“And these little round bronze plaques here in the center of the stones are called stolperstines,” said Barbara, our German tour guide. “They represent the names of the German Jews who were shipped off to German concentration camps by the Nazis.”
“But why do they do that?” I gently asked.
Barbara with her sad eyes said. “To remember the guilt and shame of our Nazi past.”
“But why do you have to have such guilt since it was over two generations ago?”
“Let me tell you my story,” continued Barbara. “It all started with my parents and grandparents. My father was born in Poland in a small village in the Silesia area. Our families were farmers and carpenters. He was only 16 when the war broke out and the Germans invaded Poland. Although he was a part of the Nazi youth, he never had to serve in the army. The Russian invaded in 1944 as the Germans were forced out. My dad was more afraid of the Russians than the Nazis. The Russians were mean and raped and pillaged as they went. We hid our aunt because in our village they had raped all the available women. Alfred, my father, remembers starving when there were no crops and tried to find a better life by moving to Germany.
“During the ’50s my dad made several moves back and forth between East and West Germany before he settled in Pirmasens, Germany. This was a small community in the Alsace-Lorraine region. There he met and married my mother, Martina Bauer. Shortly we were a family of five with my brother and sister coming along in the ’60s. I was born in 1960.
“My guilt started when I was 14 and had to spend a year studying the Nazi history of Germany. I hated being a German and I hated Germans. I was disgusted with my grandfather for being a Nazi and fighting. But most of all I wanted them to talk about the past and they refused. I can see now that they were ashamed of what they had done during the war. My depression was so great that my parents soon tired of my whining. For a graduation present from high school they gave me a ticket to actually go to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland and also visit my Polish relatives.
“My visit to Auschwitz was the turning point of my life. The camp was huge and responsible for the death and misery of so many thousands of Jews. After seeing the devastation I started crying and I couldn’t stop. The kind guide didn’t know exactly what to do. I followed her from terror point to terror point. I was exhausted and emotionally drained. At the end of the tour when the rest of the group had left, Marta, that was her name, held me in her arms and gently stroked by hair and said that it was not my fault because the Jews who died didn’t know who I was or even my grandfather. It took awhile but I finally understood. The gift that took away my shame and guilt was the love that Marta showed me. She, who was of Jewish ancestry, worked as a guide was able to love me well. I felt if she could overcome her hatred of Germans I could stop hating myself.
“So my life changed after my trip to the death camp. I went back to school and became a nurse. My parents and grandparents now feel free to talk about the past and not be shamed. After many life changes and living in other countries, I am now working in the tourist business as a guide here in Germany so that I may be an instrument of change.”