Cobblestones to remember murdered Jews multiply in Berlin
Veronika Houboi watched as a man in a cowboy hat and clogs wielded a sledge hammer to smash up and remove a dozen small cobblestones from a Berlin pavement.
He quickly filled the resulting hole with two identical blocks of concrete capped with inscribed square brass plates.
The blocks, called “Stolpersteine” or “stumbling blocks,” read: “Here lived Dr. Erich Blumenthal, born 1883, deported 29.11.1942, murdered in Auschwitz. Here lived Helene Blumenthal, born 1888, deported 29.11.1942, murdered in Auschwitz.”
In Berlin, the blocks have become part of the fabric of the city, their plates glinting amid the grey paving on residential streets and stopping both locals and tourists in their tracks.
Houboi and her husband sponsored the Blumenthals’ blocks, travelling across Germany to see them laid in the northeast Berlin neighbourhood where Houboi, now 71, grew up in the 1940s.
As a child, she had been moved by a story about the family’s local doctor, who had defied Nazi laws banning Jewish medics from treating non-Jews to care for her critically ill brother.
Unable to find the name of that doctor, Houboi decided to symbolically honour him by commissioning blocks for another local Jewish doctor, Dr. Blumenthal, and his wife.
The man behind the stumbling blocks is Cologne-based artist Gunter Demnig, who in 1996 illegally laid the first 41 in the Berlin neighbourhood of Kreuzberg, having found the names in a local history book about the area’s Jewish population.
Three months later, the city granted Demnig permission to legally proceed with the project. Today there are 45,000 “Stolpersteine” in Germany and 16 other European countries. Berlin alone has 5,500 of them.