Wednesday, November 9, 2022

A Stolperstein for Hedwig

Recently I learned that there would be a Stolperstein laid in a town not far from us, and I knew I wanted to be there. And by being present I met some wonderful people.

I have told many friends, family and students about the Stolpersteine project and the people memorialized through it. Stolpersteine are always a part of the tours I give in Esslingen, Tübingen, Ulm and Berlin.

First let me tell you a little about the project:

The German artist Gunter Demnig remembers the victims of the Nazis by installing commemorative brass plaques in the pavement usually in front of their last known address, sometimes their school. There are now about 100,000  Stolpersteine (as of 2022) in over 1800 towns and cities in 28 countries. The project began in 1992, and since 1996 the stones have been laid with official permission.

Michael Friedrichs-Friedländer is the sculptor who creates each Stolperstein by hand in his studio in Berlin-Pankow. Each letter and each date is pressed into the plague individually. Mass or machine production is out of the question.

Gunter Demnig cites the Talmud saying that "a person is only forgotten when his or her name is forgotten". The Stolpersteine in front of the buildings bring back to memory the people who once lived or studied there. Each “stone” begins with HERE LIVED or HERE LEARNED… One “stone”. One name. One person.


Now to Hedwig Levi. Her story is not mine to tell, but all the info I can find about her online is in German and I’d like to tell a little about her in English. Her story was told at the ceremony while the current owner of the house and her son placed her Stolperstein. Afterwards the organizers handed out pamphlets (put together by the Jewish Community in Rexingen) in German and English to those gathered.  

Hedwig was born in Rexingen (the small town not far from us) on August 7, 1879. She married Alfred Levi from Rexingen in 1909 and they lived in his parents’ house in the town, in front of which the Stolperstein was laid on October 30, 2022. Their only child, Irene, was born in 1914. After Alfred died, Irene moved in with her mother to help her for a few years. Irene became engaged to Helmut Kahn, who emigrated to the U.S. in 1939. After Kristallnacht in November 1938 Irene moved back in with her mother out of concern for her safety, and at that time she was preparing for her emigration to the U.S. to join Helmut. From there she tried to arrange her mother’s immigration but was unsuccessful, something which plagued Irene the rest of her life.

Hedwig sold her house in Spring of 1940 as her health was failing, but she was pleased to learn of Irene and Helmut’s marriage later that year. Hedwig spent time in the hospital in Horb in January 1941, but after returning home her health had not improved. Three days after sending her last postcard to her niece in Brussels and with no prospect for better health or escaping from Germany, Hedwig took her own life. She is buried in the Jewish cemetery in Rexingen.


the house in Rexingen

Hedwig’s granddaughter, Hazel K., her two daughters, Alison and Jessica, and son-in-law Brent had flown in from the U.S., and family members from the Kahn side, now living in Switzerland, attended as well. Another honored guest was Ursula R., who still lives just down the street from Hedwig’s house and was the only person present who had known Hedwig.

Hazel's family with Simon and Davorka in the middle
and Ursula just behind in the chair

My intent was to stay in the background, take in the experience and take some photos, but I did introduce myself to Hazel and Jessica, thanked them for the touching remarks they delivered to those gathered, and offered to help translate as the Americans and the locals chatted with each other.

The current owner of Hedwig’s house, Davorka P., moved to Germany from Croatia. When she and her husband were contacted and asked if they would be open to a Stolperstein for Hedwig being placed in front of their home, they not only welcomed it but said they would do the cementing of the stone themselves. It was Davorka and her son, Simon, who did this while the organizers spoke about Hedwig.

I was able to provide translation help as Davorka answered some questions about her and her family’s story as well. After doing so, Hazel’s son-in-law invited me to join their small gathering for lunch in Rexingen’s former Synagogue. I sat with Hazel’s daughters and we had a lovely chat! Horb’s Bürgermeister was at the table on one side of us and on the other was a man who said to me, “I think we’ve met. Aren’t you the one with [tapping his arm] the bird?” LOL We had met on the Marktplatz two days earlier when Kaya and I had gone for a walk in town.

Rabbi Brent and I spoke about why Stolpersteine are not welcomed in every community and about the very different ways in which Germany and the U.S. face the demons of their past.

I felt very honored and grateful to be included in the lunch and pleased to make a connection with this lovely family.

The artist Gunter Demnig cites the Talmud as an inspiration for the Stolperstein project he started, saying that "a person is only forgotten when his or her name is forgotten". Now Hedwig Levi’s name and story will not be forgotten.

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