Ulm: Stolpersteine Ceremony
Federal Republic of Germany
October 29, 2016
My Cousins and the Stolpersteine
Otto Polatschek is gone but not forgotten.
Lisa Polatschek is gone but not forgotten.
In Ulm, Germany, Otto inherited a retail shoe business from his parents Alois Polatschek (1879-1929) and Paula née Brumlik Polatschek (1883-1932). But as the Nazi menace in Germany became more threatening, Otto sold his business to the Werdich family and fled with his wife Lisa to Berlin.
While in hiding from the Nazis, Otto was killed in a bombing raid.
Lisa was captured by the Nazis and deported to the east to Estonia where she “disappeared,” a victim of the Holocaust.
Otto (1907-1942) and Lisa née Epstein (1918-1942) will always be remembered by the Polatschek Family. (Otto Polatschek was my father’s first cousin.)
Otto and Lisa will now be honored by the citizens of Ulm where they lived and worked before the war.
Just yesterday, my cousins and I visited the gravesite of Ottos's parents, Paula and Alois. But there will be no gravesite or headstone for Otto or for Lisa or for the millions of European Jews who perished in the Holocaust. No markers will be placed for the one and a half million Jewish children who were murdered.
Nevertheless, the people of Germany are determined never to forget their history or their former friends, neighbors and business associates. In towns and cities across the country, small bronze memorial plaques called Stolpersteine are installed in the sidewalk in front of their last known residence or place of business. A passerby who “stumbles” upon the plaque is reminded of the recent events and of the Jews who disappeared from that very spot.
Along with my cousins from Israel, Switzerland and Uruguay, I have traveled to Ulm to observe and participate in the installation of the Stolpersteine for thirteen former Jewish residents of Ulm including our cousins Lisa and Otto Polatschek.
Under a cheerful sunny sky, a pleasant chill fills the air. The autumn leaves turn a splendid gold. Our large international group makes its way from spot to spot across the old town. At each location, the artist-sculptor drills into the sidewalk and gently guides each Stolpersteine into its place in eternal memory: a young boy murdered because of a handicap; a prominent family chased from their home; a young girl disappeared - her large photo displayed by relatives.
The Lord Mayor of Ulm welcomes us to his city. Curious citizens join our group. Friends, relatives or former neighbors read the biography of the departed. At each installation, local choirs sing quiet hymns. A saxophonist plays a sorrowful yet hopeful tune that was written in a concentration camp.
After about two hours, our mournful afternoon journey ends at the installation of the Stolpersteine for my cousins Lisa and Otto Polatschek.
The Polatschek Stolpersteine are placed on the sidewalk at the very spot where Otto Polatschek operated his shoe store. And the Werdich shoe store is still there! Rebuilt and remodeled after the war, the Werdich Family continues to operate a thriving business! Still an active senior citizen, Mr. Werdich speaks of his father, the purchase of the store and his family’s memories of the Polatscheks.
My cousin Diana has traveled from Montevideo, Uruguay. Otto Polatschek is the brother of Diana’s grandmother Else, the daughter of Alois Polatschek. Diana thanks the city of Ulm for their efforts to memorialize her uncle and reads a tribute to his memory.
The final vocal group sets an optimistic tone with the sparkling and uplifting American spiritual “Down by the Riverside” with its familiar, poignant and appropriate lyric, “I ain’t gonna study war no more.”
Before the conclusion of the afternoon event, I decide to share my thoughts with the large assembled group:
Mr. Mayor, Citizens of Ulm, Family and Friends,
Thank you for the honor to speak to you today and to lead the close of today’s ceremony with the Kaddish, the Jewish Mourners Prayer.
It has been mentioned that members of the Polatschek Family have traveled from Israel, Switzerland, Thailand and Uruguay. I am originally from New York but now I live in Asia. I am the Polatschek representative from Thailand.
