Page last updated at 00:57 GMT, Monday, 31 May 2010 01:57 UK

Setting the memory of Holocaust victims in stone

Blocks being laid in March 2010
Artist Gunter Demnig lays three "stumbling blocks" in Berlin

By Joanna Robertson
Berlin

You only really start to understand the place when you get a feel for its past. And a nation's history isn't only to be found on its battlefields, or in the ruins of its castles. It also lies in the bones of its culture - in its poems, in its music, and in the stories your neighbours might tell you.

The door-handles of my old Berlin apartment are beautiful. Brass, art nouveau and engraved with flowers worn smooth by more than 100 years of hands - the hands of those who lived here before.

Gunter Demnig
Gunter Demnig has been commemorating Nazi victims for years

There's a room with a blue carpet. It was the kitchen for about a century. Now, it holds the piano.

But we've all stopped playing.

None of us likes that blue room. In fact, we're a little scared of it.

My daughter, Miranda (she's four), tells me about "the family of ghosts with big, dark eyes" who live there. She's petrified.

When, feeling idiotic, I confide this to her kindergarten teacher, the response is straightforward.

She gives me a business card.

"Oh, you probably had Jews in your house. Here, use this guy. He's great."

I look at the card, which promises, "Energy change in the home or workplace".

I ask if it's a common problem?

"Oh, yes," she replies, "happens all the time. Hardly surprising when you think of what went on here in the war."

Family remembered

In the pavements of Berlin, there's brass. Here and there, small cobbles of it. They're a little worn - like the lovely door-handles in our home - but by wind and weather, rather than hands.

Berlin street
The Berlin street that used to be home to the Manasse family

And instead of flowers, each is engraved with a person's name, date of birth and their death.

The word, "ermordet" - murdered - is almost always there. Or sometimes, "Flucht in den Tod" - "killed whilst trying to escape". Or "Freitod" - "Suicide".

These brass cobbles are "Stolpersteine" - "stumbling blocks" - hand-made by sculptor Gunter Demnig who, for the past 14 years, has worked with his hammer, chisel and drill to set his commissioned blocks outside front doors throughout continental Europe.

They mark the last home addresses of thousands of the millions murdered by the Nazis.

There are almost 800 in this district of Berlin alone. There are several on the small street where I live, including four outside the house next door - once home to the Manasse family.

In my mind, I can see them leaving.

They did so almost 71 years ago, in May.

It was not at gunpoint, like most of the others, but they were wearing hats, with suitcases packed, papers in order, tickets in hand.

Herbert Manasse had bought passage on a transatlantic liner for himself, his elderly mother Ida, his wife Emmy, and their 10-year-old son, Wolfgang.

No escape

The SS St Louis sailed from Hamburg on 13 May 1939 bound for Cuba.

The four Manasse family stolpersteine
The Manasse family were sent to Auschwitz, where they all perished

Almost all the 937 people aboard were Jews fleeing Nazi Germany.

Forced to leave most of their money and property behind, they had little besides a sense of relief, Cuban landing visas and the hope of eventually entering the United States.

The two-week voyage apparently passed pleasantly - with ball games on deck, dinner-dances below - although many of the passengers were nervous. Some had been in concentration camps.

But while the days at sea slipped by, corrupt officials in Cuba cancelled all visas.

When the ship eventually docked in Havana, only seven passengers were allowed ashore - one of whom had slit his wrists and hurled himself into the harbour.

The SS St Louis was forced back to Europe.

Whatever did - or did not - happen in our house, if there are any spirits, I hope they rest in peace

Thanks to the valiant efforts of her captain, none of the passengers returned to Germany. They were found asylum in other European countries.

Herbert and his family went to France. A few weeks later, war was declared.

In 1943, after many struggles, the Manasse family was deported from France to Auschwitz, where they all perished.

Three roses

On a hot, spring day in 2010, I set off for the far east of Berlin to watch Gunter Demnig lay three Stolpersteine.

The S-Bahn swayed gently across the city, the hiss of its hydraulic brakes marking each station from west to east. Troops of schoolchildren climbed on and off. There were women and men, dogs, shopping bags, bicycles - everyone was squeezed, sweating a little in the unexpected heat.

I left the train and walked along a quiet street, past gardens filled with flowers, trees coming into leaf. It was silent, except for birdsong.

When I finally arrived outside the neat little house I was too late for Gunter. He had gone and left behind three shining new Stolpersteine and three roses - one each, white, for the mother and father, one pink for their little daughter, aged four.

The inscriptions read, "Deported 17th May 1943. Murdered in Auschwitz".

I rode back on the swaying S-Bahn, east to west, to collect my daughter - aged four - from kindergarten. I gave her a pink ice-cream, and we went to the swings.

I had made an appointment with those "energy-change" people - the ones who deal with houses with troubled atmospheres.

But I think I'll cancel it.

Whatever did - or did not - happen in our house, if there are any spirits, I hope they rest in peace.

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