There are monuments and memorials everywhere you turn in Berlin. With the impressive Brandenburg Gate, the Holocaust Memorial, and remnants of the Wall, it’s impossible to forget the city’s rich and complicated history. But the monument I most appreciate in my new, adopted home, is the subtlest of them all. Located all over my neighborhood of Mitte, where a large population of Jews lived before WWII, are tiny brass plaques called “Stolpersteine,” or stumbling stones.
These modest memorials are four inches square and placed within the cobblestone sidewalks all over the area. Each has a name, date, the name of the concentration camp that Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, Christians, were taken to, and their fate. They usually read something like, “Here lived Ida Arensberg, 1870, deported 1942, Murdered in Theresienstadt on 18.9.1942.” Often seen in clusters, they are placed in front of the houses that people lived in before they were deported. They are called Stolpersteine because you literally stumble over them while walking through the neighborhood. They serve as a constant reminder to never forget what happened decades before.
The plaques were the brainchild of 63-year-old German artist Gunter Demnig. "It goes beyond our comprehension to understand the killing of six million Jews," Mr. Demnig told the New York Times in an interview. ''But if you read the name of one person, calculate his age, look at his old home and wonder behind which window he used to live, then the horror has a face to it.'' For many Jews and otherwise, these small tokens of remembrance act like the graves they never had for family members.
But the Stolpersteine aren’t only in my neighborhood. Demnig has now helped place 32,000 plaques in hundreds of cities and towns, which requires working seven days a week. It would be impossible to lay six million stones to commemorate the same number of people that perished in death camps, but the artist insists that’s not the point. Every Stolpersteine laid is meant to symbolize all the victims.
This post is part of the GOOD community's 50 Building Blocks of Citizenship—weekly steps to being an active, engaged global citizen. This week: Learn About Your Local History. Follow along and join the conversation at good.is/citizenship and on Twitter at #goodcitizen.
Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons