By McKenna Christmas, SHS Journalism Student
STUTTGART | December 1, 2016
The day was Thursday, October 27, 2016. The sound of a trembling flute filled the air, as Germans and Americans stood, united, staring at one stone being lowered into the pavement with the name Nikolaus Tschermuk engraved on its bright, bronze surface. A powerful silence fell among us.
The Host Country Community Service Club at Stuttgart High School provides opportunities for students to volunteer, help out, and make a difference in the Stuttgart community. At the club's first meeting, we were all introduced to the Stolpersteine Project. The project was founded by German artist, Gunter Demnig. He creates a bronze stone engraved with the name of a person who was killed during the Holocaust. The stone is then placed in front of the individual's last address. We immediately had an interest in the project, as we recognized that the Holocaust was a horrible tragedy and understood that those people deserved to be remembered.
On the day of the ceremony, we stopped by to see the yearbook teacher, Mrs. Blankenship, to pick up a camera so that the ceremony could be photographed. "This is going to be an incredible experience for you guys", Mrs. B said. "You are calling the spirit of someone. That is very powerful." Initially, we laughed the heaviness of the comment off, joking with Mrs. B about how she had added even more pressure to take good photos. However, during the drive to the ceremony the comment stuck in my head. I couldn't help but wonder: Are we really making that big of an impact?
Nikolaus Tschermuk was a Russian immigrant, who was forced to work under harsh conditions as an involuntary laborer at Herberts' Metal Goods Factory. A factory that was once located here in Stuttgart. In 1944, two weeks before his 20th birthday Nikolaus hung himself.
Before this ceremony it was hard for me to believe that the Stuttgart I have come to know and love was once home to a horrendous forced labor factory. It was while listening to the sponsors of this project, Herr and Frau Marquart, read not only about Nikolaus, but also about the hundreds of Russian and Polish laborers (many of whom were children my age and younger) that the story truly resonated with me. I watched in awe as an elderly woman clung to a pair of bright, red flowers and told the story of how her sister had courageously snuck in bread to the laborers and had met Nikolaus. In these moments, the Holocaust was no longer an event that didn't directly impact my generation;it was real. Here I was a 15 year old girl standing face to face with those whom it had directly affected. The Holocaust had become real and personal. It was heartbreaking.
In history class we learn numbers;numbers instead of people. More than three million Soviet and Polish civilians were killed during the Holocaust (Telegraph UK, Holocaust Death Toll). The redemptive beauty of this ceremony was that finally, one of these numbers was no longer an unrecognizable statistic, but rather a name. Nikolaus Tschermuk, a young man that was supposed to be at the prime of his life with the world at his feet;the Nazis took everything from him including his will to live.
The fact that we had the power to make a difference was truly moving. It was then that I again heard Mrs. B's words in my head, and this time I fully understood. We were in a way "calling a spirit" because we were calling attention to a real person not a number. We were giving one of those numbers their identity back, their name. As Herr Demnig said himself, "A person is only forgotten when his or her name is forgotten." The stone ensures that Nikolaus will always be remembered.
After the moving testimonies ended, our names were called. One by one my fellow members and I read a statement we had written about why the Holocaust should be remembered. These statements were then translated and spoken in German. After each statement I witnessed a reaction on the bystanders' faces. Here we were, Americans years after the war, coming to honor a life that had been lost. As the future generation, we promised never to let an atrocity like the Holocaust happen again. We vowed to learn from our past to create a bright future. A future where no one is discriminated against because of their race, nationality, ethnicity, beliefs, etc. I doubt anyone who bore witness to the horrific years under the Third Reich could have imagined that one day German and American youth would stand together hand-in-hand honoring the millions of lives that were cut short.
At the conclusion of the ceremony, we were able to ask questions and learn more. We had great discussions. During this time, my fellow members and I were thanked for our statements, and I realized that anyone can make a difference. If something so seemingly simple as sponsoring a stone could create such a powerful impact, there are no limits to what we, as people, can do, and the positive changes we can create.
The Stolpersteine ceremony is an event I am sure we will never forget. It showed us the powerful difference that one act of love and kindness can make. The Stolpersteine project overcomes hate and helps people heal. The ceremony for Nikolaus ultimately left us wondering: How many of those numbers don't yet have a name?
It is for this reason that Host Country Community Service Club will continue efforts towards sponsoring these stones. Every number was a person, and every person had a name. A name that deserves to be remembered.
McKenna Christmas is currently a Sophomore at Stuttgart High School. Her interests include reading and writing. She is an avid participant in the school community, and enjoys volunteering for clubs such as: Junior Association for the Advancement of Minorities, S2S, Model UN, etc. McKenna hopes to someday work as an Education Officer for a non-profit, such as UNICEF.