“Most members of my family were Nazis”. This first line of the first speech to commemorate the laying of Stumbling Stones, in the German Rhinegau town of Oestrich-Winkel, set the tone for a morning of remembrance and reflection. "I feel ashamed for the deeds of my parents", she concluded, before introducing my uncle. In the main shopping street of the town of his birth he recounted my own family’s history.
Initiated by artist Gunter Demnig, the stumbling stones, or Stolpersteine, are emerging as an imaginative and potent way to remember those whom the Nazis persecuted – communists, homosexuals, Jews, Roma and all those who actively resisted Nazi rule. Brass plaques, each cast with an individual’s name and the facts about their plight, are set into pavements outside the house or workplace of that individual. Unlike the larger monuments in civic spaces throughout Europe, these are highly personalised artefacts, and often require detailed research. Every stone starts to tell a story. The Nazis’ bureaucratic fervour for recording the movements and injuries of those they persecuted, and the work of Yad Vashem and others, make this task easier.
Although Stolpersteine have now spread to hundreds of towns in and beyond Germany, this overall embrace of the idea has not come without some opposition and ambiguity. The stones in effect mark the homes from where families fled or were deported and others took their place, often with Government permission. Although various reparation processes have restored or repaid former homeowners, residual bitterness still exists, on both sides. In addition, a few Stolpersteine have proved easy targets for metal theft and desecration. Munich recently decided against laying the stones after opposition from the Jewish community. In Oestrich-Winkel, permission was granted for Stolpersteine after a four-year campaign led by one tenacious local politician.
Returning to my own family’s story, town records show a Hallgarten presence in Winkel from 1640. Early in the last century my great grandfather Arthur set up a wine business, assisted later by his second son Otto. His first son Fritz, my grandfather, became a lawyer in Wiesbaden. After the 1933 election, Fritz was forbidden to practice law. For his father and brother, following boycotts and violence, lootings and imprisonment, running a Jewish-owned business became increasingly unviable. By 1939, this part of my family had all fled to England. Other family members moved to wherever connections allowed, including Argentina and California. Others, including cousins from Oestrich-Winkel, were deported to concentration camps.
My family stumbled by chance on Oestrich-Winkel’s plans, and a few of us managed to make last week’s ceremony. A small exhibition in the town hall, described in the local newspaper, provided illuminating background information, but the shiny centres of attention were the stones themselves. Hovering slightly above the ground, the Stolpersteine play on an ancient German saying for when you see a friend stumble on the street - ‘we must be outside a Jew’s house’. Later that evening, we visited the house my family lived and pressed wine in, now a restaurant and winery.
Any link between my visit to Germany and my day job may feel trite and tenuous (although, in an act of empathy with millions of children returning to school this week, I’ve now spent part of my first week back writing about what I did during my holidays). However, thanks to Daisy Christodoulou's new book on the seven myths of education, I had already been thinking about memory, and its place in our ambitions for learners. I’ll discuss Daisy’s book in a future blog. Despite its shrill certainties, selective use of evidence, and wilful misunderstanding of RSA Opening Minds, it has some useful insights and rightly challenges the sloppiness of many so-called ‘progressive’ educators. Daisy’s analysis is at its most convincing when discussing the key role of education in cultivating memory, not only as intrinsically valuable, but as a crucial foundation for problem solving and creativity. Her views on the types of knowledge that young people need to remember are stifled and stifling, but her synthesis of the psychological research on memory is nonetheless convincing.
My experience of the Stolpersteine, and observing my own children’s reaction to hearing and feeling their family histories in this way, prompted two reactions that relate to Daisy’s myths. First, when it comes to knowledge, the personal is powerful, and no national curriculum document or stark Hirsch-inspired attempt to classify ‘cultural literacy’ could ever define this form of what the Institute of Education’s Michael Young calls “powerful knowledge”.
Second, seeing the Stolpersteine for my family members set into the pavements of Oestrich Winkel was cathartic but not necessarily comfortable. I was reminded of our cities’ ghost bikes, Steve McQueen’s Queen and Country stamps for soldiers killed in Iraq, and above all Seamus Heaney’s final words in The Tollund Man – “I will feel lost, unhappy and at home”. As well as teaching children what to remember, schools need space in their curricula to teach them how to remember.
My own view is that connecting memory with emotion requires a reassertion of the place and power of the arts in schools, through its multiple forms of engagement. This is another issue for another blog, but as schools and communities search for ways to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of World War One, let’s use the Stolpersteine as an artistic inspiration to go beyond the rote learning of WW1 facts, towards a deeper sense of reflection, discomfort, and what my colleague Jonathan Rowson has described in the latest RSA Journal as “spiritual injunction".
Joe Hallgarten, Director of Education @joehallg