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Holocaust

Big meaning in a small Holocaust memorial

Paula Dienstag, a German Jew, was murdered in Auschwitz 70 years ago. Her grandson, Yuval Doron, never met her. But now he has come to Germany to explore the tragedies in his family's history.

The Berlin air is unseasonably cool as Yuval Doron heads to the house where his father and grandparents used to live: Goethestrasse 12 in the district of Charlottenburg.

The address is laden with irony. At his home in Tel Aviv, Doron has a wooden jewelry box on his desk that he treasures very much. It is engraved with a quote from Goethe, the great German poet. The box belonged to his father, Joachim Dienstag, who lived in Charlottenburg as a child - until he was forced to flee the Nazis in 1939.

Roses over the stepping stone in Berlin dedicated to Paula Dienstag
(Photo: DW)

The Doron family pays tribute to Paula Dienstag in front of her former home

For a long time, Yuval Doron didn't want to have anything to do with Germany. He loathed the sound of the German language. Never would he have considered visiting the country where his grandmother, Paula Dienstag, had been murdered.

But now he is standing with his wife and two sons in front of Goethestrasse 12. Today, it's the location of a day care center.

Encounter with the past

For passersby, the house is inconspicuous. For Doron, it is a place full of memories. In an act of tribute, the family lays roses on a small brass plaque, inscribed with Paula Freitag's name and set into the sidewalk in front of the house.

The 10-by-10-centimeter "stumbling stone" is one of about 4,500 around the city. In total, 35,000 can be found throughout Germany. Each is set into the sidewalk in front of former homes of Holocaust victims who were deported and murdered by the Nazis. Concerned artists and citizens started laying the first memorial plaques over 15 years ago.

It was parliamentarian Petra Merkel [no relation to German Chancellor Angela Merkel] who had a stumbling stone made in honor of Paula Dienstag.

Yuval Doron (right) with parliamentarian Petra Merkel
(Photo: DW)

Yuval Doron (right) with parliamentarian Petra Merkel, who iniatiated the stepping stone for Dienstag

Paula Dienstag was born Paula Saft in 1893 in Soldau, in what was then East Prussia but is now the Polish city of Dzialdowo. It is not known when she moved to Berlin, where she met her future husband, Walter Dienstag. Historical records indicate that she worked as a nurse and sports instructor and gave birth to her son Joachim in 1923.

Shortly before the start of World War II in August 1939, 16-year-old Joachim emigrated to Palestine. Two years later, his father died of a stomach ulcer. Paula Freitag lived in Goethestrasse 12 until she was deported to Auschwitz in 1943, where she was most likely subjected to forced labor.

Parliamentarian Petra Merkel, whose electoral district includes Goethestrasse, managed - after a long search - to locate Dienstag's grandson, Yuval Doron.

"Her story is one of betrayal - the betrayal of her by her surroundings," says Yuval Doron of the grandmother he never met.

Mixed identity

Yuval Doron reflects on the German-Jewish relationship, but without a trace of bitterness. "We Jews - and especially not I - don't generalize about the Germans, just as we wouldn't generalize about the Jews. It's about individual people from that time, and each person is different," he told DW. "There are admirable people on both sides, both here and there. Over the years both the Jews in Israel and the Germans have done a lot to smooth things over and to strengthen relationships across generations."

Yuval Doron (center) with his wife and two sons
(Photo: DW)

Doron and his family came to Berlin to confront the past

What did Doron learn from his father Joachim - known in Israel as Yehoakim Doron - about Germany when he was a child? "All of his books were in German," remembers Yuval Doron, who was born in 1956. "He hardly spoke about the time in Berlin, though he felt like a Berliner."

Doron's father saw himself as a German, a Jew, and an Israeli. In addition to his large collection of German books, he subscribed to a yearbook about Berlin. He listened to the music of Mendelssohn-Bartholdy and read a well-known German news magazine.

Nevertheless, Joachim Doron hardly said a word about Hitler's Germany, or about the death of his mother. And his son regrets not asking more questions.

In the little wooden box on his desk in Tel Aviv, Yuval Doron keep a small "Ex libris" from his grandfather's library. He carries it with him as he lays an olive branch from Israel on his grandfather's grave at the Jewish cemetery in Berlin-Weissensee.

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