‘Stumbling stone’ keeps family’s past alive

‘Stumbling stone’ keeps family’s past alive

Sharon and Richard Hammerman in front of the stolpersteines at the home where her grandparents once lived in Binau, Germany. 
Sharon and Richard Hammerman in front of the stolpersteines at the home where her grandparents once lived in Binau, Germany. 

Small bronze plaques have been embedded in a sidewalk in the village of Binau, Germany.

They bear the names of Samuel and Fanny Eiseman and stark inscriptions in German noting that the Eisemans were deported in 1940 and murdered on Aug. 14, 1942, at Auschwitz.

Sharon Hammerman was determined to honor her grandparents with these simple six-by-eight-inch plaques after she saw similar ones in 2009 during a visit to Berlin. Designed by artist Gunther Demnig, these “stolpersteines” have been placed in 32,000 locations in European countries, including Germany, Italy, Poland, and the Czech Republic.

They memorialize anyone who was deported and murdered by the Nazis — non-Jews as well as Jews.

When she returned home to Caldwell from that visit to Berlin, Hammerman told NJJN in an April 19 phone interview, “I started thinking and inquiring as to whether I could do this in Binau for my grandparents.”

From 2009 to 2012 Hammerman worked to achieve her aim, lobbying local officials, U.S. diplomats, and New Jersey’s senators — and at last succeeded.

On April 11 — Yom Hashoa — 18 people, including Hammerman and her husband, Richard, executive director of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, were in Binau to dedicate the plaque to Samuel and Fanny Eiseman.

Joining them in the ceremony were Binau Mayor Peter Keller, members of the town council, a newspaper reporter, and several children from the town who had been brought by a local Catholic deacon.

“I had a sense that in some way I had brought my grandparents back,” Hammerman said. “They were taken out of their house involuntarily and now in a sense, their names are once again attached to the house.”

Samuel and Fanny Eiseman were two of the seven Jewish people who lived in the town and were incarcerated at Auschwitz

The Eisemans’ memorials are the first such stones to be installed on sidewalks in the region in which Binau is located, an hour’s drive from Frankfurt.

The idea behind calling the plaques “stolpersteines” — literally “stumbling stones” — said Hammerman, is “that you stumble upon them and read their message” of honoring the memory of the victims.

‘Stop and look’

Not everyone in the village of 1,400 people wanted the reminder of Nazi genocide displayed so prominently.

Hammerman said she “got quite a bit of opposition” after sending an e-mail to the mayor in 2011 asking permission to install the stones in front of the home where the Eisemans lived until World War II.

“He said, ‘Why don’t we put them in front of the Jewish cemetery?’ My response was, ‘My grandparents aren’t buried in the Jewish cemetery. They are buried at Auschwitz.’”

On Yom Hashoa 2012, Hammerman tried again, writing a letter to Keller. She sent copies to the American ambassador to Germany and the German ambassador to the United States, as well as New Jersey’s two U.S. senators, Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez.

Once again, the mayor said no; Hammerman said his reason was: “If we put the stones up we would have to do it for everybody.”

But Gerd Tessmer, a former member of the German Parliament who lives in Binau, came to Hammerman’s aid. “Gerd lobbied the village council on my behalf to have the stones put in,” she said.

A majority of council members agreed, and, said Hammerman, “The mayor told me because he believes in the democratic process he allowed the stones to be installed.”

Back home a week after the dedication ceremony, Hammerman said she is eager for others who lost relatives in the Holocaust to become aware of the stolpersteines. She discussed her experience at Agudath Israel during Shabbat services on April 26 and is creating a video about the stones that she plans to post on YouTube.

“It is important to let people know about these stones,” she said. “They are an educational instrument and a way not just to memorialize the people who were killed but to get people to stop and look and question why people who were living in this home were taken away.”

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