CAT | Back to the Roots
From the area of the old freight station, we drove on further north into Grafenstrasse and, with help from someone who seemed to know the area well, finally found the place of the former orthodox synagogue of 1905/06, which was completely destroyed in the night of the pogroms on November 9, 1938. The memorial with inscriptions in German and Hebrew is built like a small wailing wall; the Star of David is made of granite stone from the KZ Flossenbuerg.
We then walked further northwest to the Friedensplatz (Peace Square) between the castle, which today houses parts of Darmstadt University, and the shopping mall. At the beginning of the mall there is a showcase of photographs of the city after the big air raid in September 11/12/1944. As with the memorial for the synagogue, you wouldn’t find it, if you were not searching for it, although it is three meters high. As you know already, my parents luckily survived the raid and could thus conceive me.
We continued our back to my roots trail through the shopping mall which we left at its northern edge to walk into Große Bachstraße, where many Roma and Sinti had once lived. Most of them were sent to death in Auschwitz-Birkenau by the Nazis of Darmstadt on March 15, 1943. The memorial of 1997, which stands right in the middle of residential area, is made of rusty iron. It looks a bit like the front of a house with blind windows, having small plates below them with names of survivors and a few words addressing the horror which the Nazis had brought over their families. The large plate on the short side reminds the reader of their fate as a minority in the Nazis’ European empire: half a million men, women, and children murdered, just because they were considered different and somehow dangerous.
In 2008, when I visited the glass-box memorial on the tracks at the train station in Darmstadt, Germany, I found it to be moving, with the shards of green glass aptly portraying how lives fragmented at this location. This was where my grandparents were deported in the late 1930s.
For me, the most stunning aspect of the memorial was simply seeing my grandparents’ names – Siegmund Westerfeld and Frieda Westerfeld – etched on the glass. I have rarely seen my grandparents’ names written on anything, even documents. Since they were murdered in concentration camp long before I was born, I never met them and, as you know, my mother rarely spoke of them. It was too painful for her to remember.
When I saw their names, I was struck by the thought that I was standing in a place they once stood and seeing what they once saw. I tried to take in the entire scene – the sights, the smells, the noises. Since we have no shared experiences, I thought, this is the closest I will ever get to them.
But then, I felt sick. I realized that 60 years earlier, I would have shared their fate. Like them, I would have been marked. My heart hammered as I thought about how afraid they must have felt as they boarded the train. My grandfather, a decorated World War I veteran, must have had a deep sense of betrayal; his country and fellow soldiers had turned against him. I felt what I imagined he felt that last time he was at the Darmstadt train station -- a toxic brew of anger and hurt.
Seeing the names of Siegmund and Frieda (I never knew them so I never called them by an affectionate grandparent name) on that glass in that location made the incomprehensible reality of the Holocaust more real for me. It is difficult for anyone to understand the inhumanity and the scale of this horrific genocide, even someone like me who has had to integrate this history into my identity.
The glass memorial in Darmstadt is another piece of evidence confirming the Holocaust. And, given my experiences last week at a school in a small town in Texas, that is critical.
The librarian at the school where I was giving presentations about my books told me that many in this town of German immigrants are Holocaust deniers. “Yet, they live right next door to neighbors who have their Hitler Youth uniforms stored in their attics,” she said.
Though it has been defaced and damaged in recent years, the memorial at the Darmstadt train station isn't hidden in an attic.