We ducked away from the noisy and crowded area of Hackescher Markt into the peaceful Große Hamburger Strasse. The late afternoon, the soft, cool breeze and the unexpected quiet made it feel as if we had stepped not just onto a different street, but into another city and time altogether. “The air is different here,” my friend Eleni, whom I was walking with, said, and I agreed. It smelled like linden trees.
As we walked, the shiny brass squares set between the cobblestones of the sidewalk made me pause. As I looked at the words etched into them, the quietness became daunting and no longer peaceful. Each plaque read “here lived,” followed by the name of a person, their date and place of birth, then the year they were deported (1941 or 1942) and the place where they were murdered (Riga or Lodz).
Later, I found out the miniature memorials, called Stolpersteine (literally – ‘stumbling stones’) were created by artist Gunter Demnig. Believing that a person begins to be forgotten when his name is forgotten, he installed such plates in over 500 places around Germany and Europe, documenting some of the many Jews, Gypsies, political dissidents, homosexuals and other groups of people who fell victim to National socialism. But not collectively – one by one, individually.
Grosse Hamburger Strasse used to be one of the main streets in Berlin’s Jewish quarter before the rise of the Nazi regime and the outbreak of the Second World War. Along it stood a Jewish school for boys, a home for the aged and the city’s oldest Jewish cemetery. The Nazis eventually converted the school and the aged people’s home into internment centers, where they held Jews before deporting them to concentration camps. Today, a memorial tablet and a sculpture depicting a group of Jews being led to their deaths, serve as reminders.
Although I am daunted by those two, as well as Berlin’s other memorials commemorating the victims of the Nazi regime, somehow I find these small stumbling stones more powerful in some way. Maybe because they manage – at least in my mind, to reduce to a single individual the enormous tragedy, usually represented as a whole by large collective monuments. It all becomes more immediate and concrete, as I stumble, literally, into the details.