I was recently reading in an archived article from 2019 in The Guardian that “Monuments of remembrance are ubiquitous in Berlin. The city has at least 20 memorials to victims of the Holocaust – most notably Peter Eisenman’s vast 19,000-sq metre Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.”
That memorial is an incredibly impactful one that we visited in 2016, and will likely revisit this month, but today we experienced a much different kind of memorial.
Stolpersteine, which translates as “stumbling stones”, is a project first conceived by artist Gunter Demnig in Cologne in 1992 as part of an initiative commemorating Roma and Sinti victims of the Holocaust. He installed the first Berlin Stolperstein four years later in 1996. Each stone commemorates an individual who was persecuted by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945. As Abby, one of my literary acquaintances, said, “Memory is a form of [retroactive] justice.”
Stolpersteine are 10x10cm concrete blocks which are laid into the pavement in front of the last freely chosen place of residence of victims of the Nazis. Each block is topped with a brass plate into which the residents’ names and fate are engraved. By 2019 there had been more than 70,000 stolpersteine laid in more than 1,200 cities and towns across Europe and Russia, constituting the largest decentralised monument in the world. Now there are more than 90,000.
The project is ongoing as new information comes to light, with stones being placed for “Jews, Sinti and Roma, people from the political or religious resistance, victims of the euthanasia murders, homosexuals, Jehovahs Witnesses and for people who were persecuted for being declared to be „asocial“.” Stones are only placed after any remaining members of the victim’s family agree to allow it.
One of the most moving statements for me from the 2019 Guardian article was “For Michael Friedrichs-Friedländer, 69, the craftsman who makes each Stolperstein, [any] criticism of the project is unwarranted. “I can’t think of a better form of remembrance,” he says. “If you want to read the stone, you must bow before the victim.”
Berlin’s Stolpersteine project has its own website which includes an interactive map. Finding Stolpersteine | Stolpersteine in Berlin
The interactive map (overview above) of where the stones are located in the greater Berlin area (8745 of them so far, with 935 in the borough of Mitte alone ) allowed us to zoom in and find Ella Karma’s stone right around the corner from us at 24 Albrechtstraße.
Just imagine what a wonderful world we could have if we only honoured other’s uniquenesses during their lifetimes. Hopefully meaningful memorials like stolpersteine will serve as a reminder not to repeat the past.
ADDENDUM: I read after initially posting this that one should say the name of the person when coming upon a stone, since in Jewish tradition a person dies twice: once when their heart stops beating, and again when there is no one left who says their name. We searched out several more stones and read them out loud.
As we searched out stones, I noticed a curious thing: stones that were in somewhat “protected” areas were dark and hard to read, whereas stones in higher traffic areas became shinier as they were walked on. One of the objections to the stones (as was the case in Munich, where the objection was supported by the Jewish Council there) was that they devalued the victims by allowing people to tread on their names. In a strange twist of fate, it turns out that being walked on only makes them shine brighter and attract more eyes.
And if there is any scale on which a tragedy of this magnitude can be understood, the family grouping below was a shocking reminder of the depth to which human cruelty can descend. Look at that last date. (these 3 were very dark and needed to be rubbed a bit to make them readable)