During my intensive language learning last week at the Goethe Institut in Berlin, I went for walks at the lunch break – Mittagspause! – to rest my weary brain and to learn a little about where I was.
As it turned out, I was in an interesting place – near Alexanderplatz and the Hackescher Markt in what was (until 1989) East Berlin.
Not far from the door of the Institut I stumbled upon three Stolpersteine (pictured above), a word which literally means “stumbling stones.” Stolpersteine, a word my exceptionally patient teacher Frau Proksch taught me to pronounce, are part of an art project by the German artist Gunter Demnig to commemorate victims of National Socialism at their last place of residence.
The stones are actually concrete cubes, 10 centimeters by 10 centimeters (3.9 inches by 3.9 inches) fitted with a brass plate and inscribed with the name and life dates of the victims. As you walk along Neuer Schönhauser Strasse, where the Institut is located, you see several of these Stolpersteine, and then you realize that people who once lived here were taken from their homes and deported to extermination camps.
The project started fairly small – in the German city of Cologne – but has expanded to 50,000 Stolpersteine in more than 280 cities in Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and others, for a total of 18 European countries.
I confess that I had never heard of the project before, and now that I have seen it (or a very small part of it) I can’t get it out of my thoughts. It’s a deeply moving sight.
The majority of those commemorated of course were Jewish victims of the Holocaust, but other Stolpersteine have been placed for Sinti and Romani people (then called “gypsies”), homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, black people, members of the Christian opposition (both Catholic and Protestant), the Communist Party, military deserters, as well as the physically and mentally handicapped.
The German people I know are not proud of their history, but to their credit they seem determined to remember it, acknowledge it, and learn from it. I hope other people – let’s say, American people – will take a look at this project and learn something from it as well. Too many other people could make it to the list of victims.
(Photos: At the top are three Stolpersteine, located just steps from the main entrance to the Goethe Institut. The other photos were taken along Neuer Schönhauser Strasse. By the way, there really was “free cold beer” at Pepe Jeans London. I went inside to find out. Also, the dessert was crème brûlée, and it was very good.)