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Stumbling Stones

 

I remember the day I suddenly stumbled across it. And the only reason I stumbled across it is because I had given up cars. For a month I had given up cars. Better put, cars had given up on me. I was doing some research and respite in Salzburg, Austria last March and I had leased an apartment on a little medieval street called Steingasse. And believe me, even the infinitely more compact European vehicles I might have rented could not have navigated this quirky, cobbled path. I once did battle with a rented RAV4 (a stick-shift, @susanquinn!) in Scotland for two weeks, and suffice it to say, it did not end well. (Sheep have the right of way in Scotland. Every time.)

I had learned my lesson. So I gave up cars and chose to walk. Everywhere. And that’s when I stumbled across it. One morning as I was on my way to buy my customary kaffee, I saw something I’d never seen before, even though I must have walked by it dozens of times. It was a small brass plaque carefully set into the uneven stones at the end of my street. I had to use the translator app on my phone, but this is what the plaque said: “Here lived Alfred Schuech. Born 1893. Deported April 17, 1941 to Schloss Hartheim. Murdered 1941.”

Schloss Hartheim is a castle in upper Austria that was converted into one of the Nazi extermination centers. Between 1940 and 1944, over 18,000 physically and mentally disabled people were killed by gassing and lethal injection as part of the T-4 Euthanasia Program. So it appeared that Alfred was a physically or mentally disabled 48-year-old man who lived at No. 7 Steingasse and was deported and exterminated by the Third Reich in 1941. I had no other information than that. But a quick Web search filled in the missing pieces. Alfred’s plaque is part of a nationwide Holocaust memorial that began in Germany in 1996. It is known as “Stolperstein,” which means, literally, “stumbling stones.”

Small brass plaques are placed outside the last place of residence of known Holocaust victims. Alfred’s plaque was placed among the stones in front of No.7 Steingasse. There are now over 61,000 plaques in more than 1,200 locations in Europe. The program dictates that virtually no publicity should accompany the placement and location of the plaques. They are meant to be discovered by chance. They are, indeed, stumbling stones (we’d call them stumbling blocks) — causing people to stop in their busy lives and look down and take notice. That’s how they were designed to work. That’s exactly what happened to me.

In the days that followed, I saw more plaques. I had never seen them before, but now my eyes went immediately to them. Olga Sachsel and Heinrich Weber. One killed at a prison, the other sent to Dachau and then exterminated at Hartheim. A 58-year-old mother and (I assume) her 27-year-old daughter, Regina and Dorothera Grindlinger. Killed just three days apart at the Maly Trostinec Concentration Camp.

And I wondered how many other stumbling stone plaques I had passed by and never seen during my years of traveling. In Amsterdam or Brussels. Or Paris. Or Vienna. I am sure I did pass them by. I was busy. I had places to go, things to see, food to sample, history to investigate. Sometimes I had rented a car and simply driven right by. Other times I had taken a taxi or a bus or a metro. But whatever the mode of transit, I was always looking somewhere else.

Who’s to say why I saw the little brass plaques that day. Perhaps it was because I knew I would be leaving Austria soon and I was reflective. Perhaps it was because I had taken the morning train to Munich and walked the emotional grounds of Dachau only days before. Perhaps it was simply because it was raining and I took the time to be careful and look where I was walking.

But I did see them. I wasn’t looking for them, but I discovered them by chance. Olga and Heinrich; Regina and Dorothea; and Alfred. And I will never forget them.

And tonight as I write this, I find myself thinking once again – I need to stop driving everywhere and voluntarily give up my car. I need to walk more. I need to stop and look where I’m walking.

What I really need is many more such stumbling stones in my life.

There are 28 comments.

  1. Contributor

    A powerful and touching post, I.M. I’d never heard of these stones. I appreciate their design, purpose, and how they are effectively built into the lives of people in the paths that they cross. Excellent topic and well-written. Thank you.

    • #1
    • September 13, 2017 at 6:31 am
    • 8 likes
  2. Member

    Great post, Ms. Fine.

