It was drizzly, gray and wintery when we headed out to the Rathaus Neukölln. The heavily-pedestrianised Karl-Marx Strasse sidewalks had been narrowed by mounds of gray ice that had earlier been shovelled out of the way. People were testy.
Picking out a small cluster of bodies on that sidewalk, we went over. The group was standing around two cobblestone-sized brass plaques on the pavement outside No. 69. Around the plaques were a couple of candles and red roses. A woman was reading out biographies. The others stood attentively, straining to listen above the growl of the traffic.
The plaques were memorials, 43 of them along this main street alone, and the event was a commemoration.
We attempted to follow the group when they moved on to the next set of memorials. But what with the crowd, snow and noise, we gave up. Returning to the first location, we bent to read the plaques:
“Hier wohnte Siegfried Lindemann, JG. 1873, Deportiert 17.3.1943, Theresienstadt, Tot 3.4.1944” and “Hier wohnte Fanny Lindemann, Geb. Abrahamsohn, JG. 1869, Deportiert 17.3.1943, Theresienstadt, Tot 30.5.1944”.
The doorway outside which the plaques were laid was that of the last residence of the Lindemanns, Siegfried and Fanny (nee Abrahamsohn), who were born respectively in 1873 and 1869, deported in 1943 to the concentration camp of Theresienstadt in the then Czechoslovakia, and were dead a year later.
They were victims of Nazi persecution. These memorials to them are called Stolpersteine, stumbling stones. Each is stamped with a victim’s name, birth date, when they were persecuted and where and when they died or were forced to emigrate. The memorials are embedded in front of the doorway of the victim’s last homes.
There are over 5,000 of these in Berlin and about 43,500 in the rest of Germany and Europe.
An ongoing effort by Berlin artist Gunter Demnig, the Stolpelsteine commemorate mostly Jews, but also other victims including Roma and Sinti, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, political opponents and the disabled.
Where possible, they are laid with the involvement of the victim’s relatives and the local community.
Maintaining these memorials and follow-up events are encouraged, such as this Karl-Marx Strasse commemoration. Organised by the Neukölln borough council, this annual event honours the borough’s victims.
My husband and I always stopped to read a Stolpelstein‘s inscription whenever we stumbled upon the plaques.
We would work out how old victims were when they died. If there was more than one name, we would try to figure out the relationship between them. We would look at the doorway and building where they once lived.
Noting where the victims were killed brought home the extensiveness of the Nazi extermination camp network all over Europe.
I also sometimes tried to find out more about the victims. In the case of the Lindemanns, I discovered on the Stolpersteine in Berlin WikiProject (in German) that their daughter, Dorothea, lived up the road from them at No. 43. She and her husband, Martin Ledermann, were deported a day before her parents to Auschwitz, where they were murdered.
As part of that day’s commemoration, a volunteer stood for the day by the Stolpersteine, at hand to keep the candles lighted, tell the story of these victims and answer questions.
The event reinforced the message of the memorials, which was to keep alive the memory of these people, whose existence would otherwise have been completely wiped out – as would have the brutality of the Nazis.
This was certainly true at the other two Stolpersteine stops we made that day. For the fact that those addresses were even residences had been obliterated: one entrance was that of a bank (No. 76), the other, a fast-food joint (No. 100).
The former had four Stolpersteine laid, commemorating Jacob and Frieda Löwenthal, who were victims of the Holocaust in Riga, Latvia, and their tenants, Julius and Elisabeth Lewin, victims in Minsk, Belarus.
One of the stones outside No. 100, whose entrance was now outside a Burger King, actually sported a mistake in the spelling of a name, indicating how difficult researching these victims could be.
Joseph (mis-spelt on the memorial as ‘Josef’) had lived there with his wife, Helene and his brother’s wife, Margarete. The couple was murdered in Raasiku, Estonia, the sister-in-law, in Auschwitz.
At each site, we chatted a little with and kept the volunteers company. It was cold and no easy task on that wet, windy day keeping the candles lit.
One volunteer got annoyed with hurrying pedestrians who did not notice the candles by the memorials and kept inadvertently kicking them. Very few people stopped, if at all. When we left them, the volunteers cut lonely figures standing sentinel amidst the flurry of bodies. ω
Artist Gunter Demnig’s Stolpersteine Homepage has details of the project, including where the latest laying ceremonies are and how to apply for a Stolperstein to be installed. The history of the project and information on the Berlin memorials, including an interactive map, are in the Stolpersteine in Berlin Project Coordination Website. Detailed biographies of victims are being collated by the Stolpersteine in Berlin WikiProject (in German). Incidentally, the project has its fair share of detractors (in German).