One of the many signs of the terrible past in Berlin are the Stolpersteine, tripping stones. As you can see in the photo, these are engraved brass stones to replace the typical paving stones that can be found on Berlin sidewalks. The tripping stone is engraved with the name of a victim of National Socialist terror, including their date of birth and date and place of murder (if known). It is placed in front of the last known, voluntary residence of victims.
The project was conceived by artist Gunter Demnig and is described in more detail at stolpersteine.eu. According to the website, there are tripping stones in over 1,000 municipalities in Germany and across 20 European countries.
As a commemorative practice, I very much appreciate this project. There are streets in Berlin where nearly every house has a tripping stone in front of it. The stones are literally common place. Obviously, the small plaques can be ignored and I imagine that many people walk past them all the time. But if you are willing to engage with their presence, stopping to read names and acknowledging that these victims of state terror were neighbours to someone living here at some point, doesn’t take much time or effort.
Stolpersteine in Charlottenburg
The stones do not mention why a particular person fell victim to state terror, but the numerical majority of victims would have been Jewish, of course. Walking through the streets of our first neighbourhood, Halensee, made it clear that this was not only an area popular with Russians before the War and now, but also one that was a home to many Jewish families. I thought it noticeable that there are many not-particularly-Jewish names engraved on stones in Charlottenburg pointing to the very assimilated lives many of these neighbours led. There were Orthodox Jewish neighbourhoods in prewar Berlin, of course, but not in Halensee. Since the neighbourhood is of a more haute bourgeois character generally, I would also be fairly certain that few of the victims were Communists.
The stones have featured in a number of walks I’ve taken with the family. They are easy to stop by to have a conversation about terror and prejudice which is another aspect I appreciate about this commemoration.
Stolpersteine in Friedenau
In our new neighbourhood of Friedenau, there are noticeably fewer stones. Since the project is ongoing, it may simply be that fewer have been initiated already, but this smaller number also speaks to the residential geography of Weimar Berlin.
Tripping in Suburbia
To my surprise, I noticed a Stolperstein in the suburban part of Berlin where I grew up, in Tegelort. It commemorates the murder of a resident in a psychiatric asylum and was placed more than ten years ago. The fact that I hadn’t noticed it on walks to the busstop before says something about my obliviousness, perhaps, but more importantly says something about the success of the tripping stones as a commemoration. I did notice the stone now and I did investigate the history surrounding it and thus specifically thought about the extent to which National Socialist terror pursued very many different categories of German murderously. That is an important reminder.
P.S.: I’ve posted this on March 22 as that was the date when the first concentration camp was opened in 1933, less than three weeks after what turned out to be the last free election in Germany in the 1930s.