    • #2
    • September 13, 2017 at 6:45 am
    • 2 likes
  3. Member

    In the midst of all the imaginary evil we are told exist, these reminders of true evil are needed. Thanks.

    • #3
    • September 13, 2017 at 7:15 am
    • 7 likes
  4. Member

    Patrick McClure (View Comment):
    In the midst of all the imaginary evil we are told exist, these reminders of true evil are needed. Thanks.

    And I wonder – How discomfiting these stones are to the residents of those towns? They are, after all, reminders of their parents’/grandparents’ evils. That has got to be a little difficult to deal with at times.

    • #4
    • September 13, 2017 at 7:22 am
    • 4 likes
  5. Contributor

    Songwriter (View Comment):

    Patrick McClure (View Comment):
    In the midst of all the imaginary evil we are told exist, these reminders of true evil are needed. Thanks.

    And I wonder – How discomfiting these stones are to the residents of those towns? They are, after all, reminders of their parents’/grandparents’ evils. That has got to be a little difficult to deal with at times.

    It could also remind them that their commitment to preventing this in the future is very important. I would hope they would know that.

    • #5
    • September 13, 2017 at 7:27 am
    • 10 likes
  6. Member

    I currently live in Germany. There are at least a few of these plaques in front of nearly every house downtown. It’s chilling.

    There’s also this road sign, which was erected without further comment on the site of the former synagogue in the middle of downtown:

    As you can probably guess, Gurs is the name of the concentration camp to which the Jews in this city were deported.

    • #6
    • September 13, 2017 at 7:44 am
    • 5 likes
  7. Member
    I. M. Fine Post author

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    Songwriter (View Comment):

    Patrick McClure (View Comment):
    In the midst of all the imaginary evil we are told exist, these reminders of true evil are needed. Thanks.

    And I wonder – How discomfiting these stones are to the residents of those towns? They are, after all, reminders of their parents’/grandparents’ evils. That has got to be a little difficult to deal with at times.

    It could also remind them that their commitment to preventing this in the future is very important. I would hope they would know that.

    All of these perspectives are true. I believe it is fair to say that Germany has faced their past in a fairly direct and proactive way. (In fact, many secondary schools in Germany require their students to visit a concentration camp.) Austria, however, seems to struggle at times in coming to terms with their history under the Third Reich. That was my distinct impression after my month in Austria earlier this year.

    • #7
    • September 13, 2017 at 8:41 am
    • 8 likes
  8. Member

    I can’t help thinking that this stumbling block program was an idea someone had to lessen our indifference. I would think it would be effective.

    Thank you for this excellent post.

    • #8
    • September 13, 2017 at 8:53 am
    • 3 likes
  9. Contributor

    Mendel (View Comment):
    I currently live in Germany. There are at least a few of these plaques in front of nearly every house downtown. It’s chilling.

    How do you feel about them, Mendel?

    • #9
    • September 13, 2017 at 10:17 am
    • Like
  10. Member

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    Mendel (View Comment):
    I currently live in Germany. There are at least a few of these plaques in front of nearly every house downtown. It’s chilling.

    How do you feel about them, Mendel?

    I would say in general, Germans do a good job about keeping reminders of their past ever-present without being too overbearing, which runs the risk of numbing people to their history.

    These plaques are a good example, since most people see a few (or more) everyday, but they aren’t too in-your-face. Similarly, my wife’s home city is only about 10 miles from a concentration camp site. A tower was built on the site that can be seen from almost anywhere in the city, but it’s not an obtrusive tower. Just a subtle, yet constant reminder.

    I’m not German, but I still find myself somewhat moved by the stones. Their geographical distribution in our city clearly shows how integrated the Jews were in daily life, and the fact that many of them share the same last names as some of the oldest families in town also demonstrates how well integrated into society they were. It really is chilling.

