Art and remembrance, stone by stone

July 28, 2002|By Ellen Handler Spitz

I RODE by train from France to Germany via Belgium. I peered out the window tensely, after Liege, waiting for the signs to change from French to German and for the new conductor to address me with words other than "bonjour, madame." When it happened, I felt the muscles of my stomach contract. I was in Germany.

A sculptor, Horst Hoheisel, was waiting for me at the railroad station in Kassel, situated in the center of Germany, north of Frankfurt. We had never met before my trip more than two weeks ago. Mr. Hoheisel, a colleague of Norman Kleeblatt, curator at the Jewish Museum in New York, was to be my guide at the renowned international contemporary art show Documenta 11.

Born in Poznan, Poland, in 1944, Mr. Hoheisel's special interest is in creating memorials in public spaces. Not Jewish, he has been powerfully drawn to themes involving the Jewish experience, particularly under the Third Reich. His father had been a prisoner of war in Siberia and had maintained an inexorable silence concerning the Jews, only to let it slip in the final years of his life that he had witnessed scenes of their murder.

Mr. Hoheisel tried to distance himself from his parents by creating art about the Jews and the Holocaust, but these themes simply returned him to his personal history.

Both of his parents came from Riga, Latvia, precisely where the Nazis deported the first Jews from Kassel. On Dec. 9, 1941, 1,000 Jews were taken to Riga. They later were sent to Maidanek and other camps to die.

Deeply shaken by a commemorative book made in Kassel after the war to honor its Jewish victims of Nazi genocide, Mr. Hoheisel saw names, photographs, birth dates, street addresses, professions and other information about the deported Jews. He created a memorial piece beginning in the 1980s that he called "Thought/Stone/Collection," to which he hoped people would contribute so that it never would be finished.

Because the deportations originated at railroad stations, Mr. Hoheisel chose the Kassel station as the site for his art. On an old rail cart on a track, he fitted a glass case over a bin formerly used in weapons manufacture. Hundreds of stones are inside the bin. Attached to these stones are pieces of paper with handwritten messages in German.

The sight stunned me. My mind raced.

I recalled the fragile tombstone of Rabbi Yehuda Loew (of legendary Golem fame, who died in 1609) in the Jewish cemetery in Prague. Suffering souls had forced their supplications for centuries into the tombstone's worn crevices.

I remembered the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, with its ancient stones and tiny wads of paper prayers crammed into the interstices.

I thought of the California-style Tashlich ceremony on Rosh Hashanah, when sins are written on pieces of paper and cast into the water. And I thought of the stones placed lovingly on grandparents' graves.

Staring at the piece, I turned to its German artist. Why did you make this? I asked. What do these stones mean to you?

A stone, he said, is a simple sign. Every stone is different. Stones are placed on pathways to mark the way so strangers won't get lost. As each traveler passes, he adds a stone to the pile so others will find their way.

Mr. Hoheisel had taken Kassel's memorial book about the Jewish victims into schools, where he spoke with teachers. When the citizens of Kassel learned about the book - it apparently had been ignored earlier - they began to bring stones to the monument. Some wrote dedications: messages to a Jew who had once lived on their street, to someone born in the same month or to someone with the same given name.

Children brought stones from the mountains and the sea. The monument grew. Mr. Hoheisel read the messages at first but quickly stopped. He felt that the work of mourning must remain private.

The monument sparked a memorial event in Kassel in 1998 to honor the deported Jews; the mayor of the city planned to attend, and students begged him not to give a speech. If he came, they said, he should simply bring a stone.

Others in Germany heard about the monument, and imitation sites sprang up in Bamberg, Hanau, Bayreuth and Frankfurt.

Though the monument is sealed, it is filled with stones, and people continue to deposit their stones on its case.

If art can open the human heart, if art can bring people closer, Mr. Hoheisel's project stands as a testament to that hope.

Ellen Handler Spitz is professor of visual arts at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

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