Stumbling stones into the past

27Jan15

During my first visit to Freiburg, Germany, one of the things that most impressed me was the meticulously cobbled streets. So precisely cut are the stones that you can walk on them for hours without tiring — and the mosaics are as much of a feast for the eyes as the shop windows above them.

Freiburg bachle 1040422 BLOG

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PAvers and alley 1190220

But it wasn’t until a recent visit that I noticed some small brass markers glimmering among the stones.

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These Stolpersteine — literally, “stumbling stones” — are the work of artist Gunter Demnig, who since 1993 has been placing the small memorials in front of the buildings where Holocaust victims once lived or worked.

As of August 2014, he had placed more than 48,000 such stumbling stones in 18 European nations.

Stolpersteine Twitter

The Stolpersteine list names, dates, and various fates — all engraved simply into each marker.

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Stefan Maier 1200133 BLOG

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The inscriptions are spare, but the stumbler can still infer the horror.

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Melanie Weinberg was deported to Gurs, in southwestern France, in 1940. Did she recognize others from Freiburg there? Could she understand her French jailers? And what horrors did she later witness in Auschwitz, before she was murdered in 1942?

The stones can’t answer these questions, of course; they can only record the victims’ names. But for Demnig that’s a start. “A man is first forgotten when his name is forgotten,” he said in a recent interview.

Fortunately, some of the victims the Stolpersteine memorialize — and their stories — did survive. Such was the case of Samuel Sigmar Günzburger and his wife, Alice Berta Günzburger, who abandoned their prosperous business and home in Freiburg to flee the Nazis.

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Sadness overtook me as I stood in front of their former home at 6 Poststraße.

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I felt as if I’d known these people, after reading their granddaughter’s wonderful book

[New York Times investigative reporter Leslie Maitland] grew up enthralled by her mother’s accounts of harrowing flight from the Nazis. Her book is both a journalist’s vivid depiction of a world at war and a daughter’s pursuit of a haunting question … It is a tale of memory that reporting made real and a story of undying love that crosses the borders of time.

But an even greater heartbreak set in as I continued to stumble across more and more names in Freiburg — and as I thought of the millions of others whose stories were brutally extinguished.

Cambridge historian Joseph Pearson said that “It is not what is written [on the stolpersteine] which intrigues, because the inscription is insufficient to conjure a person. It is the emptiness, void, lack of information, the maw of the forgotten, which gives the monuments their power … ”

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Vergessen Sie nie. N’oubliez jamais. Never forget.

 

 

 

Read more about the Stolpersteine


20 Responses to “Stumbling stones into the past”

  1. It’s not all that often that we really see what we are walking on. And when we do I doubt that many things catch the eye the ways these stones do. Nice pictures.

    • 2 hmunro

      Thank you for your photo compliment, Ken! You’re so right that we seldom notice what’s beneath our feet — which for me is part of the genius of this concept. It’s a wonderful reminder that the present is built upon past events, in a very literal sense.

  2. Very powerful. Thanks for sharing this moving tribute. It amazes me that Anne Frank was able to say, “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.” She is right, and in that light, we need to keep the lives of so many of the good people alive through such memorials. Thanks.

    • 4 hmunro

      What a beautiful quote you’ve added to this conversation, Patti. Thank you — and thank you for your kind words too.

  3. Thank you for that. The ‘stumbling stones’ are a wonderful idea – embedded in the town, like stitches in a tapestry. I think the fact that they’re low down and that they glimmer, will make a lot of children, far far into the future, ask their parents to read what’s written on them. And so the names will be passed on, as long as the stumbling stones last.

    I agree with Ken, by the way – gorgeous photos, arranged perfectly to hold hands with the story as it moves forwards.

    All best wishes
    Elaine

    • 6 hmunro

      How beautifully you write! I love your metaphor of those stones “embedded in the town, like stitches in a tapestry,” and your lovely description of how the photos and the story “hold hands.” Thank you for that.

      I also love your observation that future generations will ask their parents about the stones — and that the names will be passed on. So may it be …

  4. Strong and informative stuff! Thank you for telling us about the ‘Stolpersteine’. I live in Switzerland, and will look out for them on my next visit to Freiburg. Great photo story telling too; I agree with all former commenters!

    Angela Zemp (Hedgehog Times)

    • 8 hmunro

      Thanks for your very kind comment! I’m honored that you enjoyed this post. Though I must apologize I didn’t make it clear I was talking about Freiburg, Germany. (I always forget there’s “another” Freiburg …) My apologies, but I’ll update my post accordingly. In any case, thank you so much for reading and especially for reblogging.

  5. Reblogged this on Hedgehog Times and commented:
    Fascinating and sad fact about the streets of Freiburg, Switzerland.

    • 10 hmunro

      Thank you SO MUCH for reblogging my post! I’m very sorry I wasn’t clear that I was talking about Freiburg in Germany, though. I’ve updated my post, and my apologies for any confusion.

  6. While I’m passing, thought you might be interested in this shortish post from London’s UCL Museum collection – on Curt Hertzstark and how his calculator helped him save lives in Buchenwald http://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/museums/2015/01/27/curt-herzstark-and-a-remarkable-machine/

    Elaine

    • 13 hmunro

      Where DO you find these fascinating gems?! What an extraordinary story. Perhaps I will write about Curt and his “daughter” Curta next year. Thank you, thank you!

      • It was the serendipity of the internet sea, washing Curt up on my private beach on the same day as I read your post.

        There’s a piece of driftwood here that might interest you – off-topic for your post, but on-topic for humanity and adding subtle touches to illuminate the streets of our life https://zoecormier.wordpress.com/2014/12/17/gay-signing/

        Elaine

        • 15 hmunro

          I love the serendipity of the Internet sea! I also love the idea of “dialects” within specific populations of sign-language speakers. Our world is such an endlessly fascinating place — in great thanks to wonderful people like you! Thank you.

  7. I’ve been to Freiburg on a few occasions during a three-week stay in the Black Forest (helping out in a family-run hotel). But had not noticed these stumbling stones. Thanks for sharing. I’ve recently read a few books around WWII, including Primo Levi’s personal survival of Auschwitz (If This Is A Man) which is well written and terribly sad…

    On a lighter note, did you know the old wives’ tale that if you step into one of the many street-side canals (like one of those in your photos above), you will be destined to marry someone from Freiburg and stay here for the rest of your life?

    • 17 hmunro

      How wonderful that you’ve also been to Freiburg! Isn’t it an enchanting city? And yes, I’ve indeed heard that if you step into one of the bächle you will be destined to marry a Freiburger … but it must not work on people who are already married, because I’m still happily married to my Minnesotan! 🙂 Though I wouldn’t mind staying in Freiburg with him for the rest of our lives …

  8. Reblogged this on Santa's Reindeer and commented:
    Loved the designs here 🙂

  9. I love stone sidewalks and roads. There is something very classic about them and it just makes you feel like the community really cares about the presentation of their home.

    Thanks for sharing these great photos 🙂

    • 20 hmunro

      Beautifully said, Zully: And that was exactly the impression I got in Freiburg … people there really care about their home. Thanks for stopping by!


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