Honouring the dead, one stone at a time

Prague has a regrettable public amnesia about the Holocaust, but tiny private memorials keep memories of the city’s Jewish culture alive

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Stolpersteine embedded in the cobbled pavements of Prague

Prague, as any visitor knows, is stunningly beautiful. Mercifully untouched by wartime bombing or communist destruction, it retains its historic architectural magnificence. Its curves and cobblestones, domes and spires, Art Nouveau adornments and Habsburg splendour lend it a fairytale quality. But for Franz Kafka, as Milan Kundera points out in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Prague is also a “city without memory”, where “nobody recalls anything”. This is particularly true, it seems to me, when it comes to the Holocaust.

At one point, Prague had proportionately the third-highest Jewish population in the world. Many of the most prominent cultural and commercial figures in what is now the Czech Republic were Jews; many of them or their relatives were killed in the Holocaust.

Kafka, who was born and raised in the city’s historic Jewish ghetto shortly before it was dismantled in the 1890s, died before the war. However, his three sisters (Gabriele, Valerie and Ottilie) were all murdered in the gas chambers.

Sigmund Freud, born in the Czech province of Moravia to a long line of rabbis, moved to Vienna to study medicine, and then escaped to London in 1938. But four of Freud’s five sisters died in the camps: Mitzi, aged 81, and Paula, 78, were transported to Theresienstadt (Terezin, in Czech), north of Prague, and taken from there to the Maly Trostinets extermination camp near Minsk. Dolfi, 80, died in Terezin of internal bleeding due to advanced starvation, and Rosa, 82, was killed in Treblinka.

The composer Gustav Mahler, born to a Jewish family in Bohemia, died before the war. But his niece Alma Rose, described as one of Europe’s most accomplished and least-known musicians, was forced to lead the women’s orchestra in Auschwitz, before being killed. She was deported there as a Jew, despite having converted to Catholicism.

Yet not many Czechs know this, or are aware of the fate of tens of thousands of other Czech Jews murdered in the Holocaust — often with the collaboration of Czechs. There is no official memorial anywhere in Prague: not even a plaque, let alone a museum or learning centre of the kind that most European capitals now have, together with cities in Argentina, the US, Australia, Brazil, China, Mexico, South Africa and elsewhere.

There is a memorial wall in Prague’s Pinkas synagogue but this is not a public plaque, but a private initiative by the Jewish community, for which you have to pay an entry fee. There is also a statue in a railway station of Nicholas Winton, the Briton who helped rescue 669 Czech children in the Kindertransport. But this is no substitute for a proper memorial in the centre of Prague of the kind that is found in Berlin, Vienna and elsewhere. The only public memory of Holocaust victims in Prague are the stolpersteine (“stumbling stones”), cobble-sized, brass-plated stones which are embedded as part of the pavement outside the homes where victims lived. The stones are paid for by families or friends of the victims, and can cost up to 250 euros each, including local fees.

This project was started by the German artist Gunter Demnig in 1996 in Kreuzberg, Berlin, and has now spread throughout Europe. Every stone has the same format, giving the victim’s name, and years of birth, deportation and death. Each stolperstein is made by hand in Berlin by one man, Michael Friedrichs-Friedländer. He makes up to 450 every month. Today there are more than 70,000 stolpersteine installed in 2,000 towns and cities in 24 countries across Europe. Sweden and Denmark will be added later this year, bringing the total to 26 countries. It is the largest decentralised memorial in the world.

The stolpersteine are placed alone, or in couples and whole families. In one case, outside a former Jewish orphanage in Hamburg, 34 stones are placed together, paid for by a well-wisher to remember the children deported from there.

In Prague, there are 311 stolpersteine dotted around the city and 41 others will be added later this year. Only a small proportion of the city’s Jewish population have these memorials: according to the 1930 census, there were 117,551 Jews in what is now the Czech Republic. Some escaped, but the great majority were killed. Since there are no remains for the victims who were gassed and burned, the stolpersteine have become, in effect, a substitute for a grave or tombstone. Yet they are left in a grimy, sometimes filthy, condition by the city authorities, a fact I have often lamented when walking past them. This is the result, it seems, not of anti-Semitism — the Czechs are among the least anti-Semitic people in Europe — but of apathy.

