Now it bore the weight, not only of the multitudes but of the years, as a lone bassoonist poured a musical salve into our sadly ringing ears.
It was June 14th, 2023, as my daughter and I stood on that once lonely sidewalk in the picturesque town of Chemnitz. The stone in question bore an inscription in German. Its translation: “Here lived Adela Bauer, married Haldane, born 1915, fled 1939 Shanghai.”
Adela was my mother. And so our saga began.
There were other stones too, one for each member of her immediate family. There were stones for Adela’s sister, Klara, as well as her brothers, Max, and Leo. And, of course, there were stones for the children’s parents, David, and Gitel.
The tiny brass monuments—called stolpersteine, or stumbling stones—are among the thousands implanted in the streets and sidewalks of Germany near the last known addresses voluntarily inhabited by victims of the horrific Holocaust that rattled those byways from 1933 to 45. The project started two decades ago with the vision of an artist named Gunter Demnig. “If the stone is in front of your house,” he told Smithsonian Magazine, “you’re confronted. People start talking. To think about six million victims is abstract, but to think about a murdered family is concrete.”
James E. Young, who’s authored two books on the Holocaust, concurred. “Stolpersteine,” he explained, “are a metaphor for the Germans stumbling over this part of their past—something that won’t go away—and that was the artist’s point.
My own recent bout of stumbling began abruptly with an email from a relative. “I have some interesting family information I would like to share,” it began. As I have noted before, what she told me changed my world.
I had always known, of course, that my Jewish family had been swept into the German Holocaust. My mother had barely escaped with her life by fleeing to Japanese-occupied Shanghai, China. Aunt Klara survived by finding protection in the home of a German military officer. Uncle Leo joined the resistance, was imprisoned, condemned to death by the Soviets, and eventually returned to Germany as a noted journalist and advisor to the chancellor.
The rest of the family, deported to Poland, got murdered in concentration camps or on the blood-infested streets of the ghetto.
But the email contained another mind-blowing revelation as well; that Grandfather David had conceived a secret daughter unknown to the rest of the family until now. And that two of her descendants—my half-cousins—would soon be in Chemnitz to help dedicate those gleaming stumble stones. And so, my daughter and I decided to join them.
Putting it mildly, the city treated us like visiting royalty. There was a pleasant hotel, a car with a driver, and a guided tour of the town. The press office interviewed me at length on videotape about returning to the “scene of the crime.” And visiting a local high school class sponsoring our memorial stone was like taking a refreshing dip in the cool regenerative waters of fundamental change.
It was towards the end of the next day’s dedication ceremony that the dam finally burst. Holding my new gentile cousin’s hand, I’d stood in silence as the children sang and a historian related our family history. Then someone gestured for me to speak, and so I did.
“Thank you all for coming,” I began uncertainly. “This is more than I ever could have imagined,” and that’s when the tears started flowing. “Thank you,” I stammered again, aware that mine were not the only moist eyes in the crowd.
I have two vivid memories of the only other time I visited Chemnitz, then called Karl Marx Stadt. That was back in 1980 with my mother, shortly before she died. The first memory is of her pointing to a balcony on which, as a child, she recalled bursting into fits of uncontrollable laughter as a Nazi parade passed by on the street below. Noting this ungainly display of disrespect, two SS men rushed upstairs and threatened to take her away. “Oh, you could never punish her as severely as I will!” Adela’s frightened mother declared, immediately beating the girl to the cusp of unconsciousness. After the Nazis left, the entire family burst into tears of relief, desperation, and despair.
The other memory was of a nearby park where my mother met a stranger—a woman about her age—who had never left Chemnitz. After sharing their stories, the two embraced like sisters before crying on each other’s heaving shoulders.
That was the memory that struck me most forcibly during the recent blessing of those stones. How good it felt, in a strange and warmly satisfying way, to finally be back home.
David Haldane’s latest book, “A Tooth in My Popsicle,” is available on Amazon and Lazada. A former Los Angeles Times staff writer, he is an award-winning journalist, author, essayist, and broadcaster with homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Northern Mindanao, Philippines, where this column appears weekly in the Gold Star Daily.