Stumbling Stones

Welcome to my random musings about the world, on a weekly-to-occasional basis.

Where we are: We have left Europe, with its impending winter and second Covid wave, and arrived in Bonaire (a tiny island off the coast of Venezuela that is part of the Netherlands—yeah, you read that right). We’ve been here several times before, over many years, and decided it would be an excellent place to hunker down for a while and do some snorkeling and diving. One assumes there’s no Covid in the ocean. Today we’re working on finding a good apartment we can rent for a little while.

Stumbling stones

Lee and I were ambling down the main shopping street in Düsseldorf, reveling in retail abundance. I was studying the window of Zara Home, wondering if they had any pretty cloth masks, when Lee pointed out an Anthropologie store.

love Anthropologie. They, of course, would have amazing masks. I might’ve skipped a little, excited at the prospect of dressing up my pandemic look with some girly floral prints, or maybe some splashy jewel tones.

But there between Zara Home and Anthropologie, right in front of Swarovski. something on the pavement caught my eye, and stopped me in my tracks: a Stolpersteine.

I had a moment of cognitive dissonance, thinking about buying frivolities, and looking down at the two cobbles you see above, reading them out loud. That’s my personal rule: when I see one of those little squares, I always stop, I always look. Say their names.

Stolpersteines, which is German for stumbling blocks, were created by an artist named Gunter Demnig, in 1996. They commemorate (for those of you who haven’t yet asked google to translate the words in the picture above) Jews who were murdered during the Holocaust. There are thousands of them, all over Germany, and many other countries in Europe.

If you can document where a Jewish person lived, and that they died in the Holocaust, you can have a Stolpersteine installed in front of the building they were taken from. Sometimes, walking down the street, you see one, or a pair, or sometimes you see ten in front of one building, eight in front of the next, a dozen on the corner. The numbers can be overwhelming.

When we arrived in Berlin five years ago, at the start of our travels, I downloaded an app to help me find them. The second night, while we were at dinner, I opened it for the first time, curious whether there were any nearby. When we finished eating, we tracked down the nearest one—it was directly in front of the building we were staying in.

It was a family named Rosen: Heinz and Emma.

There is something intensely intimate, I think, about those little brass squares, set directly into the pavement. They are a reminder that an individual walked here, carried in groceries, skipped home after school, dragged the dog out for a walk, hurried off to work. Someone answered the door, shoveled snow, swept away leaves, called the kids in for dinner.

Eleven million (the number of people who died in the Holocaust) is sort of incomprehensible. My mind, at least, can’t really grasp a number that large. But I can grasp a name attached to a three-story building with four steps up to the door and a black wrought iron railing, or a bronze door knocker in the shape of the sun. I can relate to that life—I have the tiniest inkling of what was lost.

That’s one of the reasons I seem a little obsessed with art: it has the capacity to bring to life the unreal, the inconceivable—the things that are too immense for my puny little brain to comprehend.

I think everyone should visit a concentration camp memorial at least once, but for me, these small stumbling stones, encountered at random while I’m going about my day, are the most powerful reminder that every death in a genocide (and yes, that includes our own American genocides) is the death of someone’s mother, someone’s baby, someone’s grandfather, someone’s beloved sister, someone’s soulmate.

Take care,

Lisa

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