Austrians tread carefully as underfoot Holocaust memorials remain controversial
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Some argue that having people tread upon the names of the dead and allowing dogs to urinate on these plaques is an insult

Austrians tread carefully as underfoot Holocaust memorials remain controversial

For the past 20 years Stolpersteine, or stumbling stones, have peppered the idyllic town of Salzburg, a reminder of the city's victims. But does anyone notice?

A man sitting with his foot near a stumbling stone; stumbling stones placed in the road, one near a pedestrian crossing marking. (Noah Lederman/Times of Israel)
A man sitting with his foot near a stumbling stone; stumbling stones placed in the road, one near a pedestrian crossing marking. (Noah Lederman/Times of Israel)

SALZBURG, Austria — Let the dead trip the people into remembering. That was the committee’s first proposal for how the Stolpersteine plaques should be installed into Salzburg’s sidewalks.

They imagined the brass memorial plates would be slightly elevated in the concrete, causing pedestrians to stumble over the dedications to the individual residents of Salzburg who were murdered during the Holocaust. Stolpersteine translates to stumbling stone, and the committee was feeling quite literal.

Artist Gunter Demnig had introduced his Stolpersteine initiative at the end of the 1990s. Since then, cities across Europe have set tens of thousands of these commemorative plaques into sidewalks, allowing for individual victims of the Holocaust to have their names remembered — a way, according to the Talmud, to keep them alive in people’s memories forever. Besides names, the plaques often list the reason the person was persecuted, along with the dates of birth, deportation, and murder.

As one would imagine, planting intentionally raised stones in the pavement was not approved by Salzburg’s city council, but the project itself was green-lighted and the first stones were installed in 2007. Today, there are more than 350 stumbling stones set in Salzburg. Unlike erecting a single Holocaust memorial, the brass plates scattered about the city and placed at the victims’ last residences indicate how widespread the massacre was.

Salzburg had a small Jewish community — just a few hundred — whereas Vienna, in 1938, had a Jewish population of nearly 200,000. By the end of the war, 65,000 Viennese Jews had been murdered. In Salzburg, the number of Jewish victims was 101.

Despite this huge disparity in statistics, the plaques feel ubiquitous in the quaint city — they are set on main pedestrian thoroughfares and cemented into bustling corners. Crossing a stumbling stone in vast Vienna, however, feels as likely as tripping over a tree root in the center of the Gobi desert.

The town of Salburg, Austria. (Noah Lederman/Times of Israel)
The town of Salburg, Austria. (Noah Lederman/Times of Israel)

While pedestrians in Salzburg must constantly pass stumbling stones, how effective are these brass plates at memorializing the dead? And by laying these stones, have the people of Salzburg remembered the victims? Has the artist and committee appropriately honored the murdered?

Stan Nadel, a retired American history professor, member of the Stolpersteine committee in Salzburg, and author of “Salzburg and the Jews: A Historical Walking Guide,” celebrates Salzburg’s effort to pay tribute to the victims.

“It’s a town with a university and liberal, educated people,” Nadel explained, crediting that atmosphere for the success of the project.

Salzburg’s locals — more than three dozen were interviewed for this story — evidenced a clear understanding that the stumbling stones were memorials for victims of the Holocaust, though most explained that they memorialized the Jews only. (Stones have been laid for all victim groups, including homosexuals, communists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, to name a few.)

A stumbling stone near the entrance of an apartment building in Salzburg, Austria. (Noah Lederman/Times of Israel)
A stumbling stone near the entrance of an apartment building in Salzburg, Austria. (Noah Lederman/Times of Israel)

When asked about the brass plates, Peter Panasch, 56, said “I think it’s good to remember the victims of the Nazis.” He sometimes stops to read about the person who was murdered.

Other locals like Christa Gollner, who went to school just after the war and didn’t learn about the Holocaust until she was in her 30s, do not stop to read the plaques. “But I think [about the victims],” she said.

Nadel contends that some residents — he estimated 10 percent — “virulently object to having [Stolpersteine plaques] in front of their houses.” In public, these individuals typically state that they do not want others to associate them with the crimes, Nadel explained, but at ceremonies, he has heard residents say “filthy Jew.”

