A week ago today I returned from a two week choir tour with the Wisconsin Gospellers in Eastern Germany. We were hosted by our friends, the West End Gospel Singers from Eberswalde in the state of Brandenburg.
During our two weeks in Germany we visited towns and villages east, south and slightly west of Berlin to see the sites, meet people and perform concerts. We toured beautiful churches, gorgeous parks, an open pit mine and a power station, a castle, an organic dairy facility, Sachsenhausen concentration camp Memorial and Museum, and historic towns. We ate delicious food, received incredibly warm and generous hospitality and sang our hearts out. The entire experience was overwhelming in the best possible way from beginning to end.
This trip was filled with many, many story worthy experiences and impressions but the one that has been on the forefront of my mind this week is the experience of visiting the first Synagogue established in the state of Brandenburg since 1938 and hearing about the Stolpersteine project.
The new Synagogue is located in the city of Cottbus. The building that houses the Synagogue was formerly a Lutheran Church, which was purchased by the state and given to the Russian Jewish community that has formed in recent years in the city. Ulrike Menzel, the pastor who led the effort to decommission a Christian church so that it could be used as a Synagogue shared the many amazing details of this experience with our group. Near the end of her story, she told us about the Stolpersteine (stumbling stone) project. The Stolpersteine are commemorative brass plaques designed to remember the final homes of Jews and others persecuted by National Socialism between 1933-1945.
Each Stolperstein is engraved with the name of one person with the words “here lived…” as well as the person’s birth date, when they were forced to leave their home and where they went if that is known. If the person’s date of death is known, that is also included. These memorial stones are placed in the sidewalk in front of the person’s last known, freely chosen address as a way of remembering the lives of the many who were persecuted and murdered by the Nazis. The Stolpersteine began as a symbolic art project in 1996 and since that time more than 50,000 stones have been laid in Germany and throughout Europe. In the back of the Synagogue in Cottbus, this poster showed all of Stolpersteine that can be found in Cottbus. Later in our tour, a member of our group found this Stolperstein in front of a home in Pottsdam.
Although this project is 20 years old, requests for Stolpersteine continue to flood in and every year more and more stones are placed. Gunter Demnig, the artist who founded this project says a person is only forgotten when their name is forgotten. These stones are one way he and many others are ensuring that all those who were victimized by National Socialism are remembered and honored.
As I listened to this story, while sitting in a Synagogue that used to be a church in eastern Germany I was deeply moved by the many layers of reconciliation and reparation as well as the strong desire for peace and understanding that the Synagogue and the Stolpersteine represent. Many in our group had tears in our eyes as together we prayed for peace for all people everywhere in the world and for these acts of reconciliation to multiply and bear fruit for generations to come.
The next two mornings after the visit to Cottbus, came the news that back home two more blac men had been shot and killed by police Philando Castile and Alton Sterling and later that week the news of the shootings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, LA showed up in my news feed.
The juxtaposition between the efforts toward peace and reconciliation I experienced in Cottbus and the raw, open wounds of racism, violence and fear on the news in the US made me wonder if whites in the US will ever figure out how to extend a hand of reconciliation, peace and understanding to our African American sisters and brothers. Will we as a nation find a meaningful and lasting way to heal the wounds of slavery and Jim Crow and the systemic oppression and injustice that pits whites and blacks against one another? Will we have the courage to see with clear eyes what we have done and are doing and will we find ways to offer healing and hope? For all our sakes and for the sake of the world that is watching, I certainly hope so.