“We Were Ghosts” ~ Postcards from Luedinghausen

by Julie Ann Kodmur, ‘78 | Stanford Alumni Magazine | November 2008

Last June I spent five days in Luedinghausen, the tiny German town where my mother, Edie Strauss Kodmur, ’56, was born. In the picturesque Westphalian countryside an hour’s train ride from Dusseldorf, Luedinghausen isn’t on most maps. But for three families invited from around the globe, it was the most important town in the world.

We were there to participate in the installation of 22 Stolpersteine. Literally translated as “stumbling blocks,” Stolpersteine are handsome brass-topped sidewalk paving stones installed by German artist Gunter Demnig to memorialize Jews taken from their homes and killed by the Nazis. In the late 1990s, Baerbel Zimmer, a local high school teacher, began researching what happened during World War II in this once thriving, if small, Jewish community. When e-mails started arriving from around the world asking what had happened to relatives, she began filling in the pieces of the mosaic for all of us, finding out how each member of our family had died.

So, on a warm and bright day, my mother and I stood in front of 5 Bahnhofstrasse (built by my great-grandfather and the first example of Jugendstil—art nouveau—architecture in Luedinghausen). We recited the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, for my namesake and great-grandmother, Julie Strauss, my great-aunt, Hildegard Strauss, and my cousin, Walter Strauss, while Mr. Demnig meticulously installed three Stolpersteine and a small crowd clustered around us. It was a complicated and confusing moment. The Strauss family had a long, happy history here; my mother was the fifth generation of Strausses to be born in this home. Yet, behind each of those Stolpersteine was a tale of horror in stark contrast to the charming setting. On Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938, the Nazis smashed every dish in the Strauss home and the Gestapo arrested my great-uncle Siegfried and great-aunt Hildegard. They were driven to the jail in nearby Coesfeld, where, days later, Hildegard committed suicide. Their 7-year-old son, Walter, was sent to an orphanage in Cologne, Germany, and then, at age 11, he was put on a train full of Jewish children. The children were taken to a forest near Riga, Latvia. The Nazis turned up the volume on phonographs so nearby farmers wouldn’t hear the children’s screams as they were machine-gunned. My great-grandmother, at 75, was sent to Theresienstadt and died just a few days after arriving, her death accelerated by many days in that terrible train.

Installing the Stolpersteine around Luedinghausen was part of a schedule of events, including the unveiling of a memorial at the spot where the synagogue once stood and a speech-filled dinner at the town’s oldest hotel. But more important were the conversations—70 years later, people wanted to tell us their memories of our family. The son of the man who built three wooden trunks for my grandparents (in which they took their belongings to America) told us how his father delivered them in the middle of the night so as not to be arrested for helping a Jewish family. A woman put her hand on my arm and said very warmly, “Thank you for taking the trip all the way from America for this.” 

These few days in Germany were eerie, heart-wrenching and extremely disconcerting. At times I felt my mother and I were specimens, everyone watching us, however warmly they interacted with us. And at the same time we were ghosts, once at home here but soon to be gone again, living on only in the shiny brass in these sidewalks.

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