So I was heartened to learn that Trevor Sage, a retired British man living in Prague, was so alarmed by their poor condition and the fact that some had gone missing that he decided to clean and look after them, one stolperstein at a time. Sage, 59, is not Jewish and has no personal or family connection to the Holocaust. But in recent months the stolpersteine have become his passion. Indeed, he tells me, he feels it his “duty to maintain their condition and preserve their memory” as many of the relatives who helped place them there are elderly and living abroad in America, Britain or Israel.

He makes sure each is kept particularly clean on the victim’s birthday, and this Yom HaShoah (the Jewish Holocaust memorial day, which this year falls on May 1-2), he has for the first time recruited a team of volunteers, mainly drawn from Prague’s foreign population, to clean all 311 stones. He says he was inspired by another man in Salzburg who is doing the same thing.

Trevor has set up a Facebook page, Stolpersteine Prague, where there are details and locations of each stolperstein in the city and photographs for 195 of the victims he managed to find with assistance from their families.

The youngest is for Jiřina Pfefferova, who was just eight months old when she was deported to Terezin on July 23, 1942, and two years, 11 months old when she was taken to Auschwitz and gassed on October 6, 1944. Her sister Alena, who was killed with her, was seven. My own grandmother’s parents, though not from Prague, were also deported to Terezin the same week as baby Jiřina — it was my great-grandfather’s 75th birthday — and later they were murdered in Treblinka. The oldest person remembered with a stone is Berta Krumpelesova, who was 83 when she was murdered in Terezin.

Among other stolpersteine I went to see were those for Petr Ginz, a very talented young boy — between the ages of eight and 14 he wrote five novels and drew pictures to illustrate them — who was deported to Terezin and later killed in Auschwitz.

His diary, written when he was 13 and 14, published in English as The Diary of Petr Ginz 1941-1942, has been compared to that of Anne Frank. Petr dreamt of going to the moon, and a copy of his picture Earth seen from the Moon was (with the permission of Yad Vashem) taken by Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, whose mother and grandmother were Auschwitz survivors, onto the American space shuttle Columbia. The shuttle tragically broke apart while re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere on February 1, 2003, destroying the copy of Petr’s drawing.

Among other notable stolpersteine are those for Milena Jesenska (Kafka’s lover), and Gideon Klein, the young Czech composer. Klein was deported to Terezin in December 1941 along with two other gifted Jewish musicians, Pavel Haas (who was Janáček’s pupil) and Viktor Ullmann (Schoenberg’s pupil). In 1944, Klein was further deported to Auschwitz, where he was worked to death as a slave labourer, dying in January 1945. Milena Jesenska, though not Jewish herself, refused to leave her circle of Jewish writers and editors and was deported with some of them to Ravensbrück, where she died on May 17, 1944.

Perhaps the most remarkable stolperstein in Prague is for Anna Jaretzki. Anna was the non-Jewish great-granddaughter of a Prussian prince, Prince August, whose portrait hangs in the Wallace Collection in London. The Prince had a relationship with a 15-year-old called Emilie, which was disapproved of by the royal family. As a result and to avoid any possible claims on the royal family’s wealth — the prince was one of the richest men in Europe — their daughter Charlotte (born in 1838) was registered under the family name of the prince’s Jewish tailor, Isadore Gottschalk. Although Charlotte was not Jewish, the Nazis presumed her granddaughter Anna was. So, 104 years after the “incorrect” registration, she was deported as a “part-Jew” to Terezin in July 1942, and died there from typhus in August 1942. Some of Anna’s blood relatives were senior Nazis who participated in the genocide of European Jews. Such was the utter madness that was the Holocaust.