The Stolperstein initiative
This week, as we mark Holocaust Remembrance Day, I’m mulling over an encounter I had with one of the European Jewish communities at the center of the Shoah.
As some of you know, I’m keenly interested in the Stolperstein initiative. These “stumbling stones,” small bronze blocks engraved with details about the individual lives of Europe’s Jews who were murdered in the Shoah, are embedded in the streets outside their last known homes across the continent. In my travels I have sought these stones out and posted pictures of them on Instagram. I share my reflections in the moment; about their prevalence in certain central neighborhoods of Prague and the care they are given in areas of formerly eastern Berlin; about the places in Vienna where some current residents seek to hide them behind potted plants and bike racks so as to not be reminded of the history and legacy of the space they are in, and about the way in which this project has inspired another memorial – to Spain’s pre-Inquisition Jewish community – on the streets of Cordoba and Toledo.
In 2015, as part of a delegation of American Jewish leaders, I had the opportunity to visit Munich. At our first meeting, we were told by non-Jewish social activists that in this city, where the Nazis first rose to power, there were only two stolperstein, each on private property; the city refused the project permission to install them on public sidewalks as they have been positioned elsewhere. Surprisingly, the opposition came from the local Jewish leadership.
The next day, our group met with the chair of the Jewish Council, herself a survivor and a prominent voice of German Jewry. We had been asked by these social activists to press her on this matter, to share with her the power of these memorials and to encourage her reconsideration. We discussed this request amongst ourselves and came to understand that our role as outsiders was not to presume that we knew what was best for another Jewish community, but rather, that we would seek a deeper understanding of their perspective. We agreed that we would ask her to help us understand her opposition. She shared her concerns not only about the lack of an endowment for the long-term upkeep of the stones, but more pointedly, about the potential pain she would experience as a survivor, at witnessing people stepping on the names of her family in the streets of the city she came back to after the Shoah.
The lesson from this exchange was that, despite whatever power I found in these memorials elsewhere, here, in the heart of Bavaria, the Jewish leadership’s primary concern was the experience of local survivors, who could be retraumatized by these stones. For now, there would be no such memorial – though some of the Jewish leaders we met acknowledged that a day may come when it would be a welcome and important addition to their community. This exchange reaffirmed an essential lesson: that as a Jewish leader from elsewhere, my responsibility was to honor the needs and the will of the local community.
I share this memory by way of illuminating a thought process that comes up often in my work: How do we understand our responsibility to other local Jewish communities when speaking publicly on events occurring in their cities that directly impact them?
Often the answers are easy, such as when we choose to lift up and be guided by the leadership of a community under attack, standing with the French Jewish federation after the Hyper Cacher attack, or asking my colleagues in Pittsburgh what they needed in the days and weeks after that unthinkably tragic shabbat. Sometimes it can be a little more complicated, for example when we take great offense at the comments or actions of a member of Congress from outside Massachusetts. In these instances, I find myself weighing our own rightful outrage about a member of our own government alongside the interests and relationships that another Jewish community has with its own representative.
Of course, not everything local stays local. The murder of George Floyd, for example, required a national conversation about a national crisis. Still, we consulted with and recognized the leadership of colleagues on the ground in Minneapolis who were in relationship with their local partners. Considering that JCRC’s public voice often has both local and national implications, we carry a responsibility to a global Jewish people. We strive to maintain a level of humility for the effect that our voice will have on those members of our family who are most closely impacted by the issue at hand.
There are dozens of factors and considerations that are weighed every time we speak out, and numerous voices and partners – within and beyond the Jewish community – who inform our thinking. But for now, this week of Holocaust Remembrance, I wanted to share this particular story of an interaction with a survivor that has stayed with me and enriched my understanding of what Jewish leadership requires of me, and of us.
I welcome your reflections as well.