Salzburg Man Lets Stumbling Blocks Shine Again: „Caressing the Victims of the Nazis“

Der Standard, May 9, 2018

German original:

He has been at it in Salzburg for weeks: retired railway worker Gerhard Geier wants to clean all 388 of the city’s stumbling blocks. Today Rainerstrasse 4, in Salzburg’s Andrä – neighborhood, is up. Here, eight stones are laid for Jewish victims. Five of them bear the name Bonyhadi. The National Socialists murdered most of the family.

The older gentleman sists on a footstool behind the row of the small memorials embedded in the ground. Next to him is a little cart with all kinds of cleaning supplies. The stones are painstakingly cleaned with a hand brush, then they are sprayed with a saline solution and treated with a battery-powered polisher.

Later, Gerhard Geier seales the stumbling blocks - equipped with a five-inch brass plaque – with a polish and shines them with a cloth. All of this takes about half an hour.

Foot Stool, Hand Brush, Cart

Gerald Geier has been doing this in Salzburg for a couple of weeks now, and all over sudden the friendly, older gentleman and his foot stool, his hand brush and his cart almost became part of the cityscape.

The 79 year-old wants to shine all of the 388 small memorials for the victims of Nazi terror in the state capital during the memorial year of 2018. About 200 have been cleaned so far, says Geier. He simply works according to a map from the Committee for Stumbling blocks, „neighborhood by neighborhood.“ The committee has been informed from the beginning.

Making the Stones Readable

His motivation? Geier smiles: he noticed repeatedly that „I have to bend down in order to read the inscription with the data of the murder victims on the stones.“ During the Pogrom night commemoration on November 8 last year, he had the idea to clean the stones. Some of them have been lying on the streets and sidewalks for a decade and have been covered with patina accordingly. Sometimes, stones can also be damaged by winter road maintenance.  In that case, even Mr. Geier cannot help anymore. Those stones are replaced with new ones by the initiators; on average eight stones are damaged unintentionally each winter.

Street-cleaning Jews

Sometimes, while sitting on the floor, he has a „picture of Jews who had to clean the streets before his eyes.“ Geier said. But he is touched more when he polished the stones with his microfiber cloth, which feels „almost like caressing the victims of the Nazis.“ This way, he establishes a relationship with each victim.

The reactions of passers-by are mostly positive, Geier explains while spraying another stone with solvent. „I often get spontaneously invited to a cup of coffee.“ The father of two daughters also explains the concept of the little memorials to interested tourists: „A human is forgotten when his name is forgotten,“ is the motto of the stones borrowed from the Talmud.

Commemoration as a Warning

The contact with people and explaining the purpose of the stones is easy for Geier. Born in the Pinzgau district, the retired railway worker was a stationmaster in Wels and also a staff representative at Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB). For a short while, he also served as a Social Democratic local councilor in Zell am See.

Gerhard Geier himself has no victims of the National Socialists in his family. He combines a political message with his individual memorial service. Suddenly the smile is gone from his face as he says „what is possible today was unthinkable just a few years ago. One notices a shift to the right in Europe, it could get dangerous again.“

In the meantime, the stone for Edgar Bonyhadi is shining again. He was deported by the Nazis to Maly Trostinec, close to Minsk, where he was murdered on May 26, 1942.

(Thomas Neuhold, May 8, 2018)