The rich cultural attractions of Jewish life in Berlin are so plentiful that it is easy to initially overlook one small but remarkable feature of the urban landscape: stolpersteine. Berlin is one of hundreds of European communities where pedestrians can tread across stolpersteine, brass stumbling stones that are designed to remember individual victims of the Holocaust. The thousands of cobblestone memorials throughout Germany and Europe were designed by artist Gunter Demnig who conceived the project in 1993. Demnig’s 4 inch memorials are a powerful contrast to Berlin’s vast and imposing Holocaust Memorial which purposely omits the names of Holocaust victims.
Each stolperstein contains just enough information about the victim to unleash our imagination about the life that was lost: a name, birth date, and the date and location of deportation and death if it is available. The stones are generally placed in front of the last known freely chosen residence of the victim. While Demnig’s intent is not to place 6 million stones throughout Europe, there is a concerted effort to memorialize homosexuals, Gypsies, and political victims of the Holocaust, as well as Jews.
As our family has gradually become attuned to the presence of the stolpersteine, we’ve begun to think about taking part in this international effort to remember. It is time for Avery to choose a humanitarian project to undertake for his bar mitzvah and this is one option that he is seriously considering. The time, effort, and research involved in adding one stone to the thousands already in place might touch his life more deeply than a film, book, or museum exhibit could.
The stolpersteine have not been placed without controversy over impacts on property values and businesses, and some Jews have questioned whether stepping on the names of the victims is an appropriate way to remember them. Individual communities have used the democratic process to determine whether the stones should have a place in the streets of their cities and towns. There are now more than 25,000 stolpersteine on ground once dominated by the Nazis. Perhaps our family will add one more.