This is the third part of a three part post.
Click for the first — One summer’s reading group: Preface
Click for the second — One summer’s reading group
The memories in part two of One Summer’s Reading Group came back to haunt me about a year ago while reading Letter from Germany — The Last Trial: A Great-grandmother, Auschwitz, and the Arc of Justice by Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker. It was very difficult to read, as were the articles researched for this post, and that dreadful feeling of not being able to pull myself away came over me.
Kolbert’s Letter begins with the trial of Oskar Groning, whose assignment in the S.S. was to collect, sort and count the money taken from people sent to Auschwitz. Groning lived freely but discreetly in Germany after the war. In 1985, however, he came forward with details of his work and observations at Auschwitz in an effort to deflate the lies of Holocaust deniers. In 2014 at the age of 93 and was convicted as an accessory to murder in 300,000 cases.
Forty years after the war, Groning did not fear or anticipate arrest. There were many attempts to define crimes against humanity, murder and genocide, and how far down the ladder of responsibility did guilt creep. Kolbert leads us through three stages of trials in which the line between “guilty” and “innocent” was continualy moving.
She quotes a chilling statement of Germany’s first postwar Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer,
‘You don’t toss away dirty water when you don’t have any that’s clean.’
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In the attic of the home of Kolbert’s grandparents in New York state, were boxes of the papers of her great-grandmother, Franziska Maass.. Kolbert and her mother went through them in 2009 after both grandparents had died. Among them were her great-grandmother’s letters written between March and October 1942 to her son who, like so many others, had moved to the Americas during the war.
‘With great longing I am thinking of you,’ one read, in part. ‘I pray to God that I will see you again.’
‘Beloved Children! I think a lot about you. I am very lonely.’
Franziska’s son had tried with out success to learn what had happened to his mother. Kolbert and her mother were able to put together a sketchy picture of her life from these papers and from information found in the records kept by the Third Reich stored now in the International Tracing Service in Bad Arolsen. On December 14, 1942
. . . she, along with eight hundred and ten others from Berlin and surrounding towns, was put on a transport train to Auschwitz. On the record of the transport, she was listed as arbeitsfähig, or able to work. She was sixty-two years old.
Several years ago friends of Kolbert who lived in Germany told her of the German artist Gunter Demnig, whose Stolpersteine, “stumbling stones,” are found embedded in the streets of Berlin where victims of the Nazi barbarity lived before they were sent to concentration camps. Kolbert writes:
In contrast to most memorials, which aim to command attention, Stolpersteine are understated—literally underfoot. Each one consists of a block of concrete onto which a plain brass plaque has been affixed. The block, which is about the size of a Rubik’s Cube, is embedded in the sidewalk, or inserted among the cobblestones, so that the plaque’s surface lies flush with the ground. Every plaque is stamped by hand, as a gesture, according to Demnig, of opposition to the mechanized killing of the camps.
. . . The project has been called the ‘largest decentralized memorial in the world.’ Demnig installs most of the stones himself, and the project has more or less taken over his life. Demnig himself has placed most of the more than fifty thousand stones now in the streets of Europe. In Berlin, where there are over six thousand of them, “residents formed groups to find out who had been deported from their neighborhood.”
Kolbert contacted Demnig to place a plaque in memory of her great-grandmother. About a year after she filled out the forms a date was set. She and her parents and a few friends attended the “laying of the stone.”
Kolbert’s Letter holds out a light. It is not a beacon of hope for a more tolerant and peaceful future, or for understanding the horrors of that time so we will do better in the future. It is a small spotlight on a man and his quiet, solemn, dignified memorial to those who suffered and died, including those whose stories still have not been discovered and therefore have no stone. These stones are a path for all who bemoan the senseless loss of loved ones and the unnamed.
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There is so much more to Kolbert’s Letter that I strongly suggest you click on the link at the beginning of my post and read it for yourself. Some interesting additional material is available at: