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Memory, One Piece at a Time

Arden PennellMarch 9, 2007

After literally stumbling over a Holocaust memorial in Berlin, Arden Pennell investigated the history of Berlin's "stumbling stones."

Little memorials everywhere: the stumbling stones are part of the city
Little memorials everywhere: the stumbling stones are part of the cityImage: dpa

You can "stumble" anytime and anywhere in Berlin. Whether stepping out to pick up a carton of milk or on the way home from work, you’re bound to notice the "stumbling-stones" (Stolpersteine), small brass-capped squares laid flush with Berlin’s stone sidewalks.

One stumbles psychologically, not literally, for inscribed into their surface is the name, and -- as far as is known -- the dates of birth, deportation, and death of a former Jewish inhabitant of the dwelling alongside the stone. The brainchild of artist Gunter Demnig, the miniature memorials must be privately sponsored at a cost of roughly 95 euros ($125) and have caught on as an effective way to personalize the enormity of the Holocaust.

After "stumbling" dozens of times over Berlin’s roughly 900 miniature memorials, I became eager to talk to individuals who funded the stones, which are created and inlaid by the artist himself. A phone call to my neighborhood’s stumbling-stone coordination center puts me in touch with a local couple. I am set to meet sponsors of the latest memory trend.

Pasta and the past

Richard and Elke Hoffmann* greet me at one of Berlin’s thousand cheap Italian restaurants, chosen so we could talk at length without worrying someone else will be waiting for our table. The conversation quickly turns from vodka penne to Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or "coming to terms with the past."

Mr. Hoffmann believes in the controversial "collective guilt" theory popularized after a 1981 speech by Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. The theory holds that all Germans as an entire people are guilty for the crimes of Nazi Germany.

A prevailing counter to the "collective guilt" theory runs that German society is not collectively guilty but rather collectively responsible; as witnesses to the terrible history and heirs to its consequences, they can help ensure it does not happen again. While Mr. Hoffmann agrees with this responsibility, he nonetheless sees the nation as categorically culpable, a feeling that informed his desire to sponsor a stumbling-stone.

Artist Gunter Demnig produces the stones
Artist Gunter Demnig produces the stonesImage: dpa

"With this stone, I’m accepting a small piece of the guilt of our people. The guilt that I inherited. I take on this guilt in recognition of the terrible crimes we have committed," he explains to me slowly and carefully, as though describing a logical proof.

A shocking bakery visit

Mrs. Hoffmann expands on their reasons, bringing up an incident from their 1974 trip to Israel, when they stopped in a bakery for a snack.

"I wanted to buy a pastry and the woman behind the counter had blue numbers tattooed here." Mrs. Hoffmann points to her arm. "When she heard us speaking German she just gasped and then couldn’t breathe. She froze, completely transported by horrible memories."

This encounter with a concentration camp survivor stayed with Mrs. Hoffmann for decades. "I had to face what my people did," she says. "And for me, the stumbling-stone is a way of dealing with this. It’s a small gesture of humanity towards the victims."

The Hoffmanns’ stumbling-stone commemorates an elderly woman deported to Theresienstadt and killed in October 1942. It lies not far from our restaurant, where the woman resided at the time of deportation.

Laying more stones

"We came upon them the same way you did," explains Mr. Hoffmann. "We noticed them here and there throughout the city, and at some point we thought, ‘that’s something we’d like to do. We’d like to sponsor a stone.’"

They were able to turn their desire into action when Mrs. Hoffmann read a newspaper article with information about the local office that coordinates with the artist. She called to inquire, and ten months later, the stone was set.

The Hoffmanns would like to do more. After reading about the former Jewish neighborhood in Venice, where the term "ghetto" originated, the idea of laying a stumbling-stone there appealed to them.

For sponsors, the stones offer a way to acknowledge past horrors
For sponsors, the stones offer a way to acknowledge past horrorsImage: dpa

Mrs. Hoffmann takes out a travel guide and opens to a map depicting Giudecca Island, former home of the Giudei, or Jews. The cartographic neutrality of the land mass, shaped like a bread crust lying in a soup of Venetian canals, does not betray the cramped conditions under which Jews once lived.

"I have to research myself if there were Jews living there at the time of the Second World War, and if they got deported, as well as finding the names and dates," says Mrs. Hoffmann.

"We’re not sure if everything is recorded, either," Mr. Hoffmann adds. "Germans like to write everything down, but other countries might not have." He is referring to the astoundingly precise German documentation of their crimes, right down to careful inventories of homes from which Jews were deported.

"Be sure you know why"

Despite this tactical obstacle, the Hoffmanns believe strongly that in what they are doing, stating emphatically that only by remembering can one avoid repeating past mistakes. When asked how they would advise someone planning to sponsor a stone, their message is clear, "Be sure you know why you are doing it."

Interested in sponsoring a stumbling-stone where you live? Many (German and Austrian) cities have coordination centers; call the mayor’s office or district office (Bezirksamt) to inquire.

*Names have been changed at the request of the sponsors, who want more people to know about the stumbling-stones yet prefer not to receive undue attention for simply doing what they consider the right thing.