I remember the first time I saw a gleaming Stolperstein just outside the front door of a stately five story apartment building in Berlin. I bent down to read the inscription on the stumbling stone: a woman’s name, her birthdate, the date of her deportation and the date of her murder.
Stumbling stones are 3x3 inch square brass plates fused onto cube-shaped paving stones . They are set among the other grey pavers or directly into the concrete in front of a building door. Literally, Stolpersteine means stones that make you trip. Imagine yourself exploring a German city on foot and noticing one of these small golden squares. What’s that? Perhaps you walk up close and then see the inscription. Maybe you read the name, the date of deportation. A minute ago, you were walking briskly to your destination, and now you’re thinking about a stranger who was killed by Nazis. Once you’ve read one Stolperstein, every other stumbling stone you see will trip you up and pull you - if only for a moment - out of your routine. Even if you don’t stop to read the small engraved words, your mind will stumble and halt. You can’t help but think about what happened in this country, in this city, in this exact spot.
When I saw my first stumbling stone that day in Berlin, I peered through the window of the locked apartment building door. In the foyer, large mirrors multiplied the light of the chandelier; a wide carpeted stairway with carved wooden banisters led to the upper stories. Uniformed men dragged the woman down these stairs, I thought. Or maybe she walked on her own, holding her back straight and her head high. The neighbors must have heard the pounding on the door, the loud voices. Did they watch through the spyholes? Did they run the water in the kitchen, turn on the radio to drown out the sounds in the stairwell?
I took a few steps back and looked at the building. It was part of a row of distinguished old Wohnhäuser with ornate façades, and flowers spilling from balcony boxes.. How did it actually happen, the rounding up of Jews by Hitler’s Gestapo? There must have been a truck waiting to whisk the woman away. Probably, people were yanked from different buildings and marshaled into a group before they were ordered to march down the sidewalk. What about the people in the street who saw their neighbors walking in rows, bearing the obligatory yellow star on their coats, perhaps carrying a duffel bag or a small suitcase. That’s how I imagined it, a group of men, women and children making their way between the buildings and the large chestnut trees, guarded by uniformed tormentors whose nailed boots pounded like hailstones on the sidewalk.
I thought not-knowing was impossible.
That’s exactly the idea behind the Stolpersteine. Cologne artist Günter Demnig created them to remind people that deportations happened on a mass scale in the midst of regular daily life. Demnig wanted to offer an alternative to centralized memorials because these can easily be avoided and circumvented by people who don’t want to think about the past. Stolpersteine can’t be avoided, they just appear in your path and you stumble. Demnig, who came of age during the sixties, was always interested in making history visible right where it had happened: in everyday life.. In 1990, he marked, with paint, the route taken by the Gestapo and the SS when they were driving Sinti and Roma through Cologne like cattle towards the death camps. An older woman told him that no “gypsies” had ever lived in the area. The woman’s ignorance sparked Demnig’s idea for the Stolpersteine.
Demnig placed the first Stolperstein without official permission twenty years ago, in January 1995, in his home town Köln. Since then, he has placed more than 50,000 Stolpersteine in 1,200 cities and towns. Most of them are in Germany, some are in other European countries. Each stone commemorates an individual who was murdered during the National Socialist terror; there are stones for Jews, political opponents of the Hitler Regime, homosexuals, Jehovas Witnesses, Roma and Sinti, and victims of euthanasia. Taken together, the small Stolpersteine constitute the largest of all Holocaust memorials. They present an opportunity to pay tribute: I have seen flowers placed on a Stolperstein. My father polishes the small brass plate in front of his building. He’s 84 years old, and it takes him a while to negotiate the five flights of stairs to the street. Still, he remembers to bring along the brass polish and stoops down to make the Stolperstein shine.
Stolpersteine individualize the statistics that are so difficult to comprehend. Every time I read an inscription, I wonder about this person’s life, about her work or his family. Stolpersteine are everywhere and their ubiquity reminds me that flourishing Jewish communities were once part of German life. Contrary to memorials that mark sites of torture and murder, these brass plates mark the homes of individuals and families. They proclaim: Jewish children once clambered up these stairs! Jewish doctors once examined their patients in these rooms! Jewish families ate together and celebrated holidays here! Feeling the glaring absence in contemporary Germany becomes unavoidable.
Stumbling stones also make me think about what the deportees left behind: all their possessions, everything they couldn’t carry in their bags. How long did it take for the Nazis to carry off the paintings, the porcelain, the carved mahogany table and chairs? Maybe the neighbors snuck in later and looted the linens from the chest and the pots from the cupboards? And then, who moved into these empty apartments, perhaps furnishing them with the stolen carpets and sofas? Maybe SS officers or Party officials who were in line for a kickback? Every Stolperstein reminds me of an important and often overlooked aspect of the Holocaust: among other things, it was a giant redistribution of wealth. Those who benefited from it have never had to answer to anyone.
This summer, I saw fourteen stumbling stones in front of one apartment building in the Südstadt neighborhood of Cologne. Fourteen! I took a photo. And then I decided to follow my father’s example: I bought a little bottle of brass polisher. When I saw the next Stolperstein I bent down to shine it. Two people walked past me and I wondered what they were thinking.