One couple, who asked to remain anonymous, was pushing their infant in a stroller along Franz-Josefstrasse. They recalled the time when the stumbling stone was cemented into the sidewalk in front of their apartment and roses were laid down.

“It’s good to have them,” said the mother and then signaled down to her young son in the pram. “They should learn everything about it.”

“Sometimes I Google the name [on the Stolpersteine],” said the father. He often found no information, unaware that the Stolpersteine website has biographies in both German and English, detailing the victims’ lives and deaths.

‘Again we murder them with our feet’

On the next block, 80-year-old Warner Rainer, returning from the market with his shopping bags, approached a stone. When asked about the efficacy of the project, he lifted his foot, stomped down upon Margarette Wraubeck’s memorial, and ground the stone with his foot as if crushing her identity like a lit cigarette.

“Again,” he said angrily, pausing for an uncomfortable moment.

Again what? She should die? Another Holocaust?

‘Again, we murder them with our feet’

“Again,” Rainer repeated and added, “we murder them with our feet.” As he spoke about the victims, his neighbors, he nearly came to tears.

For this reason, Munich, Germany has no stumbling stones. Charlotte Knoblauch, the head of the Jewish community in Munich, leads an opposition to the Stolpersteine project, arguing that having people tread upon the names of the dead and allowing dogs to urinate on these plaques is no memorial at all, but an insult to their identities.

A few years back, stumbling stones in Salzburg were desecrated: sprayed with black paint or tagged with the number 1488. (The 14 represents fourteen words that white supremacists hold dear and the pair of eights stand for the eighth letter of the alphabet — HH for Heil Hitler.)

A defaced Stolpersteine , or 'stumbling stone,' in honor of victim Josefine Schneider, with the information scratched out. (Noah Lederman/Times of Israel)
A defaced Stolpersteine , or ‘stumbling stone,’ in honor of victim Josefine Schneider, with the information scratched out. (Noah Lederman/Times of Israel)

With the rise of refugees fleeing war in Syria and Iraq, the Identity Movement — an anti-immigrant, white nationalist group — has been pasting stickers in Salzburg that read “Faschtung Europa” or Fortress Europe, a term used during World War II that advocates for sealing the border. Some of these stickers have ended up on the Stolpersteines.

But after passing more than 100 stones in the city, only one has been defaced: Josefine Schneider’s identity, the concentration camp she had been deported to, and other scarred details were scraped away with, perhaps, a knife.

While nearly all the locals interviewed were aware of the Stolpersteine project’s significance, the tourists were oblivious.

At one cafe, on the popular Linzergasse street, tables were situated between three commemorative stones that caught the sun. But in the two years that one waiter had worked at the establishment, he said that he had only ever been asked about the stones once. He had never noticed anyone else examine them.

Of the three dozen tourists who were shown a photograph of a stumbling stone on a smartphone, and asked if they’d seen the memorials around the city, only two visitors answered affirmatively. But the two were familiar with the project, as they lived in a German city that also had Stolpersteine plaques.

Each time a tourist was shown the photograph, they had either just passed a stone or were about to approach one. Of those in the latter group, not one tourist seemed to notice the shiny, golden plaque, even after seeing the photograph. They just stepped over it.

Three Stolpersteine , or 'stumbling stones,' dedicated to the memory of Josef Geer and to the Hauslauers -- a married couple who were Jehovah's Witnesses -- in Salzburg, Austria. (Noah Lederman/Times of Israel)
Three Stolpersteine , or ‘stumbling stones,’ dedicated to the memory of Josef Geer and to the Hauslauers — a married couple who were Jehovah’s Witnesses — in Salzburg, Austria. (Noah Lederman/Times of Israel)

Most disturbing was one tourist who was shown the photograph, took a dozen paces, stood upon three polished stumbling stones — one to remember Josef Geer and the Hauslauers, a married couple who were Jehovah’s Witnesses — paused to bite into his gyro, dripped some sauce near the stones, and moved on.

