In the run up to Holocaust Memorial Day my son’s school hosted a talk by a survivor of Auschwitz, liberated 70 years ago today.
Up and down the country pupils have heard such first-hand accounts. In my generation teaching about the Holocaust did not include such personal recollections; our learning was about an impersonal number, an abstraction; six million.
But to think of the victims as a whole is to risk reducing them to that number; to see the mass but not the individuals.
Holocaust educators of many different types recognise this danger. For example, Stephen Spielberg’s movie Schindler’s List portrays its horrors in over three hours of black and white film but two isolated moments include a single colour, that of a red jacket first seen on the back of a small girl and then later, dumped on the back of a cart, over her dead body. In the movie it is this moment of recognition that prompts Schindler to save Jews. It should remind the rest of us that each victim has a story.
One of the most remarkable attempts to remind us of their stories is the brainchild of German artist Gunter Demnig. He has laid some 45,000 commemorative Stolperstein, or stumbling stones, at over a thousand European sites since 1997. Each stone is a 10cm cube topped with a brass plaque which details the life and death of a single victim. The stone is laid in the middle of the pavement near what was once their home, school or workplace.
Unlike most memorials each is commissioned privately, often by relatives but sometimes by people researching the histories of their homes and streets. Herr Demnig insists that each stone is hand made. This commitment to each memorialised individual stands in stark contrast to the collectivist ideology of their mass murderers; an act of personal commemoration for those who have no grave.
Whilst many have participated in their ceremonial installations others have resisted them, including those who have made death threats to Herr Demnig; those who would rather not be reminded of the Holocaust and those who argue that to walk on the names of the murdered is to desecrate them.
Nevertheless his stumbling stones now comprise the world’s largest memorial to Holocaust victims and the experience of those who live near them is that they create conversations that would not otherwise happen; they help people understand the impact of the Holocaust in the place where they live and that neighbours look after them.
In the German city of Magdeburg you can find a large group of stumbling stones laid for members of the Blumenfeld family. Rosa and Simon Blumenfeld were owners of one of Germany’s great circuses. They not only toured Europe but had their own circus building where the stumbling stones now lie.
Rosa died four days after being taken to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Of her 12 children, only one survived the Holocaust. His name was Arthur and alongside his wife Victoria he had managed to stay hidden through the war. Following liberation they went back to the family’s way of making a living.
With help from Allied Forces they established a circus in Berlin. Arthur presented horses and his small show included a strongman, a magic act and acrobatics.
1946 marked the 150th anniversary of the Blumenfeld circus in Germany. Compared to its former grander it was a small affair, performing only to Allied troops and to orphans.
By 1949 food shortages had become so severe that the animals could no longer be fed and the show closed. In 1951 Arthur too was dead and with him the last Blumenfeld circus.
My grandfather had died in England seven years earlier, in 1944. My grandmother thought it lucky that he died before knowing that four of his siblings had been murdered in the concentration camps.
These included his youngest sister Olympia, who is now memorialised in a stumbling stone in Magdeburg alongside her husband and his family, the Blumenfelds.
Schindler’s List recalls the Jewish saying: “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire”. This conveys the insight that history is never just history.
The Holocaust stole the future that its victims’ descendants might have made, not only the cousins that my children will never know but the scientists, inventors, authors and artists whose lives might have enriched us all. We will never know.
Ron Beadle is Professor of Organisation and Business Ethics at Northumbria University.