Fresh — hah! — off the plane from Melbourne, I’d hunted around for the train at Frankfurt airport. A solid day of economy travel, my devices were all but drained, as were my own internal batteries, and just finding the ticket office had been a chore. My German was barely up to the simple task of buying a ticket.
As I wearily rattled my bag along the cobbled street from the station at my destination, aiming for my AirBnB and some blessed horizontal sleep, I found my eye drawn to small metal plaques set into the pavement.
Some utility signs. I decided. Access beneath for the power or the gas.
I stopped for the lights at an intersection. The cars here come at you from the wrong way, and I have found it less stressful to wait for the green man than to stride off the safety of the footpath like a proper Aussie. I bent down to study the inscription on one of those brass plaques.
There were people there. Dead people. No, not dead but murdered. Here was a family, fled to England in 1939, deported to Latvia and killed by the Nazis in Riga.
Now that my eye had the measure, there were people up and down the street in the old town. Some had found safety, most had found Treblinka or Auschwitz.
Asking a local about these tiny memorials, I found they were called “Stolpersteine“, literally stumbling blocks after the cobblestones that stick up a centimetre or two and trip up the passers-by. In times past Germans might say, “There must be a Jew buried there!” and come the Nazis, Jewish cemeteries were desecrated and their gravestones used to pave the streets.
Stolpersteine are not placed prominently, but are rather discovered by chance, only recognisable when passing by at close distance. In contrast to central memorial places, which according to artist Gunter Demnig can be easily avoided or bypassed, Stolpersteine represent a much deeper intrusion of memory into everyday life. — Wikipedia
Now, these small brass plaques are part of a memorial project to mark the final voluntary living or working places of the victims of the Holocaust. Not just Jews, but many other victims who just happened to have the wrong faith or ethnicity, gender preference, or even just their own sweet thoughts.
In this charming apartment building, the Gutman family had lived before the war. And never returned after. They were all dead, vanished and forgotten in the great upheaval of the war.
There are only a few tens of thousands of these plaques. If the full number were made, the streets would be paved with gold.
As intended, my thoughts were directed to those who chose this place to live and were then forced to wander and die by mindless hatred.
Our world is turning again in that direction, it seems, and I am thankful for the efforts of those who pursue a gentler, more caring, more thoughtful path, and set these stumble stones in it.
Another travel story: