Germans and Jews remember together

Germans and Jews remember together

A Kristallnacht story that crosses decades and continents

Rabbi emeritus, Temple Avodat Shalom, River Edge, Reform

These are the stepping stones in memory of the Pincus family (Debi Simon)
These are the stepping stones in memory of the Pincus family (Debi Simon)

One of the unique and unexpected experiences of walking on a sidewalk in Germany is stumbling over a cobblestone with a metal plate on which the name of a Holocaust victim is inscribed

Created by the German artist Gunter Demnig in 1992 to commemorate people who were persecuted by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945, these memorial markings, called Stolpersteine (stumbling stones), remind residents, visitors, and passersby of the individual victims of Nazi Genocide. Each Stolpersteine is a concrete block, measuring 10 by 10 centimeters, that is embedded in the pavement in front of each victim’s last voluntarily chosen home. The victims’ names and fates are engraved into a brass plate on the top of each Stolpersteine. In Berlin, the Stolpersteine project began in 1996. On Kristallnacht each year, it has become a custom for residents of the building where the stones are placed to light candles next to them.

On November 9, 2021, the 83rd anniversary of Kristallnacht, I was privileged to witness the placement of Stolpersteine at Michaelkirchstraße 13, the former home of Anna and Elkan Pincus, the grandparents of my friend Claudio Pincus of Summit. Anna and Elkan were deported from their home on October 22, 1941 and brought to the Łódź Ghetto.

When Elkan died there, Anna was taken to the Chelmo extermination camp. A third Stolpersteine was dedicated to the memory of Claudio’s father, Rudi, who was Anna and Elkan’s son. He received an exit visa to Chile in January 1939 and lived out his life there, never knowing the full story of his parents’ fate.

For me, what made the placement of these memorial stumbling stones so uniquely poignant is the story behind them. The request for these stones was made not by the Pincus family; instead, it was initiated and sponsored by a woman named Claudia. On October 22, 1941, when he was a young child, Claudia’s father, Wolfgang, saw Anna and Elkan Pincus being arrested. Wolfgang didn’t know why they were taken away, and his grandparents refused to tell him.

Wolfgang’s grandparents owned the building at Michaelkirchstraße 13 and lived one floor below the Pincus family. For more than 50 years Wolfgang silently held onto his memory of the disappearance of Anna and Elkan, whom he remembered as a kind couple who always had a warm smile, a kind word, and a piece of candy for him.

One day, about 15 years ago, Wolfgang’s granddaughter asked him to come to her school class; he and other grandparents talked to the students about their lives during World War II. It was only then that Wolfgang told his daughter and granddaughter about his angst at not knowing what happened to Anna, Elkan, and their son, Rudi.

Coincidentally — or maybe fatefully — Wolfgang told his story at around the same time that Rudi, who had lived a long and full life, died in Santiago, Chile, in 2005. Although his children did not realize it, Rudi lived with the trauma of never knowing what happened to his parents. When Rudi’s wife, Minna, died in 2019, the family found a package of letters that Anna and Elkan wrote to Rudi. They were from January 1939, when Rudi escaped Germany, until 1941, when they were deported. The last two letters Rudi had written his parents were in that bundle; they had been returned to him in Chile as “undeliverable.”

After Wolfgang’s death, Claudia spent a decade searching for Rudi Pincus. Taking advantage of internet search programs available to us in the 21st century, Claudia found Claudio and made contact with him at around the same time that Claudio uncovered the correspondence between his father and his grandparents.

In January 2020, just before the covid pandemic shut down travel, Claudio and members of his family travelled to Berlin and met Claudia, who already had put in an application for Stolpersteine in memory of Anna, Elkan, and Rudi Pincus.

On November 9, three generations of the Pincus family, coming from Chile, Israel, and the United States, met with Claudia and two generations of her family to honor the memories of Anna and Elkan Pincus, who perished in the Holocaust; Wolfgang, who never forgot them, and Rudi Pincus, who had never known the end of his parents’ story.

In addition to the powerful ceremony of placing the Stolpersteine in the pavement in front of the building that now sits on the land where the Pincus family lived and from where Claudio’s grandparents were deported and his father was able to flee to safety, my wife, Ann, and I were able to share two beautiful evenings with Claudia, Claudio, and their families.

On the evening of November 8, while we were in Berlin visiting our children and grandchildren, we joined the families at a dinner where Claudia and her daughter told their story of the search for the Pincus family. This search was their pathway to honor Wolfgang’s memory by fulfilling his wish to find the answer to the fate of the three kind neighbors who disappeared during his childhood. Our friend Claudio, his brother and sister, and the members of the next two generations of the Pincus family showed all of us excerpts from the correspondence between Anna, Elkan, and their son Rudi — the correspondence that Rudi kept hidden and that was discovered just over two years ago.

In one of the last letters Rudi received from his parents, Anna mentioned the gratitude that she and Elkan had for Wolfgang’s grandparents, who allowed them to continue to live in their apartment. As this passage was read, I could not help but note the tears in Claudia’s eyes.

On Friday night, when members of the two families joined us for Shabbat dinner at Hillel of Deutschland, where my son Jeremy and daughter-in-law Rebecca Blady are the founding rabbis, I had an opportunity to talk in more depth with Claudia and her daughter. What strikes me as so hopeful from those conversations and this entire story is the depth of goodness, kindness, and responsibility to remember that exists within both of these multigenerational families. The common bond of humanity and the commitment to the mitzvot to “honor your father and your mother” (Exodus 20) and “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19) that these two families share has led them to choose to bind themselves together in honoring their ancestors.

The photo of the Stolpersteines taken by Debi Simon, a Berlin photojournalist, and a friend of my children, shows much more clearly than my words that tikun olam, the repair of our world, is possible, but requires each of us to begin the work ourselves, by seeking to repair the tears in the fabric of our own lives and to brighten the darkness of the past by lighting a candle in memory of generations long gone.

As we approach Chanukah, the festival of rededication, the story of Claudia and Claudio’s families, reconnecting and rededicating themselves to passing on the memory of their ancestors, is an example to us all of the power of continually rededicating ourselves and future generations to remember and remind others of the sparks of humanity and kindness that can shine through the blazing fires of hatred and evil.

We Jews often pay tribute to our beloved deceased with the phrase zichronam livracha, may their memories be a blessing. Through the efforts of their prodigy, the memories of Anna, Elkan, and Rudi Pincus, and the memory of Wolfgang, will be a blessing not only to those who know their story, but also to generations of unknown people who will stumble upon their names on the sidewalk in front of Michaelkirchstraße 13, in Berlin.

Neal Borovitz, rabbi emeritus of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge, is a former chair of Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.

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