On 2 May in Görlitz, Gunter Demnig removed a cobblestone in front of a derelict factory manager’s house. In its place he inserted a simple memorial – one of well over 30,000 that he has created, in the form of a brass plaque called a Stolperstein – literally ‘stumbling stone’, a reference to a non-pc jest that if you stumble on a paving stone you have tripped over the grave of a Jew.
Thus was the simple commemoration of Martin Ephraim, my great-grandfather who made a huge contribution to the town in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, both commercially and culturally. He and his father Lesser Ephraim made their fortune manufacturing articles for the iron trade.
He endowed public buildings in Görlitz: the synagogue, the railway station and an imposing neoclassical museum. I’ll explain shortly in this blog some of the discoveries we made, and a very special presentation we made to the town’s museum.
Masterpieces of understatement
The Stolpersteine have a hand-made, unofficial look to them: nothing sentimental – just the bare facts recorded: Here worked Martin Ephraim, born 1860, deported 1944, Theresienstadt, murdered 6.4.1944.
They are humble, understated memorials, but at the same time permanent and moving. Once you have seen one, you can’t help noticing others. Demnig has installed them in numerous European countries. Wearing his trademark leather hat, he cemented this one in place while speeches were made.
My brother Stephen spoke for the family:
It is a great pleasure to be here in Görlitz today as a member of the British branch of Martin Ephraim’s family. My brother Tim is also here, and Nic the third brother, wishes he was but was unable to come from New York.
Martin Ephraim never knew about the families produced by his two grandchildren, Ruth and Raimund [Raymond] Neumeyer after they migrated on the Kindertransport to Britain. But I am sure he would not have been surprised to see us here.
For many years, he appeared in our lives only as a sepia photograph sitting in the hall of our house in London – and as a family legend, famous both for being rich and successful and also for selling off his home in Goethestrasse during the great inflation of 1923 for a sum that was just enough to buy one basket of cherries the following day.
But gradually, with the passing of time, Martin Ephraim became a much bigger and more important figure – through for example the evidence of family relatives and through our mother’s comments as she became less reluctant to talk about the past, and most recently through the many documents we have found since our mother Ruth’s death in December 2012.
We owe a particular debt to Gunter Demnig for his excellent Stolpersteine initiative – not only for the way in which it commemorates the people who were taken away, but also for the way it has brought families together.
There are two messages that stand out for me from this experience, and which I would like to share with you. The first is that memories are important – without them we lose the vital connection with what has gone before. The second is that time is short – Martin Ephraim died eight years before I was born; this seemed a long time when I was young but now seems like nothing at all. Thanks to Gunter Demnig and to gatherings ceremonies like this one I feel closer to my great grandfather and his family than ever before.
The Stolperstein was placed in front of the manager’s house of the Ephraim factory. The house is now being refurbished as accommodation for retired people by local property developer Ronny Otto, who has created a great deal of social housing in the town.
Click here for a TV news item, including an interview with Stephen, by a local German broadcaster.
A peek at the Ephraim factory
I wandered down behind the house, along a cobbled lane that leads into the industrial estate. The accounts department building is still there, and there at the bottom of the slope is the former Ephraim factory. Last time I was there the very Jewish name ‘Ephraim’ was still painted across the top. Astonishing it had survived the passage of time and the Nazi era in particular; now only an over-enthusiastic paintbrush removed it in the innocent smartening up of the building, now a recycling centre.
They made railway components here. My mother recalled having at their family house in Dachau a wonderful large model railway carriage, with opening doors and seats – I wonder whether if it was a commercial model produced at this factory.
Just two minutes’ walk away from this, in Goethestrasse, is the former Ephraim villa, the first Jugendstil (art nouveau) house in the town. It now functions as a youth hostel, and miraculously the interior, downstairs at least, is virtually unchanged – even the ME (Martin Ephraim) monogrammed glass is still set in the front door. More about that on a future blog post.
Words and photos © Tim Locke