    • #10
    • September 13, 2017 at 10:35 am
    • 13 likes
  11. Contributor

    Mendel (View Comment):
    and the fact that many of them share the same last names as some of the oldest families in town also demonstrates how well integrated into society they were. It really is chilling.

    Obviously not as well-integrated as they thought they were . . . .thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    • #11
    • September 13, 2017 at 10:44 am
    • 3 likes
  12. Member
    I. M. Fine Post author

    Mendel (View Comment):

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    Mendel (View Comment):
    I currently live in Germany. There are at least a few of these plaques in front of nearly every house downtown. It’s chilling.

    How do you feel about them, Mendel?

    I would say in general, Germans do a good job about keeping reminders of their past ever-present without being too overbearing, which runs the risk of numbing people to their history.

    These plaques are a good example, since most people see a few (or more) everyday, but they aren’t too in-your-face. Similarly, my wife’s home city is only about 10 miles from a concentration camp site. A tower was built on the site that can be seen from almost anywhere in the city, but it’s not an obtrusive tower. Just a subtle, yet constant reminder.

    I’m not German, but I still find myself somewhat moved by the stones. Their geographical distribution in our city clearly shows how integrated the Jews were in daily life, and the fact that many of them share the same last names as some of the oldest families in town also demonstrates how well integrated into society they were. It really is chilling.

    Thank you for this personal perspective, Mendel. I, too, was most affected by their geographical distribution throughout Salzburg. I found it very moving that they were placed before their homes. I would stop and think about their everyday lives, and their comings and goings. And I would think about the day they were taken from their home – never to return. As you said – chilling. And very powerful.

    • #12
    • September 13, 2017 at 10:59 am
    • 5 likes
  13. Member

    Amsterdam, Lairessestraat, right by our hotel. I saw a dozen others in the city too.

    God Bless the people who keep our brother victims’ names present in this way.

    • #13
    • September 13, 2017 at 12:13 pm
    • 5 likes
  14. Member

    These are a rather recent development. There are three of them in front of the Sparkasse in downtown Augsburg, right across from the Annakirche. A friend of ours was instrumental in laying the ones for her parents in Gmünd. Here is a link to her publisher’s information about the German edition of her book “Meine Krone in der Asche” : https://www.fontis-verlag.com/Schlagwort/hanna-zack-miley/

    and here the Goodreads page for the English edition:

    https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/20635900-a-garland-for-ashes

    And here one to her narrative on our ministry page at Wittenberg 2017:

    http://www.wittenberg2017.us/hannas-story.html

    • #14
    • September 13, 2017 at 12:18 pm
    • 3 likes
  15. Member

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    Mendel (View Comment):
    and the fact that many of them share the same last names as some of the oldest families in town also demonstrates how well integrated into society they were. It really is chilling.

    Obviously not as well-integrated as they thought they were . . . .thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    The same is true in Augsburg. The names of those sent to extermination camps were often the names of leading families in the city pre-1938. Friends of ours tell how the children were separated from their Jewish friends in small towns around here and then just told they were “sent off”.

    • #15
    • September 13, 2017 at 12:36 pm
    • 4 likes
  16. Member

    Wow – a very moving post. Just last night we were watching Rick Steves in Salzburg and thought it was so beautiful – but evil got a foothold. Whoever came up with that idea of the stumbling stones, it is a great idea, and the quietness of it very fitting. Thank you for sharing this story.

    • #16
    • September 13, 2017 at 2:29 pm
    • 3 likes
  17. Member

    Very well done public history display. There should be more such.

    • #17
    • September 13, 2017 at 4:11 pm
    • 2 likes
  18. Member

    I wonder what they’ve done in Poland. I just finished rereading the complete Maus yesterday.

    “On Wednesday the vans came. Anja and I saw her father at the window. He was tearing his hair and crying.

    He was a millionaire, but even this didn’t save him his life.”

    (I tried uploading the panel, but the site blocks it. You can find it here.)

    Such an incredible book. I just loaned it to one of my better students.

