I’m not sure what first caught my husband’s attention. Maybe, like me, he had been mentally exercising the language part of his brain, struggling to translate foreign words. Maybe the sunlight glinted on the worn metal.
He simply stopped moving while we were walking back to our hotel after our evening meal in Berlin. “Look at this,” he said, pointing to a pair of small brass squares on the sidewalk.
I didn’t comprehend all the German words, yet it only took a minute of sounding them out to understand what he had found. We had been in the city for almost a week, and had visited memorials and museums. There are many. We understood that in this beautiful city, there is an attempt to reconcile but not excuse their history. I found myself respecting these attempts to make people comprehend how something happened in order to recognize rumblings of it happening again.
It’s not the same thing, seeing it in person instead of reading a misspelled meme on a Facebook page.
We had seen displays and photos, read about the war, stood on the place where decisions regarding the Holocaust were made, touched remnants of the Berlin Wall and heard stories of people attempting escape. Our spirits had wrestled with a renewed understanding of how we humans destroy each other because we are afraid of appearances, of countries we haven’t been to, of expressions of love or culture that are different than ours–or because the perception of power placates boredom for a time. We had stood on the very place where Hitler’s bunker had been.
All of that was thought-provoking, bone-chilling at times, and gave me new insight to this dark side of our past. It also made me despair for our world, and weep and pray as it seems to eerily echo present day sentiments.
Yet none of that felt like this.
The brass plaques are small, about 4 inches square, each one carefully set into the cobblestoned sidewalk. The lettering has the slight crookedness that comes from being hand-stamped. These are love offerings. Roughly translated, the plaques read, “Here lived Hugo Lewy, born 1882–and Gertrude Lewy, born 1880–Escaped Belgium 1935, Interned Gurs, Deported 1942, Murdered in Auschwitz.”
This couple was a little bit younger than us when their world blew apart. This place where we were standing, had been their last-chosen address. They had walked on streets like these. Maybe they had kissed each other under that tree.
These plaques affected me deeply, and as my husband reached for my hand and we walked in silence, I knew they affected him too.
The next day we found some more, tucked into the sidewalk near the buildings.
“Here lived Hans Hahn. He was 63 when he was deported. Died in Riga,” I said. “Johanna was 55. Oh my gosh, my age. Fritz–do you think he was their son? It doesn’t say what happened to him.”
We wandered the city for another week, and every day we found new stones quietly marking the place where people had been torn from their lives. We stopped to read every one.
I googled “brass plaques of Berlin” and soon learned the stamped metal plates are attached to bricks, which then replace existing cobbled stones. The artist’s name is Gunther Demnig, and the project is called Stolpersteine. Currently, there are more than 53,000 individual cobblestones installed across Europe–and a full schedule for more until at least the end of 2017. It is a drop in the proverbial bucket, really, but in my life, it has made a resounding splash.
According to his website, “This project commemorates all victims of National Socialism – Jews, Sinti, Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, mentally and physically disabled people, people persecuted for their political views, their religion or their sexuality, forced laborers, men considered deserters – anyone who was persecuted or murdered by the National Socialists between 1933 – 1945.”
I read Herr Demnig has had offers to automate the process so that more Stolpersteine can be installed, and the work advanced in a more efficient manner. He has refused, and this makes sense to me. The focus is on these individuals, who have already been targeted. They have already been grouped. They have already been “processed”.
Nothing will be gained–and much will be lost–if that is allowed to happen again, with them or anyone else.
Students or sponsors research the biography of individuals, and others get involved in receiving permission to make the installation. People begin to see the victims as more than a Jew, a Homosexual, a Sinner. Instead, they are returned to what they always were–the person across the street, the one who liked rye bread or chocolate or had a fantastic smile, the lady who bore three children, the man who ran the clock store, the child who ran the fastest or told the best jokes. In other words, they become human again.
The word Stolpersteine means “stumbling stone”, or “stumbling block.” How they have haunted me since our return.
We have been faced with renewed calls to build walls for keeping people-groups out (while forgetting that also means keeping people-groups in), faced with yet another mass shooting, increased reports of human trafficking, crimes against children, domestic violence–the world of today is burdened with an abundance of hate.
There is much we have grown weary of hearing about. There is much we have become complacent about. This is a problem, because, to quote one of our tour guides, complacency is one way in which people become complicit. “We did this,” he said, “and we have to account for that. But we could not have done this without the help of so many others who knew about it, and chose to ignore it.”
Some days, it seems little has changed. I wonder how different that could be if we stopped stumbling over our own folly?