My wife Martha and I spent September 2012 in Europe with about 10 days of that time in Berlin. We rented a small apartment in an area called Scheunenviertel not far from the city centre. We discovered that this neighbourhood had been a centre of Jewish population in the city prior to the Second World War. We were just a few blocks from the gold-domed Neue Synagoge, which had been inaugurated in 1866, destroyed by allied bombing in 1943, and later rebuilt as a museum that opened in 1995. There were an estimated 560,000 Jews in Germany (160,000 of them in Berlin) when Hitler came to power in 1933. Most were either driven into exile or killed. Today there are 100,000 Jews in the country, about 10,000 in Berlin.
A few days into our stay, we saw a young woman bend over and peer intently at the sidewalk about a block from our apartment. After she left, we walked over to see what had so absorbed her attention. Embedded among the sidewalk’s grey cobblestones in front of the building at 223 Torstrasse, we saw three small brass plates with names and other information engraved on them.
The names are Georg Gross, Flora Gross and Emma Bachrach. With the help of our German-English dictionary, we were able to decipher the cryptic story: Hier Wohnte (here lived) each plate read and then gave the name. Each plate also contained the words Gedemutigt (humiliated) and Entrechtet (disenfranchised) and gave a date for those actions. In the case of Georg and Flora, there were also the words Flucht in den tod (sent to their death) on March 3, 1944. Emma, the wording said, was sent to the concentration camp Theresienstadt on April 11, 1942 she died on November 1, 1943.
These three people would have been seized from their apartments in a non-descript building on an ordinary street in Berlin. Today others walk hurriedly (or ride their bikes) along the same sidewalk in the morning on the way to work. The walk is lined by a restaurant that serves schnitzel and other traditional dishes, a small convenience store with a fruit stand out front, and a studio with art for sale in the window.
Our guide book to Berlin indicated that the brass plates attached to the cobblestones are called Stolpersteine, which translates into “stumbling blocks.” In the following days we were to see them elsewhere in our forays around the city, but especially throughout Scheunenviertel.
The neighbourhood contained, in addition to the synagogue, a Higher Institute for Jewish Studies, a Jewish Boys School started by the German Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, a cemetery and a Jewish seniors’ home, which was turned by the Gestapo into a deportation centre to concentration camps. The cemetery space remains as a small park and contains a large headstone for Mendelssohn.
There is an interesting tale behind the Stolpersteine, published in a recent edition of the Toronto Star. A German artist named Gunter Demnig has spent much of the last 20 years placing the cobblestones in sidewalks one at a time. “The idea behind it is that, with large monuments, victims are generalized,” Demnig told the Star. “With Stolpersteine, each one gets back his or her named and identity. That way, they are brought into our daily lives.”
Demnig has installed about 32,000 of the cobblestones in eight countries, including Hungary, the Netherlands, France and Austria, but the vast majority have been placed within Germany. Some people are unhappy about his reviving memories of a monstrous past and some of the cobblestones in Berlin have been vandalized. Demnig says, however, that the vast majority of the people he encounters are supportive when he appears with his hammer, trowel and a pail of mortar to install the brass-topped cobblestones.
For his efforts, Demnig has been awarded the Marion Donhoff Prize, which recognizes individuals who work to promote peace and understanding across borders. Previous recipients have been Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Mikhail Gorbachev.
It took many years for Germans, and other Europeans, to acknowledge the extent their crimes against Jewish people as well as other groups such as the Roma. In his majestic book Postwar, the late historian Tony Judt writes about how Europeans attempted to lay all of the blame on Hitler and often to exaggerate the national resistance that had occurred against the Nazis. That minimized the amount of collaboration proffered by ordinary citizens in the persecution of the Jews in Germany and every country that came under Nazi domination, including Poland, Hungary, Austria, the Netherlands and France. It took more than a generation for these past events to be admitted publicly in any significant way. Germany and Berlin have done more than most cities and countries in Europe to acknowledge the unspeakable crimes that occurred.
Jewish memorial sites
Scheunenviertel neighbourhood in Berlin contains a number of sculptures and memorial sites in addition to the Neue Synagoge. In another area of the city the Judisches (Jewish) Museum takes one through 2000 years of Jewish history in Germany, including the Holocaust.
The Holocaust Memorial near the Brandenburg Gate consists of more than 2700 gray concrete slabs, or stelae, set on an undulating base over an area the size of several city blocks. As you walk through the maze you find there is no level surface and the (intended) effect result is a kind of mild vertigo.
Beneath the memorial square there is an underground information centre that focuses mainly (as does Gunter Demnig with his cobblestones) upon the stories of individuals and families whose lives were disrupted and often snuffed out by the Holocaust.
Things have changed in Germany but not entirely. All of the Jewish memorial sites that we visited in Berlin were protected by armed police and airport type security scans. On the other hand, Gunter Demnig can’t keep up with the requests for his Stolpersteine. At last count he had been invited to lay 500 new cobblestones in a dozen locations across Europe in 2013.