    • #18
    • September 14, 2017 at 3:01 am
    • 4 likes
  19. Member
    I. M. Fine Post author

    Front Seat Cat (View Comment):
    Wow – a very moving post. Just last night we were watching Rick Steves in Salzburg and thought it was so beautiful – but evil got a foothold. Whoever came up with that idea of the stumbling stones, it is a great idea, and the quietness of it very fitting. Thank you for sharing this story.

    Thank you, FSC. The Stumbling Stones were first envisioned by German artist Gunter Demnig. You can read more about him at the project’s web site. And I agree – it is the hushed dignity of the stones and how they are installed with virtually no publicity (not what we often associate with memorials and tributes) that is particularly moving.

    • #19
    • September 14, 2017 at 3:54 am
    • 8 likes
  20. Coolidge

    http://www.haaretz.com/world-news/europe/1.780873

    • #20
    • September 14, 2017 at 8:27 am
    • 1 like
  21. Coolidge

    I. M. Fine (View Comment):
    the hushed dignity of the stones

    What a great way to put it. Thank you for sharing this excellent post.

    • #21
    • September 14, 2017 at 8:57 am
    • 1 like
  22. Contributor

    ctlaw (View Comment):
    http://www.haaretz.com/world-news/europe/1.780873

    Coming out of the Netherlands, ctlaw, I’m not surprised. Thank you for posting the link.

    • #22
    • September 14, 2017 at 8:58 am
    • 1 like
  23. Member

    J. D. Fitzpatrick (View Comment):
    I wonder what they’ve done in Poland. I just finished rereading the complete Maus yesterday.

    “On Wednesday the vans came. Anja and I saw her father at the window. He was tearing his hair and crying.

    He was a millionaire, but even this didn’t save him his life.”

    (I tried uploading the panel, but the site blocks it. You can find it here.)

    Such an incredible book. I just loaned it to one of my better students.

    Thank you – I’d like to read it – Beneath Another Sun by Ernst Lothar is also very good – it’s old but can be had on Amazon.

    • #23
    • September 14, 2017 at 12:31 pm
    • Like
  24. Member

    Interesting story, but here is my prediction… these stones will not last beyond one more generation.

    • #24
    • September 14, 2017 at 12:55 pm
    • 1 like
  25. Member
    I. M. Fine Post author

    VRWC (View Comment):
    Interesting story, but here is my prediction… these stones will not last beyond one more generation.

    I understand your prediction; I do. Physical memorials can, indeed, prove transient – but I believe people’s memories of their families’ histories are made of stronger stuff. The stones’ designer Gunter Demnig originally cited the Talmud when he first proposed the project, saying that “a person is only forgotten when his or her name is forgotten”.

    The stones may fade away but the individuals they honor never will.

    • #25
    • September 14, 2017 at 6:03 pm
    • 2 likes
  26. Member

    I. M. Fine (View Comment):

    VRWC (View Comment):
    Interesting story, but here is my prediction… these stones will not last beyond one more generation.

    I understand your prediction; I do. Physical memorials can, indeed, prove transient – but I believe people’s memories of their families’ histories are made of stronger stuff. The stones’ designer Gunter Demnig originally cited the Talmud when he first proposed the project, saying that “a person is only forgotten when his or her name is forgotten”.

    The stones may fade away but the individuals they honor never will.

    And even if they fade, have the stones not served a valid and positive purpose already? If they last generations that will be wonderful. But if they inform this generation only, that, too, is a good thing in and of itself.

    • #26
    • September 15, 2017 at 6:05 am
    • 3 likes
  27. Thatcher

    Late to the party, but I wanted to say: “Thanks for being willing to stumble, @imfine!”

    • #27
    • September 15, 2017 at 11:06 am
    • 2 likes
  28. Member

    Sorry I missed this post earlier. That is a very powerful memorial.

    This conversation was part of our September Group Writing, the theme for which was Cars. In October, our theme is Cards, and you can sign up to write about any sort of cards right here.

    • #28
    • October 3, 2017 at 2:33 am
    • 2 likes