Germans atone for Holocaust with “stumble stones”

October 21, 2010

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(Photo: “Stumble stones” in Berlin’s Wilmersdorf district November 7, 2008/Fabrizio Bensch)

The metal plaques, called Stolpersteine, or “stumble stones,” are set into the ground at my father’s ancestral home in this picturesque village south of Frankfurt.

The squares, 10 cm by 10 cm (4 inches by 4 inches), are barely conspicuous, but the words etched in brass seem to cry out for memory of the home’s last five Jewish inhabitants.

As autumn sunlight bounces off the plaques, I recall a time nearly 75 years ago when the five, all relatives including my father, were driven from here by Nazi anti-Semitism. Four fled Germany; the fifth died in a concentration camp.

The creation of Cologne artist Gunter Demnig, the Stolpersteine are set at homes of victims of Nazi prejudice. They aim to trip the memories of passers-by of long-gone targets of discrimination, mainly Jews but also homosexuals, the disabled, dissidents and Gypsies.

By tying a victim’s fate to a capsule biography, told in a kind of Haiku, the “stumble stones” seek to reduce the epic scale of the Holocaust to a more comprehensible human story.

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(Photo: “Stumble stones” in Berlin’s Wilmersdorf district November 7, 2008/Fabrizio Bensch)

More than 26,000 Stolpersteine have been laid, mainly in Germany, where I traveled for the ceremony in Egelsbach, 15 km (10 miles) from Frankfurt. Arriving from New York, I’m joined there by my brother, a 54-year-old gas industry consultant who now lives in Brussels, and two California relatives, both in their 20s.

We begin the ceremony by chanting Kaddish, a Hebrew prayer often said to remember dead relatives.

I insert the plaque for my late father into a concrete groove, and my heart is jolted, then suddenly warms. It is disconcerting. My mind seems to zoom back to another time, perhaps 1937, when my father left Germany at age 17.

Read the full story by Walker Simon here.

Walker Simon is a desk editor for Reuters based in New York, specializing in Latin American economics and markets.
Raised in the Mexican city of Monterrey, he joined Reuters in Mexico City and led bureaux in Lima, Caracas and Bogota. In New York, he often writes about arts and entertainment and travels on assignment to Latin America.

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(Photo: “Stumble stone” in Cologne, 16 Feb 2006/Gudrun Velten)

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