Analysis: Germans are using Holocaust street memorials to bash Israel

There is an ongoing debate in Munich over whether the Bavarian capital should allow “Stolpersteine” (brass plaques which name the Holocaust victims) to be embedded into sidewalks and streets.

German and Israeli flags  (photo credit: REUTERS)
German and Israeli flags
(photo credit: REUTERS)
BERLIN – There is an increasing tendency among Germans devoted to commemorating the Holocaust to turn Jewish victims into a whipping boy to criticize Israelis and advance the Palestinian cause.
The ongoing debate in Munich over whether the Bavarian capital should allow “Stolpersteine” (brass plaques which name the Holocaust victims) to be embedded into sidewalks and street is a salient example of this. In late July, the Munich city council voted to ban the so-called “stumbling block” memorials. Charlotte Knobloch, the former president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany and current head of the Munich Jewish community, has long opposed the Stolpersteine and has called it an insult to the victims. Knobloch, a Holocaust survivor, said it is “intolerable” for passers-by to step on the names of Jews that were murdered in the tragedy.
There are six “stumbling blocks” outside the residence of this reporter in Berlin. One of them reads: “Hans Simson. Date of birth: 1913. Deported on 28.6. 1943. Murdered in Auschwitz.”
The left-wing weekly Jungle World, widely considered to a be a pro-Israel weekly, reported in a commentary by Dora Streibl that a co-founder of the “stumbling blocks” memorial in the city of Kassel, Ulrich Restat, declared at an anti-Semitic demonstration in 2014 that “death is a master today from Israel” and that he wished that there would be “stumbling blocks” for the murdered Palestinians. The commentary also noted the anti-Zionist sentiments of the co-founders of the Munich “Stolpersteine” initiative.
Retast’s reference was an allusion to the famous Holocaust poem from the Jewish poet Paul Celan, a German-speaking Holocaust survivor, who wrote about the Hitler movement: “Death is a master from Germany” In her commentary, Streibl criticized Restat and others who use the Stolpersteine as a form of alleviating their pathological guilt about the crimes of the Holocaust by turning modern day Jews into perpetrators. She added that: “the Stolpersteine appear as a comfortable, discreet form of remembrance: One did something.”
Others have argued that German Holocaust memorials, including the main memorial in Berlin’s central government district, are not about preserving the memory of Jewish victims, but rather about making Germans feel good. Former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s statement in 1998 captures the emptiness of this ritualization process. He said that the Holocaust memorial should be a place “where people like to go.”
Like other Holocaust memorials, the Stolpersteine project also functions, one can argue, as a kind of phony resistance to Germany’s Nazi past. The German writer Johannes Gross depicted Germany’s relationship to its Nazi history accurately when he wrote that “The resistance to Hitler and his kind is getting stronger the more the Third Reich recedes into the past.”
There are no memorials in Germany for Palestinian, Hezbollah, and Iranian lethal anti-Semitism committed against Jews and Israelis. When an attempt was made years ago to show Israeli victims in train stations there was an uproar and the plan was quashed.
The German artist who started the “Stolpersteine” project is Gunter Demnig. According to Reuters, ”there are 45,000 Stolpersteine in Germany and 16 other European countries. Berlin alone has 5,500 of them.”
The preoccupation with memorializing dead European Jews in Germany has taken bizarre new directions. A fitting update to the famous sarcastic line from Israeli psychoanalyst Zvi Rex could be that “The Germans will never forgive the Israelis for Auschwitz.”
Benjamin Weinthal is a fellow for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.