Stumbling stones

by +CrystalThieringer    @cdthieringer

DSC02199I’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. DSC02203They 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.”

DSC02202“Yes it does,” said my husband. “He was murdered too. They just don’t know where.” His voice held a slight bitter edge.

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?




17 thoughts on “Stumbling stones

  1. Crystal, just reading this upsets me. I have always found the Holocaust hard to bear and even in our times, the crimes we commit against our own appall me. These stumbling stones would hit me hard too. We need to personalise people. Refugees are seen as numbers, not individuals, and the same is applicable to so many groups who suffer in so many ways.

    I sincerely hope your post gives people something to think long and hard about. I am sick of seeing the hate online. It’s not the answer to anything.

    1. I have grown weary of it too, Cate. I sometimes think that being online makes it easier to spread hate, if only because it is so quickly done–and no one has to look in the eyes of those they victimize. There is the illusion of being protected behind a glass screen. How easy it is to forget that it is made of glass, after all.

      Thank you for taking time to read and comment.

  2. What a powerful and moving post. I teared up as I studied the images of the stones. For me, a disabled woman, the events of the past hold special significance because if I had lived in that society 80 years ago, I would have been the first to be murdered. Not because of my religion, skin color, or sexuality – but just because I was born “deficient,” a burden to others. It scares me how few people realize the disabled were among the first because we were the low hanging fruit, the ones who were easily disposed of.

    We cannot let it happen again. We cannot afford to become complacent. We must speak out against hate, while acting with love and respect towards those who scare us for whatever reason. Difficult? Of course. But necessary.

    1. My own issues would have placed me right beside you, Denise. I once had a friend who is a veterinary technician. She told me once that if I was an animal, I would have been put down by now, and she’s right. But she was also wrong, because especially in the context of our discussion, it wasn’t her choice to make.

  3. I am speechless after reading this. And my heart feels heavy seeing the parallels between then and now. This is so poignantly written, and not overdone.

  4. History will repeat itself, but we do not need to repeat the reaction to the actions. That is what makes tomorrow different from today. Instead of reporting 54 killed, we need to report that there were lives lost and lives changed forever. It needs to be personal. I know we want to dislike what we don’t understand, but we need to remember that even the perpetrator is someone’s child and the ones they kill are loved by many. This was beautifully done.

    1. Yes. We have removed ourselves so far from the human element that it seems we often no longer see it. We have sought to protect ourselves from feeling anything, but that is folly. Some day, somehow–there will be an accounting. Of that, I have no doubt.

  5. Am in tears, Crystal. Thank you for this wonderful post. All the more relevant and important in view of the incitement to racism of the Brexit referendum.

    1. I am so sorry, Valerie, for the struggles facing your country right now. There is so much for us to learn–but it seems we have a tendency to avoid the ‘icky’ bits in favour of the ratings game. My heart breaks as I read what is happening.

  6. I love the German language and the tendency for its words to contain bald descriptions and/or meanings. Stumbling stones–perfect. I’m also glad Germany is recovering from its prevailing desire to move past the Holocaust and ‘never speak of these things again.’ The last time I was there, Berlin couldn’t seem to clean up, patch up, and build over fast enough. I’m glad the late Elie Wiesel’s “we must never forget” is taking root. Beautiful through the pain, my dear.

    1. I think there remains a desire to clean up and patch up–certainly there are many construction projects. The dead zone between two sides of the wall has remained (in most cases) public spaces like park land, galleries or memorials. Perhaps Herr Wiesel’s words, however, were best displayed in a river mural that boldly proclaimed, “refugees welcome”.

  7. Ordinary people, like us. Ordinary lives, but precious. How have we lost that ideal?
    Thank you for this, Crystal. It is heartening to see that the past isn’t swept aside. If we have eyes to see, we can learn.

    1. That is a good question, Laura. Is it possible the answer lies in forgetting that every people group is made of individuals, of using hashtags to represent the whole?

  8. Thank you for putting faces and lives to these names on a plaque, as someone who loves rye bread or runs a clock store. Just gorgeous. By coincidence, I am in DC with my family this week. Today we are visiting the Holocaust museum. Your post will be lingering. Here from 1,000 voices.

    1. Oh Julie, your words have touched me this morning. We have been home now for several weeks, and the plaques remain the thing that I reflect on most often. Herr Demning’s work is important and will, I hope, continue for some time.

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