a woman carries a child away from a raft on a beach in Europe
Dr. Tali Shaltiel, part of an IsraAID medical team, assisting refugees on the shores of the island of Lesbos (Photo/Boaz Arad-IsraAID.)

Learning from Germans: how not to be a bystander

While strolling through a museum, poet W. H. Auden noticed something the Old Masters got right. In their paintings that depicted suffering, they included the bystanders, the people who looked away as tragedy unfolded.. In his poem “Musée des Beaux Arts,” Auden wrote: “… how well they understood; Its human position: how it [tragedy] takes place; While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along …”

In May, the German Consulate in San Francisco did not look away. In partnership with the American Jewish Committee, the consulate presented “Music, Fellowship and Remembrance” in Pacific Heights.

At the reception before the concert, I spoke with Matt Kahn, director of the American Jewish Committee’s S.F. office, and described a program, “German Again Citizenship Workshop,” set to take place just a few days later.

The workshop — run by the German Consulate, the Holocaust Center (a program of S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services) and the Peninsula JCC in Foster City — informed Jews of German descent how to reclaim German citizenship. According to German attache Jakob Horn, it was the first of its kind in the country.

The workshop began with the eloquence of two Holocaust survivors, AnneMarie Yellin, a Chemnitz native who was hidden in a Belgium convent, and Dresden native Ralph Samuel, saved by a Kindertransport to England. Separated from their parents at a young age, the each movingly explained why they have already regained their German citizenship.

The 39 Bay Area Jews in attendance listened raptly to Horn as he explained the process. Generous with his time, the young man answered everyone’s questions and remained afterward to speak individually with unusual family circumstances.

A week later, my husband, Richard, and I flew to Germany to visit our daughter, Leah, and her family, who live in Munich. Leah reclaimed her German citizenship in 2007 while working on a Ph.D. at the Technical University of Munich.

As a German citizen, one automatically becomes a citizen of the European Union, where higher education is practically free. Future generations might want to take advantage of such opportunity.

We took a train to northern Germany and the little town of Buer, my father’s hometown. The purpose of our visit was to attend the installation of four stolpersteine (German for “stumbling stones”). The vision of Berlin-born sculptor Gunter Demnig, the stolpersteine are small, cobblestone-sized brass memorials inlaid into sidewalks and building facades to commemorate the last residence of someone persecuted by the Nazis. Demnig’s vision can be summed up by “ein stein, ein name, ein mensch” (one stone, one name, one person.)

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When those who “walk dully by” feel uneven pavement beneath their feet, they look down and read the inscription on the stone. Each one begins with “Hier wohnte …” (Here lived …) and include what happened to the victim. Stolpersteine remind descendents of the perpetrators and bystanders of their Nazi past.

Probably everyone at the “German Again” workshop has family who qualify for stolpersteine.

On May 23, the artist installed four of them in front of the building owned by my grandparents, where my father and his brother were born. It was their last residence before fleeing to the United States. Until it was Aryanized (taken over by non-Jews), the dry goods store at Essener Straße 12a, Katzenstein & Co., was owned by my grandparents. The family lived in the floors above.

From the United States, Holland and Munich, 15 members of our family gathered to witness the installation ceremony. I introduced the descendents by name, in keeping with the artist’s vision to remember names.

We returned to the United States and learned that in our absence, the United States had separated some 2,000 immigrant children from their parents. The stories of AnneMarie Yellin and Ralph Samuel came to mind.

The drama unfolded as I wrote this piece. Like the bystanders in the masters’ paintings who avert their eyes, I had been “walking dully along.”

On June 26, Richard and I attended a rally to support local immigrants in danger of being deported. Rabbi Corey Helfand of Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City quoted Rabbi Joachim Prinz, who spoke just before Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in August 1963.

“When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime,” Prinz said on Aug. 28, 1963, “I learned many things. The most important thing … was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence. A great people which had created a great civilization had become a nation of silent onlookers. They remained silent in the face of hate, in the face of brutality and in the face of mass murder. America must not become a nation of onlookers.”

Helfand concluded by sounding the shofar, creating a hush and an opportunity for reflection and silent prayer. In today’s world, one must call out misogyny, bullying and prejudice as they occur. We pay homage to the memory of our families brutally murdered in the Holocaust when we protest brutality today.

Germany has learned this lesson: how not to be a bystander. Alone among the international community, Germany has taken in a significant number of refugees in recent years, including some 1.1 million in 2015.

If Germany can take action, so, too, can we. The memory of our ancestors deserves no less.

Stumbling stones are not enough. We must cry out to keep our leaders in check and accountable, until we transform the phrase “Never again!” from slogan to reality.

Miriam Zimmerman
Miriam Zimmerman

Miriam Zimmerman is professor emerita at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, where she taught the Holocaust course for 25 years.