Sermon: On Stolpersteine and Jewish Europe

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 3 August 2013

One of the great privileges of being a rabbi is the opportunity to sit on a Beit Din for conversion – to be with people when their journey to become part of the Jewish people is realised.

For those who have never been through it, let me explain how it works.  The candidate walks into the room, and across a table are three rabbis – four, including the convener, who takes copious notes throughout, largely to satisfy the demands of the Israeli interior ministry – though that is another sermon.
After introductions, the three rabbis ask questions for about 30 minutes or so to reassure themselves that the candidate is sincere about their desire to be Jewish and has developed the skills and knowledge to be able to live a meaningful Jewish life.

In common, oddly, with US Congressional committees, questions are asked in order of seniority.  The rabbi in the middle is the one who has been a rabbi longest – known, in a parallel with the House of Commons – as the the Av, or Em, Bet Din – the father or mother of the court.  They go first; then the next longest serving, then the one was ordained most recently.

I am rarely the baby of the court any more.
Which is lucky, because the experience can be rather awkward: one by one, all the questions you hoped to ask are asked by your colleagues.
How are you involved with your community?  Gone;
How do you keep Shabbat? Gone;
Tell us about the next festival.  Gone;
It is even likely that one of the other two will have used the fall back of asking the candidate to read some Hebrew from the Siddur.
So, rabbi number three has to be more imaginative:
What is your experience of being Jewish at Christmas time?
How do you feel when there is something about Israel on the news?
What do you do that is Jewish when you are out of the country?

These questions may be more ‘leftfield’, but they are also potentially more insightful about a candidate’s real Jewish life. These are questions about identity – about the experience of being part of the Jewish people.  How do we experience being part of a minority culture?  How do we experience association with other Jews around the world? How do we experience being part of the continuum of Jewish history, and that very Jewish sense of time and space.

The latter question speaks to all three.
It is part of being Jewish that even if you wouldn’t dream of finding a place to daven on Shabbat when abroad, you might well tour Jewish sites, or give up a whole day in the baking sun to find a place not where Jews are, but where Jews once lived.  There is something in us that engages with peoplehood, with history, not only through books and stories, through items and artefacts, but also through this sense of physical place.  One of the things being probed at a Beit Din is the extent to which that sense of belonging or attachment has been formed.

As Jews we are acutely aware of the power of space, in part because that association has so regularly been shattered, especially in Europe.
Sometimes on visiting somewhere, that sense of space can be uplifting – in places where Jewish history is somehow preserved; or indeed, when you happen across something unexpected – a functioning synagogue in an otherwise Jewishly deserted city – or something unexpectedly striking, the tribute to Rashi in Troyes springs to mind.

Sometimes you can appreciate the thought that has gone into creating a space that continues to live, whilst also honouring that which once was there – in that place.  As an example, you may recall the case of Berlin’s first Jewish girls’ school – closed down by the Nazis in 1942, and used as a deportation centre and a base for the Hitler Youth, before becoming a secular school in then East Germany.  Last year it reopened as a cool new cultural centre, not without controversy.  But effort was made to honour the history of the space – with a dedication plaque, with a Kosher restaurant.  Better, one might argue, than the building standing unused, going to ruin, part of the ongoing German challenge of honouring the Holocaust without being paralysed by it.

But very often there is something missing – most common are places where the once existence of Jews has been all but wiped out from the record; or where it feels somehow shoved off to one side.
If you go to Greece’s second city, Salonika, for example, there is a small Jewish museum, and a holocaust memorial.  But of over 2,000 years of prominent and creative Jewish life, of a place where 50,000 or so Jews lived less than a century ago, there is very little sense.  Where once was one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in Europe?  No point in giving up a day of the holiday because there is literally nothing there to record the former identity of the space.

Even where there is a memorial – some physical identification, there is still something missing.  Because a single site it can never capture the reality of whole neighbourhood’s worth of people, of Jewish homes no longer there.  Of a complete fracturing in the story of space.  Even where, such as Paris’ wall of names, there is an attempt to record individuals, this is still a focusing of people and history into one location; and the enormity – 75,000 names – gives the experience of Jews as a people, rather than Jews as just people – individuals living their lives.

Which is why the Stolpersteine of the German artist Gunter Demnig are such a profound addition to the European landscape.

Last week I had the extraordinary privilege of accompanying the Gellerts to Eastern Slovakia to be with them as they laid these small squares of concrete covered with a thin brass plate, in memory of Andrew and Vera’s 4 grandparents and his father’s siblings who died in the Shoah in their hometown of Presov.

Theirs are the most recent of now over 40,000 such individual plaques throughout Europe – each one proclaiming ‘Here Lived’ with the name and dates of one person – one Jew or other victim of the Holocaust – each placed prominently on the pavement outside the location where they once lived.
These memorials are literally known as stumbling blocks – not that one should stumble on them physically but that they create an emotional, intellectual moment of stumble for those who walk over them.  A moment especially dislocating because it is not a public memorial but a reminder of an individual.

You can find out more about Demnig and how he came to create this project online.  But, it was an incredibly moving thing to be involved in.
Not only because I was with a family for whom this was a powerful personal moment who were willing to allow me to become one of them and to share their commemoration with them.

But also because of the definite sense of difference that was made to the place itself.  Reclaiming is too strong a word – but the nature of the location somehow was changed.  It became more connected.  To me at least, but I would like to think more broadly, too, it became once again a Jewish space.  A place with a history, with a narrative of which Jewish people were not just a part but a known, a proclaimed part.

The next day Family Levy returned to one of the two places in which Stolpersteine were laid.  And there we watched an old lady bent over, reading the pavement.  It was clear that Stolpersteine do what they are supposed to do – they ask people to stop; they create a thread to the past – a link to individuals and individual lives that once were there.

Which brings me back to the Beit Din.
On the way to Presov, driving East, the day before, we had stopped in a town for lunch – I won’t embarass myself by trying to pronounce the name.  I later discovered that Gunter Demnig had just laid a Stolperstein there.  And I realised that our stop could also have been transformed – had the potential to become that ‘something Jewish done abroad’ – because of this powerful act of renaming of space he undertakes.
Of course, where we had had lunch, Jews once lived.
It’s obvious.
But this was not a conscious part of our journey.

On the way from Presov, driving west, we drove close to a town from which an Alyth member who converted with me originally came.
And I realised how powerful that sense of connection could also be for her.  Someone who has not only experienced the beauty of Judaism and the joy of community – but has chosen to claim the Jewish experience, to be part of the Jewish people, to join the continuum of Jewish history.

The lasting contribution of Gunter Demnig is to effect that strange mix of religion and people and place that makes up Jewish identity – which a rabbi is trying to identify when given the privilege of sitting on a Beit Din.
Each Stolperstein, is a marker of Jewish connection – is a small marker of identity against the backdrop of the shattered fragments of our history