Remembering Frieda

IN OCTOBER OF 2014 -- more than a year since I'd started intensive search for Frieda Berger, I went to Europe, with my partner Steve Sanger. I was looking for traces of Frieda. In Paris at Memorial de la Shoah, I found Frieda's name among the 76,000 names and birth dates engraved in stone on the Wall of Names -- those deported from France, the Memorial notes, "as part of the Nazi plan to annihilate the Jews of Europe with the collaboration of the Vichy government."

 

The wall is about 10 feet tall, so many of the names are placed above or below a direct line of sight, but as I walked around the corner to the largest section of the wall -- 1942 -- there right in front of me, and surrounded by so many other names, was her name: Frieda BERGER 1881. I reached out and touched the engraved letters. The name and date was as intensely personal as my own fingerprint, and yet just a small part of this broad expanse of stone wall, with its relentless alphabet of death.

IN MANNHEIM, Karen Strobel brought me to the Kubus, a glass cube memorial on a busy pedestrian shopping street. The 2,280 names of Mannheim victims of the Nazis are engraved on the inside of the cube so one can read the names only by looking through the glass. The idea was that passers-by would stop to look and reflect. Few of the shoppers on this busy street seemed to notice the memorial, however.

We returned to the Kubus on the evening of 22 October, for a commemoration of the deportation of the Mannheim Jews to Gurs. We stood in the cold autumn dusk, listening to  mournful music and speeches by students of a school renamed in honor of Johanna Geissmar, a Jewish doctor murdered in Auschwitz after she volunteered to stay with a transport of her patients from Gurs. At the end of the ceremony a cantor from the Mannheim synagogue chanted a haunting version of the mourners' Kaddish.

The commemoration was moving and meaningful to me. After 74 years, good people in Mannheim wanted to remember, to acknowledge the shame of their city.  And it was a specific and particular memory -- these were not six million victims, but Johanna and Frieda and the other 2,278 women and men and children who had lived in this city, whose homes and livelihoods and possessions were stolen, who were deported to Gurs on 22 October, 1940, who died of disease or exhaustion in Gurs or were murdered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. 

 

Together, we mourned them.

 

 

AND YET I WAS AWARE, in Paris and in Mannheim, that I was not really remembering Frieda's life, but rather learning about and commemorating her death. 

 

I knew so little about her, but I wanted to recognize her life in some way. I wanted to locate her -- as my grandparents and my father had never been able to do.

 

In Mannheim and other towns, I'd seen the shiny little brass tiles embedded in sidewalks or cobblestones outside houses and apartment buildings, engraved with the phrase "Hier wohnt" -- "Here lived," followed by a name and birth year, and often the dates of arrest, deportation and murder. 

 

 

FRIEDA, DECEMBER 1929. In the course of doing this project, another photo of Frieda emerged from an album of photos taken by my father in the late 1920s and 1930s.

 

 

Demnig's project has grown enormously as residents of Berlin and other German cities began to research who was deported in their neighborhoods, and relatives and descendants requested them (anyone can sponsor a Stolperstein for 120 Euro). There are now 50,000 Stolpersteine in Germany and throughout Europe, including Austria, Hungary, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, France, the Czech Republic, Norway and Ukraine.

 

"A PERSON IS ONLY FORGOTTEN when his or her name is forgotten," Gunter Demnig says, citing the Talmud. 

 

Of course, bearing Frieda's name, I could not and would not forget her. After returning from France and Germany in the fall of 2014, I put in my request for a Stolpersteine for Frieda Berger, at the one address in Mannheim where she clearly had chosen to live. Demnig's website said there was a long waiting list. 

 

Finally, in July of 2015, I received notice of when the brass plaque, bonded to a block of concrete, would be set into the sidewalk in front of No. 34 Heinrich-Lanz-Strasse in Mannheim. The date was set for October 13, 2015.

 

I bought my airline ticket.  Steve had decided to come with me and Karen Strobel said she would be there too. Steffen Pross persuaded the city of Freudental to pay for the Stolperstein, and he would come, along with the mayor of Freudental who wanted to say a few words as well.

 

We would all be there, to mark a small place in Mannheim for Frieda -- or at least for her name.

These  plaques, I learned, were Stolpersteine or "stumbling stones," part of a public project of commemoration started by the German artist Gunter Demnig in 1996. An engraved brass "stone" in front of a house or apartment is meant to mark the last "address of choice" (as opposed to a Judenhaus) of a victim of National Socialism -- whether Jew, Sinti or Roma, homosexual, Jehovah's Witness, disabled or political dissident.