The internationally recognized date for Holocaust Remembrance Day corresponds to the 27th day of Nisan on the Hebrew calendar. In Hebrew, Holocaust Remembrance Day is called Yom Hashoah. In 2017 it falls on April 24th, my father’s birthday. He would have turned 78 years old.

Yom Hashoa is about remembering the victims of the Holocaust. It is about telling the story, so we will never forget.

Germany has started telling a story with “Stolpersteine” (Stumbling Stones) since 1992. The story continues to be told, as more and more Stolpersteine are being embedded in sidewalks. As one walks along German cities, one can “feel” these Stolpersteine and is reminded that a Jewish individual and their family lived at that spot and fell victim to the Nazis. It is a different type of story than a memorial, a monument, a plaque or a book. You don’t hear or watch the story, you see and feel the story of how lives were taken, families broken apart and history changed forever.

Stolpersteine are explained in Wikipedia as:

A stolperstein from German, literally “stumbling stone”, metaphorically a “stumbling block” or a stone to “stumble upon”, plural stolpersteine) is a cobblestone-size concrete cube bearing a brass plate inscribed with the name and life dates of victims of Nazi extermination or persecution. The stolperstein art project was initiated by the German artist Gunter Demnig in 1992, and is still ongoing. It aims at commemorating individual persons at exactly the last place of residency—or, sometimes, work—which was freely chosen by the person before he or she fell victim to Nazi terror

Let me tell you my family’s story, so we will not forget…

My grandfather, Siegfried Rosenthal, never spoke to me about his experiences the night of November 9th, 1938, Kristallnacht. The night that the SS came to his door and arrested him in front of his aging father, seven year old son and pregnant wife for simply being a Jew and taken to the Concentration camp Oranienburg. He did write his thoughts down at one point. I am glad he did, otherwise his story, his voice would have been lost to me, my daughters and grandchildren. Little did I know that there was much more to the story…

That brings up the question of each of our own responsibility of telling our stories, so they will not be forgotten. My grandfather wrote his story on a typewriter. That piece of paper was passed down to my father and then to me. How long, how many generations will it take before that paper gets lost, destroyed or vanishes forever?

When my own children were in Middle School, I offered to give a presentation about my family’s story to their Social Studies class. Traditionally (here in the US) it is the time that students get an introduction to the Holocaust. Back in 2002, I created a PowerPoint slidedeck to aid me in the presentation, a tool I had available at that time. I was continued to be asked to share this presentation many times in person in other classes and schools over the years that followed. In 2009, I shared the slidedeck on Slideshare.net.

In 2010, as I continued to think about the importance of storytelling, media literacy and teaching students with “their” media in order to reach theme and make connections. I felt, it was time to once again re-tell my grandfather and our family’s story. Trying to make the words jump off that paper, that my grandfather wrote so many years ago with a typewriter. I am sad, that the technology was not as readily available before 1993, when he passed away. I could have filmed and recorded him easily to capture him, his personality, his voice…

This is the story, we knew about until a few months ago in November 2016, I received an email from David Jany inquiring if I was a descendant of Max and Siegfried Rosenthal? We started an email exchange and he let me know that he was a historian for the German Firefighter Association and that he had been researching my great-grandfathers story (Max had been a prestigious member of that association for over 40 years and one of the “best known citizen” of the city of Wattenscheid). He found my slidedeck from almost 10 years ago and was able to get in touch with me. In one of our conversations, which quickly moved on from email to phone calls and Facebook video calls, he shared that his area of interest was to find out more about the volunteer firefighters and their relationship with their Jewish comrades once the Nazis swept the country. This was how my great-grandfather became the focus of his research. (I remember hearing from an older cousin of my father’s who was present at my great-grandfather’s funeral, that no one from his firefighter or WWI comrades attended the funeral out of fear for repercussions for themselves from the Nazis.)

David Jany’s research filled in many black holes (or misinformation that we had) about my great-grandfather’s history. There still seems to be mysterious circumstances surrounding his death, beyond that we had assumed that he had died of a broken heart, after his realization that his son, Siegfried, was taken to a concentration camp during the Kristallnacht and he blamed himself and his refusal to leave Germany in 1936.

We found out that:

  • his official death certificate said he died on December 21, 1938 (although his gravestone says December 26, 1928)
  • he might have died from the consequences of having been beaten (not from old age or consequences of an STD as stated on a death certificate)
  • his house was “sold” on December 27, 1938 -immediately a few days after his death. (Was this orchestrated? Was my grandfather still in the concentration camp Oranienburg, when the sale of the family home was taking place? What happened to my pregnant grandmother once the house was sold from underneath her? Where did she stay until they were able to escape in June 1939 towards South America?)
  • the family home still exists today. Hüller Strasse 10 in Wattensheid (City of Bochum today)
  • my great-grandfather’s gravestone was destroyed at the Jewish Cemetery of Wattenscheid during the Nazi reign…
  • …and a new one (with his wife’s name included) was placed at the “Denkmal der Jüdischen Gemeinde Dortmund” .

    photo credit: David Jany

David Jany has started the paperwork to sponsor a Stolperstein in my great- grandfather’s name. The brick with the brass plate bearing his name should be embedded into the sidewalk in front of their last home next year (2018). (Maybe I can take my granddaughter to the ceremony…?)

Stolpersteine helping to tell stories and helping us not to forget.