2016-08-17 / Home

Cherry Hill resident visits Germany for ‘stolpersteine’ commemoration

By JAYNE JACOVA FELD Voice staff


During a recent trip to Germany, Lisa Weiser and family members took part in stolpersteine installation ceremonies in Western Germany commemorating their relatives. Pictured were (from left), Weiser, artist Gunter Demnig, Irwin Block and Lynn Geisel. During a recent trip to Germany, Lisa Weiser and family members took part in stolpersteine installation ceremonies in Western Germany commemorating their relatives. Pictured were (from left), Weiser, artist Gunter Demnig, Irwin Block and Lynn Geisel. Lisa Weiser had a lot of Googling to do this spring when, out of the blue, her mother received an invitation to a ceremony in Germany to witness the installation of “stolpersteine” intended to mark where members of her family had lived before the rise of Hitler.

It didn’t take long for the Cherry Hill resident to get up to speed: Stolpersteine—literally “stumbling blocks”—are four-inch brass plaques placed in streets throughout Europe commemorating the last known addresses of victims of the Holocaust, Jewish and non- Jewish alike.

Weiser was amazed to learn that a group called Freundeskreis der Synagoge Zell (Friends of the Zell Synagogue) had done copious research about her family tree. They knew that her great-grandmother, Helena Geisel, had died in a concentration camp and her great-uncle, Fritz Geisel, had fled to England before eventually making his way to the U.S. They had also tracked down the Geisels’ offspring in America.

The Friends group, working with local mayors, were writing to inform the descendants that it had commissioned artist Gunter Demnig to make stumbling stones memorializing the Geisels and other former Jewish residents of nearby towns. They had arranged ceremonial installations to take place in late June and were inviting all known descendants to participate.

“This came as a total surprise,” said Weiser, whose mother Claire Block was just four when she and her parents immigrated to the United States. “There were no Jewish people involved. They are all just trying to learn from their past and history and not have this happen again.”

Weiser, who had never before been to Germany, jumped on the opportunity. On behalf of her mother, a Vineland resident who could not make the trip, she traveled to Germany with Irwin and Patricia Block, her brother and sister-in-law from Greenville, S.C., and a cousin, Lynn Geisel a Flushing, N.Y. resident who is Fritz’s daughter.

 Although the trip centered around the stolpersteine installations, it ended up being a far more encompassing heritage journey. They visited cemeteries were ancestors were buried, synagogues were marriage ceremonies and bar mitzvahs took place and met residents who warmly recalled the family and received the descendents.

Among highlights, the group spent time in Punderich, the quaint village along the Mosol River where her grandparents, the only Jews, lived and owned a butcher shop. Taking in the magnificent views of vineyards surrounding the steep mountainsides, Weiser got goose bumps walking the same streets and entering some of the same buildings that her grandparents and great-grandparents walked every day.

“”It was so beautiful in Punderich,” she noted. “It must have been heartbreaking (for them) to leave and never be able to see these views again.”

She also visited the grave of her great grandfather Leopold, who died in 1935, shortly before the troubles for Jews escalated. Half of the stone is blank, as the grave was meant to also be the final resting place of her grandmother Helena, who instead died in a concentration camp. 

Weiser also met with her grand parents’ former neighbors and friends, who told her that the Geisels were well regarded in their hometown. They were known as generous and kind people who provided food and clothing to poor families. She also learned that, when the Nazis gave orders to destroy Jewish businesses during Kristallnacht, townspeople tried to put in a good word for their Geisels. One said she had a lingering “bad conscious” all these years later for not being able to protect the family.

The actual stolpersteine ceremony took place in the town of Cochem on June 22. Deming, the German artist, was present to lay the first stones. Inspired by a verse from Talmud that “a person is only forgotten when his or her name is forgotten,” Deming’s project was started in 1996. Since then, some 58,500 have been placed across Europe. Each one is engraved with the inscription “Here lived.”

“He came, spoke about why he started the project, did the installation and quietly left,” said Weiser. “He did not want to be the center of attention of the ceremony.”

The next day, the group went from town to town to be part of separate ceremonies for each stolpersteine installation.  Besides the Punderich event, they traveled to other small towns to serve as witnesses and say Kaddish at the stones for which no descendents could be located or existed.

Like many who fled the Nazis, Weiser’s grandparents found it too painful to talk about their lives in Germany and their escape. She said it was an emotional roller coaster discovering so much history and hearing from both the young and old in her ancestral home.

“We were so amazing and grateful,” she said, noting that she plans to return with her husband Rick and two grown sons, Andrew and Evan. “It shows there are people out there that still care. It may not be personal to them but it’s their past and it’s almost like they’re trying to make amends.”

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