled to France and Germany, on a carefully planned journey of research and remembrance.
The cemetery at the Gurs site, moved from the original site, memorializes those who died here: Spanish republicans fleeing Franco after the Spanish Civil War, as well as victims of the Nazis.
WE WENT FIRST to the former concentration camp site of Gurs in the Pyrenees of Southwest France. Although I was disappointed in my experience of the Gurs site, going there was something I'd had to do.
At the monument with the inscription to the "victims of the barbaric Nazis," I thought of the words of Richard Weilheimer, whose mother is buried here and whose father was killed at Sobibor. "But of course -- as with similar monuments in Europe--" he writes, "there is no mention of the local anti-Semites who were complicit in their deaths."
AGAIN WE WENT TO Memorial de la Shoah in Paris, and again I stood before Frieda's name, engraved in stone along with the names of three of my other relatives--four among the 76,000 deported from France, inscribed here.
Again, I touched her name on the wall before me and said the mourner's kaddish to myself in silence.
I HAD BROUGHT WITH ME to Germany a small photo album, its brown paper cover and pages fraying at the edges. The album had been stashed away in storage much like the grey folder, in a box of possessions belonging to my cousin, Jane, who had died many years before. I hadn't even known of its existence until it was sent to me.
The photos were clearly taken by my father, almost all of them from his life in Germany before he left in December of 1938. My father's name (the German version with the extra 'h' on Eric and the two 'n's on the end of Sonneman) and his address in Mannheim were written on the inside cover.
It was, in fact, the very address in Mannheim that I'd chosen for the Stolperstein for Freida Berger, Heinrich-Lanz-Straße 34. This was the place that the family really considered home. And now, because of the album, I knew that they'd lived on the top floor, for a photo of my grandmother on the balcony showed the roofline just above her.
"Mütter auf Balkon." 1929
"Tante auf dem Sofa," top right, June, 1930.
STARTLINGLY, NEW IMAGES of Frieda emerged through the pages of the album: a cozy Christmas scene of the whole family, taken with a self-timer, in 1929, another of her relaxing on the sofa with a book, taken in the summer of 1930.
The Weihnachten scene really surprised me. My own family would never have had a Christmas tree -- so why would my father's Jewish family be celebrating Christmas? Steffen Pross explained: It was very common in Germany for all but the most observant orthodox Jews to have a Tannenbaum, he said.
Frieda in 1929, age 48
The apartment building at Heinrich-Lanz-Straße 34 had changed very little in the 80-some years since Frieda and my father's family had lived there.
Above, Gunter Demnig preparing the sidewalk to set the brass Stolperstein into place. Below, hammering in the Stolperstein.
BY THE TIME GUNTER DEMNIG arrived at Heinrich-Lanz-Straße 34, around 10 a.m. on a chilly October morning, we were ready. That morning I had bought eight white roses to frame the small brass plaque, and the evening before, I had written a simple text to read as Demnig placed the Stolperstein. Karen Strobel, the archivist from Mannheim, stood beside me, translating my text into German, paragraph by paragraph.
Vielen Dank, dass Sie heute alle gekommen sind! (Thank you all for coming today)
Frieda Berger was a sister of my Oma, the Tante of my father. She lived here at Heinrich-Lanz-Straße 34 with my father’s family for many years. I never knew Frieda but I feel as if I did know her. My parents gave me her name in her memory, and my father often spoke of her with affection.
For the last two years I have been tracing the details of what happened to Frieda after my father and grandparents were able to escape Nazi Germany – a chance that was denied to Frieda.
I have visited Freudental, the town where Frieda and my Oma grew up. I came to Mannheim a year ago to learn more about Frieda’s life. Last week I visited the concentration camp site of Gurs, near the Pyrenees in Southwest France, where she and 7,500 other Jews from this part of Germany were deported in October of 1940.
Frieda was murdered in Auschwitz in August of 1942. I have touched her name inscribed on the Wall Of Names at the Memorial de la Shoah in Paris.
Frieda Berger has no grave, but now it is time to mark a place here at Heinrich-Lanz-Straße 34 in Mannheim, a place where she lived and, for a time, a place where she was happy.
Following my brief talk, the mayor of Freudental, where Frieda was born -- who had come with a delegation from PKC and the village -- spoke about their desire to give, as well as to sponsor financially, this memorial to Frieda in Mannheim.
I was surprised at the size of the crowd on this nondescript little street in Mannheim: nine or ten people from Freudental, several students along with their teacher, plus two Mannheim students who had made a film about my father, the people from the archive, and several others who were having Stolpersteine placed that day. Since 9 o'clock that morning, Gunter Demnig had already placed three other Stolpersteine for Mannheim victims of the Holocaust on the city streets.
Later that day, we discovered the Stolperstein of Henriette Wagner, just down the street at Heinrich-Lanz-Straße 28. Wagner was part of a Communist resistance group (the Lechleiter group) and had offered shelter to persecuted people and distributed anti-Nazi literature. She was tried and executed in Stuttgart in 1943. The Stolperstein, placed in 2010, had darkened with time. We went back to Heinrich-Lanz-Straße the next day to polish it up.
I PLACED THE WHITE ROSES around the shiny new Stolperstein. I knew it would tarnish in time, but here it was, embedded in concrete, and probably here to stay for a long time to come.
I thanked Gunter Demnig as he was packing up his tools. Then he left. He had several more Stolpersteine to place that morning, and after a central ceremony at a school auditorium (with music, a student presentation, and speeches by the Mannheim mayor and Demnig) he would go to nearby Ludwigshafen that same day to place another round of Stolpersteine.
Almost every day was like this for him, as the idea of memorializing individual victims where they had lived had become a vast project and an unstoppable force.