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Sidewalk plaques honor the memory of Nazi victims

STUTTGART, Germany - So many people had come to witness the ceremony in front of my great-uncles' former home that they had to squeeze together on the sidewalk to stay out of the busy street.

STUTTGART, Germany - So many people had come to witness the ceremony in front of my great-uncles' former home that they had to squeeze together on the sidewalk to stay out of the busy street.

They had gathered on a recent Saturday morning to learn about five members of a family - my family - who perished 70 years ago, although the exact dates are not known. I learned more, too, not just about their ordinary lives and terrible fates, but also about this moving act of remembrance.

While a teenager from my father's old high school played clarinet, Gunter Demnig set five brass plaques into the sidewalk and then hammered them into place. He worked quietly and quickly because he had other plaques to lay in Stuttgart that day.

A German artist, he started creating these Stolpersteine - translated as stumbling stones - more than 15 years ago to remember the victims of the Nazis. Engraved on each stone are spare but poignant details. My two great-uncles, Oskar and Ludwig, and a great-aunt, Hannchen, perished in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. A cousin, Erna, is believed to have taken her life and that of her infant daughter, Tana, while being deported to Auschwitz. The five new Stolpersteine naming them all are now part of a tribute that crosses national borders and includes more than 32,000 stones in Europe.

The Stolpersteine typically are placed in front of the last home where the victim resided of his or her own free will. Often, the homes are no longer standing, as is the case for the home of my great-uncle's mother-in-law. The Stolperstein in her memory was placed that same day in front of an empty lot down the street from the Uhlmans' home. Inscriptions on most stones begin with the plain words Here lived.

The power of this grassroots movement is that it prods people to remember individuals who were students, homemakers, teachers, lawyers, and, like my uncles, businessmen. Even though the visible part of each stone is modest in size, just under four inches square, it is hard to miss on a sidewalk. It compels one to look and then think.

I became aware of the group doing research for the Uhlman stones when my German-born cousin contacted me two years ago. Coincidentally, he was undertaking his own genealogical journey. His search led him to a retired teacher in Stuttgart who was amassing binders filled with information found in government archives about our extended family.

There's no easy way to sum up this dedication of Susanne Bouché-Gauger. She genuinely cares about the memories of all the victims she has come to know through her Stolpersteine work, not just the Uhlmans. And as do many Germans of her generation, she deplores the denials and silence that her parents' generation maintained about their involvement in the Nazi regime.

At the ceremony, Susanne gave a brief overview of my family's 200-year history in the Stuttgart region, and the relatives who lived in the apartment building that withstood World War II bombs. She then turned over the microphone to high school students who read family letters and text. Susanne had done additional research with them to deepen their understanding of the past and to link that past to the present.

Among the crowd of about 100 at the ceremony were 10 Uhlman relatives from England, Israel, Germany, and the United States, including my daughter and myself. It was the first time that most of us had met one another. We are all descendants of three Stuttgart brothers. My grandfather fled in 1939 to the United States, where he lived his remaining years.

Now, these five stumbling stones have connected us to one another, and to a street where our grandfathers and fathers had walked.