This past November, Center City architect Peter Bloomfield and his family found themselves standing with dozens of strangers on a cold, wet evening in the German town of Kassel at a Stolpersteine ceremony honoring a Holocaust victim they had never met.
That victim was Bloomfield’s grandfather, Felix Blumenfeld, a prominent doctor from the turn of the 20th century until the Nazis robbed him of his ability to practice medicine.
Stolpersteines, German for “stumbling blocks,” are small brass stones marking the homes or workplaces of Jews who perished or fled during the Holocaust. German artist Gunter Demnig began installing the 4-inch-square plates in 1993. More than 40,000 Stolpersteines can now be spotted dotting sidewalks across several European countries including France, Holland and Hungary.
What makes Blumenfeld’s case different is that two Stolpersteines were dedicated in his name — one at his house and one in front of the Kinderkrankenhaus Park Schonnfeld, a children’s hospital that he founded in 1909.
The November trip wasn’t Bloomfield’s first time at the hospital: he visited there 15 years ago and was surprised, he said, to discover how well-known his grandfather had been.
“I always thought the stories I heard about him were family embellishments,” he said. “It turned out that he was a pretty important man.”
The children’s hospital was the first in Kassel and Felix Blumenfeld developed several important medical advancements, including an improved baby formula that helped lower local infant mortality rates. According to Bloomfield’s research, his grandfather had been well-liked and respected for his dedication to his work.
In 1933, a Nazi directive made it illegal for Jewish doctors to practice medicine, and Blumenfeld was no longer allowed to work at the hospital he had founded. But he refused to leave his homeland, even after his children fled the country in 1938.
Blumenfeld’s vast network of friends and colleagues kept him out of the concentration camps, but their efforts were “not enough to protect and save him,” his grandson said.
The doctor could barely scrape together a living as a garbage collector. The indignity he felt at not being considered a German citizen, coupled with the atrocities all around him, proved too much to bear. In 1942, he committed suicide, leaving behind an impassioned note in which he bitterly recalled moments of degradation he experienced at the hands of the Nazis.
In 2012, volunteers from Kassel’s Jewish community formed a group to identify Holocaust victims from their city as potential Stolpersteine candidates.
Barbara Bahr, 63, a native of Washington, D.C., who had moved to the town, helped track down Blumenfeld’s family through hospital records and articles that area newspapers had published about their visit there years before.
“I don’t want their names to be forgotten,” Bahr explained in a phone interview from Kassel.
Initially, Bloomfield said, he was skeptical because he hadn’t heard about the Stolpersteines before and thought perhaps the group was asking for money. After researching the project, he learned that one of Demnig’s restrictions is that none of the deceased’s descendants are allowed to pay. Instead, the money must come from private sponsors.
After coordinating schedules, Bloomfield arrived in Kassel with his girlfriend, his daughter, Jessie, a 27-year-old lawyer, and his son, Gabriel, 24, an English doctoral student. Also in attendance were Bloomfield's older brother Steven Bloomfield, 68, his wife Carolyn, 66, and their sons, Daniel, 33, and Adam, 35, and daughter-in-law Katie Horan in what turned into a family reunion. Demnig originally wanted the ceremony to be conducted on a Saturday, but the local Orthodox community protested, so it was held after sundown on Nov. 1, 2013.
Bloomfield said he couldn’t believe it when about 70 family members, historians, doctors and community members braved the “miserable, cold and rainy night” to attend.
“We were touched, we were surprised and I was overwhelmed; I was deeply overwhelmed.”
During the dedication in front of the hospital, doctors stopped working briefly to pay their respects, Bahr said. One elderly woman even related a personal encounter with Blumenfeld. As a child, she recounted, she had a terrible skin disease that none of the doctors in Kassel could treat. Eventually, her mother took her to see Dr. Blumenfeld, who agreed to treat her even though he had been barred from practicing medicine, and she quickly recovered.
Bloomfield said the experience reinforced his belief that the Jewish people have an important burden to shoulder as a result of the Holocaust.
“I’ve always felt that it was the role of the Jews to make sure it didn’t happen to other people.”