A few days ago, I had an emotional conversation with my Thai friend Jinjira. I told her I was going to Germany for two weeks. She immediately associated Germany with a “bad man.” She continued, “I think he hurt many people.” “Yes,” I responded, and I told her the large number we all know too well.
Jinjira had no discernible reaction. How does one react to such an irrational and incomprehensible number? Can one react? As a New Yorker, I calculate that, for example, three quarters of the population of my home city simply disappeared. That insane statistic is unimaginable.
A moment later, I did get a strong reaction from Jinjira. She was astonished when I explained, “The bad man killed thirty members of my own family.”
Thirty is a number that evokes emotion. Thirty is a number that is comprehensible. Thirty is a number you can count. The thirty names of men, women and children fit much too easily on a family tree.
During those grotesque years of the last century, in nations all across Europe and Asia, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from the Baltic to the Mediterranean, millions upon millions of soldiers and civilians perished before their time. But if only thirty had been killed, it would have been thirty too many. If only the thirteen souls we honor today had disappeared, it would have been thirteen too many. And if only my two cousins we remember at this very moment had died, it would have been two too many.
I had a pleasant surprise a few minutes ago! The choir performed “Down by the Riverside,” a Negro Spiritual composed before the American Civil War, and as we have heard, a song of joy and hope. I thank the American choirmaster for making that choice.
In the south of the United States to this very day, the cemetery music accompanying an African-American funeral procession is solemn and sad. But as the mourners leave the cemetery, the music changes dramatically to raucous Dixieland jazz accompanied by boisterous singing and dancing! Mourners of the deceased become celebrants of life, a phenomenon everyone understands.
I propose that there is a connection between the popular song “Down by the Riverside” and the prayer we are about to recite, the Kaddish, the universal Jewish Mourners Prayer.
In every Jewish prayer book, the Kaddish is written with the ancient letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Yet, the words are not Hebrew words. They are mostly Aramaic words!
Two thousand years ago, and for centuries thereafter, Aramaic was the lingua franca, the common spoken Semitic language of the northern Middle East. The Mourners Prayer, unlike the more ancient Hebrew prayers, is a prayer that everyone understood.
What is also fascinating about the Mourners Prayer is that it is not about mourning! There is no mention of the deceased in the prayer. There is no hint of sorrow or sadness or death.
The Kaddish honors G-d and gives thanks to G-d for creating the world. The Kaddish anticipates a world of abundance and a world of peace. Like the words of the Spiritual, and like the folks dancing and singing after a funeral, the recitation of the prayer evokes optimism for a golden future.
I know of one other Aramaic passage in the Jewish liturgy. The passage is in the Haggadah, the Hebrew text that is recited at the Seder, the Passover evening meal. In the spring of each year, the joyous Passover holiday recounts and celebrates the Exodus from bondage in Egypt.
The brief Aramaic passage in the Haggadah is near the beginning of the Seder. The leader of the Seder raises the matzo or unleavened bread, opens the front door of his home and recites the words, “Ha Lachma Anya - This is the bread of affliction.”
Translated, the entire Aramaic passage is:
“This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are in need come and celebrate Passover. Now we are here; next year may we be in the land of Israel. Now we are slaves. Next year we will be free.”
My friends, we have assembled here today to honor and to mourn our lost family and friends. Let us never forget them or the sad events of the past.
But as we depart from the glistening Stolpersteine here in Ulm, let us remember the positive and optimistic Aramaic passages that form the bedrock of our tradition:
To be generous and charitable to those in need.
To strive for a world of peace.
To thank G-d for His works and for our good fortune.
The Mourners Prayer
Glorified and sanctified be G-d’s great name throughout the world which He has created according to His will.
May He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and during your days, and within the life of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon;
and say, Amen.
May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity.
Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that are ever spoken in the world;
and say, Amen.
May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us
and for all Israel;
and say, Amen.
He who creates peace in His celestial heights, may He create peace for us and for all Israel;
and say, Amen.
Down by the Riverside:
Original Version, More or Less
Rap Hip-Hop Version