They were simple. In a city with beautiful monuments and unforgettable sculptures, they were barely noticeable. Until I stumbled upon them – simple brass cobblestones that are meant to be “stumbled upon” to point out where the victims of the Holocaust lived before they were deported.
They are called “Stolpersteine”- stumbling stones. I learned that there are more than 75,000 of these plaques spread across Europe and are the largest decentralized Holocaust memorial in the world. They might be easy to miss – just a small brass stone, embedded underfoot, in the cobblestones of the street. Each one commemorates a victim outside their last known freely chosen residence. The inscription of each stone begins “Here lived”, followed by the name of the victim, date of birth, and fate – internment, suicide, exile or, in the majority of cases, deportation and extermination.
My maternal Grandfather, Max Axel, who died before I was born, was one of 15 children living with his parents in Budapest, Hungary when Hitler came to power. They were a close family and it had been a good life. The butcher shop his father, Solomon, owned provided a comfortable living and a lively spot for neighborhood gossip. The synogogue was the anchor of all activity. Respect was given without question, and fairness, within the bounds of custom, was expected. Love was understood even if rarely discussed.
No one believed it would change. After all, the Jewish community had existed for hundreds of years. Rumors were ignored. The news was discounted. God would never allow such terrible things.
As time went on, people began to talk in whispers. Some began to gather and hide their important papers and precious possessions. And a few went so far as to do the unthinkable - prepare to leave. By that time, it was too late.
Solomon Axel made the arrangements. The four oldest children, Max among them, would be in charge of their younger siblings and put on boats sailing to America . Their parents would stay behind. Farewells were brief. Surely they would be reunited when the nightmare ended.
Ultimately, 10 of the children escaped. Their parents and other family members all perished in Auschwitz, as did most of the community. Between May 15 and July 9, 1944, over 434,000 Hungarian Jews were deported on 147 trains to concentration camps, most of them to Auschwitz, where about 80 percent of them were gassed on arrival. No one in the family ever spoke of it...no one ever forgot it.
I have spent many years trying to gather information about them to no avail. Until this year.
How ironic that the pandemic afforded me a chance to travel virtually to Budapest and tour the ghetto, which is well preserved and has several memorials. It is now a thriving part of the city with shops and restaurants and a diverse population.
Our guide was wonderful; charming, informative and fearless in telling the story. I knew about the Holocaust of course, although it was never discussed at home. I read and reread Ann Frank’s Diary, attended lectures delivered by survivors at our JCC and visited numerous museums (the one in Washington, DC made me sick and I had nightmares for several days). I was, I thought, emotionally well prepared for the tour. We walked the cobblestone streets of the ancient town, visited 3 synogogues still in use ( one of which my Grandfather likely attended), saw the beautiful commemorative statues, and visited a mass grave where 2000 unidentified Jews are buried. It was moving. Uncomfortable. Graphic. But I was all right. Until our last stop.
“Look down," our guide said gently. At first, I didn’t know what I was looking at. Several of the cobblestones outside of a simple ghetto residence were a different color. Then, with the magic of a zoom lens, the guide revealed three brass plaques embedded in the stones. Stumbling Stones. Perfectly named. He explained what they were. Although it was a virtual experience, I stumbled. My heart was in my stomach. I started to cry, something I rarely do. I don’t know what it was about them. Such simple things. And yet, the story they told was more vivid than any statue could convey. Someone lived here, had a family, laughed, cried, celebrated Shabbat, and then – herded into the town square, separated from the others, loaded into filthy, crowded cattle cars, terrified, taken to a place called Auschwitz, and gassed to death. All of this horror captured on a small stone.
My Grandfather, Max Axel, was among them.
It has been two weeks since the tour. Not a day has gone by when I do not experience a sudden shiver, a catch of breath, a pain in my heart, or sudden tears.
As we watch the rise of white supremacy and anti-Semitism in not only our country but many others, the words "Lest We Forget" are not just about history. The words are a reminder and sadly, frighteningly, a wake up call.