Zen Spot #133--Brass markers of life and death, for German Jews, in Freiburg im Breisgau February 25, 2018 00:05
Freiburg im Breisgau
I just returned from a nine day trip to Europe, with a two day stop in Freiburg im Breisgau in southern Germany. It’s a wonderful town — the kind that, within two hours of entering, one can tell a life well-lived would be easy to find.
Founded in 1120, the city has a rich history, remarkable for its affluence from the very beginning. Among examples of the city’s wealth are the Bächle — small, freshwater-filled stone runnels that line the streets. Designed to cool the city in the summer, the Bächle are like urban streams. Most are about 15 inches wide and twelve inches deep. In some places, the Bächle line both sides of the street. In others, they run straight down the middle.
The center of Freiburg is exclusively pedestrian, so the Bächle are a hazard only to those who spend their time looking up to marvel at the architecture. Legend holds that those who accidentally step — or fall — into the Bächle are destined to marry a local and live happily, forever, among the warmest of its citizens.
History is uncomfortable in Germany
My son lived in Freiburg for two years. He understands the culture, speaks the language and loves the people. A man of humility who is culturally sensitive, he has remarked, on multiple occasions, that few German flags fly throughout the country. Germans, he tells me, are still very sensitive to Germany’s place in the world during the first half of the Twentieth Century. It doesn’t take long to understand that humor of any kind, regarding history, is impossible.
Seventeen years after Auschwitz
I was born in 1962. It wasn’t until my son turned 17 that I came to have any perspective on how little time had passed between my birth and the end of World War II. In school, we studied the war but I had no frame of reference. Photographs and film chronicling the war were in black and white. I lived in a technicolor world, two or three centuries removed from the atrocities.
Seventeen years isn’t the blink of an eye but neither is it a century. Consider the fact that, if I were born today — literally today — Jews would still have been being exterminated in 2001.
Brass markers of life and death for German Jews
I spend more time looking at the ground than most people. A chronic foot condition requires that I be careful with every step. The slightest surface irregularity can effect my gait.
As I strolled though Freiburg, I sometimes noticed shiny, brass plaques embedded permanently into the cobblestones in the doorways of many buildings. Each is engraved with a person’s name, most often of Jewish descent.
I don’t read German. My son, however, is fluent. He explained that each brass plaque remembers a person pulled from their home to be deported to a concentration camp. Other details are provided on each plaque: their year of birth, the year they were sent to a concentration camp, the name of the camp and, if they were exterminated, the year of their death.
In the photograph above, Siegfried Mayer’s plaque shows that he was put to death at Auschwitz in 1942. Sofia Geismer survived.
Death in the abstract
Seventeen years has gotten shorter over the course of writing this essay. Hopefully, in that time, I’ve communicated the beauty of Freiburg. I’m sure it was just as beautiful in 1942.
As I stood over Siegfried and Sofia’s plaques, then looked up and around at the beautiful neighborhood, I was struck by the technicolor — the living color — of reality. The day they were pulled from their homes was, perhaps, as colorful and beautiful as my day. That day, the Bächle cooled the city like they had every other day for hundreds of years. Some people bought bread and shoes and watched their children play.
Others…Jews…were not so lucky. Dozens of brass plaques stipple Freiburg--each a holy place.
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