“Look where you’re walking” is the phrase you’re most likely to hear my husband mutter not-so-under his breath while out walking around a busy part of Berlin. The primary offenders are tourists, looking for something in one direction while their feet propel them forward in another; pedestrians preoccupied with their mobile phones; and, most fearsome of all, pedestrians preoccupied by their mobile phone in one hand while wielding a lit cigarette with the other. Abstract the phrase slightly to “look in the direction you’re headed,” and it works on both a literal and figurative level. My husband’s irritated admonishment is transformed into a piece of advice worthy of a commencement speech: deceptively simple, pithy, equally pragmatic and profound. Much of the canon of canned advice—dress for the job you want, aim high, aim at nothing and you’ll hit it every time—are variations on the theme.
And yet in Berlin there’s an exception to this rule. To see the Stolpersteine—German for stumbling blocks or stones—you have to look down, which is what I happened to be doing last Saturday, undoubtedly staring at my phone, when the glint from a trio of brass plaques caught my eye. I had just read about the Stolpersteine in ExBerliner, an English-language magazine targeted at expats in the city, and so I stopped to examine what I now recognized as miniature monuments to victims of forced deportation in Europe between 1933 and 1945, a group that includes Jews, Roma and Sinti, homosexuals, dissidents, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. There are thousands of them around Berlin, and yet I had somehow never noticed them before. Inscribed on each of the stones in front of me now was the victim’s name, date of birth, year of deportation, and what happened. Irma, Karla, and Ellen Rosenthal lived here, were deported in 1943, and murdered in Auschwitz at ages 38, 14, and 10 respectively. It’s a fair amount to take in when you were just walking to a movie.
The Stolpersteine are the work of a German artist, Gunter Demnig, who, since 1992, has been creating the plaques based on carefully researched nominations and funding from private citizens. People sometimes apply for a plaque on behalf of a relative or, in other cases, simply to acknowledge someone who once shared the same address. The reasons are personal but the content of the inscriptions is regimented, particularly when it comes to describing what happened to the victim. I was struck by the commitment to speak plainly and truthfully in Demnig’s instructions on the official Stolpersteine website:
“TOT (dead) or ERMORDET (murdered); for a fate unknown three question marks are used: ???. Instead of suicide we put FLUCHT IN DEN TOD (flight into death). We do not use the term “verschollen” (“missing”), nor the term “TOD” (“Death”) since it suggests a natural death. Nor do we use the term “emigration”. Instead, the stone will state: FLIGHT + year + the country of destination.”
(It’s impossible not to notice the parallels between his insistence not to use the term “emigration” and the current debate over the term migrant versus refugee.)
The intimacy of these memorials—each one’s origin linked to a private citizen, modest in size, and placed in front of what is or once was a home—stands in contrast to the city’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The latter is very much in the public space, near the Brandenburg Gate and across from the Tiergarten, comprised of undulating terrain between 2,711 concrete slabs that convey an abstract sense of the magnitude of what occurred. Both, I think, provide a required perspective, but it is the Stolpersteine that have captured me most because they are intertwined with the minutiae of my daily life.
There are eight victims memorialized on my street, including Abraham Fuss, who lived in or near the building that now houses a shop where I bought the bike I use to commute to work each day. He was a tailor, and each time I pass the wedding dress atelier of Andreas Remhardt farther up the block, I think of him. Jeanette and Ruth Grünberg along with Charlie and Golda Wisen lived near the shop where we bought the chairs we sit in every day around our dining table.
|Stolperstein for Jenny Theis, a singer who lived
around the corner from me, murdered on this day in 1942
Berlin is a city that’s always looking forward, as marked by the permanent presence of cranes in the landscape. And yet it also strikes me as a city that has taken pains to look backwards to remind itself of its past, not just in the Memorial to Murdered Jews in Europe and the Stolpersteine, but on plaques that show up on buildings all over the city to tell the stories of victims of National Socialism and, later, the Stasi. Despite its constant reinvention—currently as a hotbed of hipster-ism in Europe—it is a city trying to keep itself alert to the possibility that, at any moment things, could go terribly wrong. The fact that aerial bombs left over from WWII are still discovered, often during construction, and defused on a regular basis is one very real manifestation of the threat. Berlin is a city that is literally sitting on bombs.
The city’s reminders to itself, whether deliberate monuments or unintended remnants of war, seem to show up in its current handling of the European refugee crisis. According to recent reports, approximately 1,000 refugees are arriving in the city each day. Germany is expected to receive upward of a million refugees this year, of which Berlin is obliged to accept 5%. It’s a challenge for which the city’s collective memory, held in part in the Stolpersteine, will need to be tapped.