Perhaps tourists are always looking up — or devouring gyros. Or perhaps there are limits with every effort to memorialize the victims.

When a Chinese-speaking tour guide was asked if she told her groups about the stones, which she had recognized on the smartphone, she said, “They are from Asia, so they don’t know about this. I tell them only if they’re interested.”

Of the more than 70 people interviewed for this article — tourists and locals — the only person to stop and read a stone was Konrad Xu, a German child of about 10 years old, of Chinese descent.

“He’s curious about everything,” the German man accompanying him said when asked about Xu’s interest in Julia Leitner’s memorial. “I told him who lived here.”

When asked if he told Xu about Leitner’s murder in 1941, the older man’s smile disappeared. “Oh, so it’s from then.”

The stigma of memorializing the marginalized

While Jews from Salzburg have the most memorial stones of any one group, the Sinti and Roma people, who lived in the city and its environs, were actually Salzburg’s largest victim group. They were held in a camp near the city center. Most were exterminated in Auschwitz. But only about two dozen stones are set for the Sinti and Roma children born in the camp, who were murdered as infants and toddlers. The vast majority have no individual memorials.

A pedestrian walking by a Stolpersteine , or 'stumbling stone,' dedicated to the memory of a Holocaust victim in Salzburg, Austria. (Noah Lederman/Times of Israel)
A pedestrian walking by a Stolpersteine , or ‘stumbling stone,’ dedicated to the memory of a Holocaust victim in Salzburg, Austria. (Noah Lederman/Times of Israel)

Forthcoming plans are centered around remembering homosexuals and resisters, but not without conflict. There is still a stigma attached to both groups. To this day, many families do not want their relatives remembered as such, for fear of shame or even reprisals, as some locals still consider those who resisted the Nazis to be traitors.

Peter Wilhelmstatter, one of the most educated locals on the history of the Jews in Salzburg, said that Austrians view themselves “as the victims of the Nazis… We forget about everything else… People should be more aware and it should be part of the public knowledge.”

Then he smiled, admitting, “I’m also a little ignoring. I’ve never looked [the online biographies] up. I should probably do [that] now, now that you’re asking about it.”

Nadel’s earlier compliments of the city’s assistance with the project were not without criticism.

Salzburg still praises infamous Nazis and known anti-Semites. For instance, Hans Prodinger, whom the city remembers as an anti-fascist and a victim of the Nazis, was also one of the first Salzburg state party chiefs of the Austrian Nazi party, as detailed in Nadel’s book. Prodinger was eventually considered a Nazi traitor, but opted instead to lead the Austro-fascist party and remained fueled by his anti-Semitism.

Back in the 15th century, the sculptor Hans Valkenauer was commissioned by the city to carve the Judensau — an anti-Semitic feature in many Medieval cities that showed Jews suckling from the teats of a pig and eating its excrement. The marble frieze topped the Rathaus for centuries.

A Judensau. (Public domain)
A Judensau. (Public domain)

After the Holocaust, the city named streets for both men. (Hans-Prodingergasse leads to the Jewish cemetery.) Despite Stolpersteine committee members’ complaints, the city, according to Nadel, responded that there was no evidence that the Judensau was an anti-Semitic sculpture.

While the Stolpersteine project keeps citizens cognizant of these past crimes and serves as a counter to the revisionist honors bestowed upon the city’s historic anti-Semites, Nadel still views Austria as a country of progress.

Before moving to Salzburg, Nadel had worked at Southwest Oklahoma State University in Custer County, Oklahoma — named for the general who, at dawn, infamously massacred a peaceful group of Cheyenne. Black Kettle, the chief, who had survived the earlier Sand Creek Massacre, tried to stop Custer’s troops, running into the massacre waving a white and an American flag. Custer’s men gunned him down all the same.

“There’s no Eichmann County [in Austria],” said Nadel. “It puts it in perspective.”

Noah Lederman is the author of the memoir, ‘A World Erased: A Grandson’s Search for His Family’s Holocaust Secrets,’ published this year by Rowman & Littlefield.

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