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.
But it wasn’t until a recent visit that I noticed some small brass markers glimmering among the stones.
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.
The Stolpersteine list names, dates, and various fates — all engraved simply into each marker.
The inscriptions are spare, but the stumbler can still infer the horror.
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.
Sadness overtook me as I stood in front of their former home at 6 Poststraße.
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.