Steve Jaron and Betram Polak were separated by decades and circumstance. Jaron, a lifelong Pittsburgher born in 1979, could never have met Polak — the first cousin of Jaron’s grandmother — who lived his short life in the Netherlands and was murdered by the Nazis at Auschwitz in 1942.
Yet, on April 29, 2011, Jaron found himself in the Dutch town of Tilburg, alongside relatives from throughout the United States, Israel and the Netherlands standing in front of the last place Polak voluntarily lived at a ceremony commemorating his life with the laying of a stolpersteine, or “stumbling stone.”
“The stones are a good way to commemorate family members lost in the Holocaust,” said Jaron, who has been documenting his own family’s genealogy for years.
There are more than 61,000 stolpersteine in more than 610 locations in Germany, as well as in Austria, Hungary, the Netherlands, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Norway and Ukraine. The stones are concrete cubes which measure about 4×4 inches, bearing brass plates inscribed with the name and life dates of those slaughtered by the Nazis or, in some cases, those who survived.
The stolpersteine are a project of German artist Gunter Demnig, who has been creating and laying the stones since the early 1990s.
Demnig, on his website, cites the Talmudic saying that “a person is only forgotten when his or her name is forgotten.”
Installed on the sidewalks in front of the buildings where the victims last lived, each stolpersteine begins with the phrase, “Here lived.” Also included is the individual’s birth year, date of arrest if applicable, the name of the camp in which he or she was detained, the year in which he or she was deported to a concentration camp, and the date of his or her murder.
Anyone can sponsor a stone for 120 euros, including surviving family members of Holocaust victims. In Germany and in the Netherlands, however, most of the requests for the laying of stolpersteine come from the towns themselves, according to Anne Thomas, who is responsible for the project outside of Germany.
In the case of Bertram Polak’s stolpersteine, the request came from the non-Jewish history professor who moved into Polak’s house in 2000. When commencing renovations on the home that had been built in 1927, Arnoud-Jan Bijsterveld noticed on the plans of the house that the name of its original owner, M.H. Polak — Bertram’s father — was Jewish. Bijsterveld quickly got busy researching the fate of the Polaks, ultimately connecting to Jaron through a website called the Joods (Jewish) Monument maintained by Amsterdam’s Jewish Cultural Quarter, which includes the Jewish Historical Museum and the National Holocaust Museum. Once he connected with Jaron, Bijsterveld was able to get in touch with other relatives and reconstruct the fate of Bertram, whose family had escaped to Israel and the United States.
The story of Bijsterveld and his journey to uncover the fate of the Polak family is captured on a compelling documentary on YouTube called, “Here was Betram.” Bijsterveld also chronicled his work in a book, “House of Memories.”
Bijsterveld was motivated to uncover Bertram’s story not only to satisfy a historical curiosity, but also by “a moral obligation to know who lived here and what happened to them,” he said in an email.
“I really wanted to mark Bertram’s absence with a stumbling stone. These stones work tremendously well in creating a physical place of remembrance to which a history is connected that ought to be remembered by current and future generations,” Bijsterveld said.
The day of the laying of the stone, he continued, “was the most impressive day in my life. Very emotional, but also very mind-lifting: to see all these people reconnect after so many years.”
As per the requirements for laying a stone, Bijsterveld informed the city council and asked permission of his neighbors, “who happily consented,” before proceeding with the stolpersteine.
He did, however, encounter “quite some opposition” from a family down the street that “didn’t want stumbling stones because they thought it would be too confrontational to their kids. Another family around the corner didn’t want ‘people to stop in front of our house.’”
The laying of stolpersteine has also provoked some opposition by the Jewish community.
“Not all members of the Jewish community were happy when we laid stones in the small park next to the synagogue, named after Helga Deen (killed in Sobibor and a school friend of Judith Rothstein-Polak, [Jaron’s] wonderful grandmother, living in Pittsburgh),” revealed Bijsterveld. “They didn’t want to be reminded of the Holocaust when going to shul. People living on that street feared the stones would attract anti-Semitic Moroccan youngsters — which I find a ridiculous thought and as discriminatory as anti-Jewish feelings were in the 1930s.”
Some Orthodox Jewish communities “are against stumbling stones as people trod on them: That’s why there are no stumbling stones in the nearby town of Breda and in German towns like Munich and Fürth,” he added.
Margit Diamond, a Holocaust survivor from Berlin who lives in Pittsburgh, said she feels “ambivalent” about the stones. A couple years ago, she was contacted by someone who lives in the apartment building where her uncle and aunt had lived in Berlin, seeking information about the family prior to the laying of a stolpersteine in their memory. Diamond does not know if the stolpersteine has yet been laid, and she is not sure whether she would attend such a ceremony if invited.
“I’ve often thought about it,” she said. “I might go. I’ll be 90 in December, but I’m in pretty good shape. But the Germans, they think they can make up for things, but for what they did to us, they can’t make up. I suppose it’s better than nothing.”
Evan W. Wolfson, a Pittsburgh-based attorney who is interested in Jewish genealogy, has distant relatives who were murdered during the Holocaust for whom stones have been laid. He understands the concerns of those survivors who are not enthusiastic about the stones.
“I certainly wouldn’t want people who have been through the Holocaust to be traumatized again by the positioning of the stones,” Wolfson said. “But the project is great in the way it’s forcing Germans and people in other countries to grapple with these issues. There is not a good way to ignore them when you are always walking by these names.”
“Stolper,” Wolfson noted, means “stumble upon,” which could be construed as a metaphor, imposing upon people the need for “balance, forcing them to grapple with the issues. It makes people uncomfortable, but that’s how it should be.”
Elmar Ittenbach, a teacher who has researched and commemorated the Jews of Thalfang, Germany, agrees.
“During the Thalfang stolpersteine ceremony, Gunter Demnig said that people have got to bow in order to read the inscription on these blocks of 10×10 cm.,” Ittenbach wrote in an email. “They must bow and memorize the victims´ fate. I think this a good pro argument.”
Ittenbach did note the opinion of Charlotte Knobloch, the former president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, who wrote that when people trod on the stones, they are further debasing the names of the victims.
Having recently returned from her first trip to Berlin — traveling with the group Classrooms without Borders — Lauren Bairnsfather, executive director of the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, was moved by the sheer number of stolpersteine in a neighborhood that had been predominately Jewish before the Holocaust.
“It’s disturbing for sure,” she said. “It’s very upsetting. But it shows an awareness of what that neighborhood lost.”
The demand for stolpersteine is high, with a waiting list; in some cities, such as Amsterdam or Berlin, those commissioning the stones may have to wait until 2020 before they can be placed, according to Thomas. PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at