Stumble Upon Stolpersteine on the Sidewalks of Europe

Berlin, Germany is a city packed with memorable sights.

From the gallery of the Bundestag’s imposing plenary chamber, I admired a large Bundestag eagle suspended over the podium and the “Reichstag Blue” seats on which Chancellor Angela Merkel and Bundestag members sit.

Bundestag, Berlin, Germany

On my way to see the 3,300-year-old painted limestone bust of Egyptian Queen Nefertiti in the Neues Museum, I passed the Tiergarten, the park that inspired the name of Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and An American Family in Hitler’s Berlin.  In other sections of the city, I peered through two sets of glass walls at historic landmarks. Some made up the Humboldt Box, a five-story temporary exhibition space where you can view progress on the project to rebuild the Berlin City Palace (Berliner Stadtschloss).  Others protected the elegant rooms of the Grand Hotel Esplanade, a famous building that was 90-percent destroyed during World War II, which were moved 246 feet to accommodate the building of the Sony Center on Potsdamer Platz in 1996.

Kaisersalle, Sony Center on Potsdamer Platz, Berlin, Germany

On Berlin’s Schlossbrücke, I stopped to admire a plethora of love padlocks, on which couples inscribe their names or initials, lock them onto a public bridge, and throw away the key to symbolize their love.

Love padlocks on Berlin’s Schlossbrücke

And I first noticed the famous Ampelmann figures from East German traffic lights in their very own store at the corner of Unter den Linden and Friedrichstraße, the very place where they first made their debut in 1969.

Ampelmann figure on traffic light, Berlin, Germany

But thanks to a new friend and fellow traveler named Susan, I found the most compelling sight of all right under my feet.

As she showed me a December 16, 2012 Washington Post article about something intriguing called a Stolperstein, Susan told me about her desire to see one or two for herself. It didn’t take much for me to share her interest.

Deriving from the German word “Stolpern,” meaning “to stumble,” Stolpersteine (stumble stones) are simple, but thought-provoking monuments commemorating Holocaust victims. Since 1996, artist Gunter Demnig has been crafting them by hand, placing them front of the former homes of those killed during the Holocaust in the hope of encouraging people to stop, look at the inscriptions, and think about that chapter of German history. Today, there are over 40,000 Stolpersteine in over 700 locations across Europe, including Germany, Austria, Hungary, the Netherlands, Belgium, Poland, Italy and Norway.

Local residents, students, or religious and secular organizations research information about the victim. With the help of apprentices, Demnig covers a four-inch-square concrete cube with a sheet of brass in his Cologne studio. He embosses facts about the Holocaust victim on it, such as his or her name and dates of birth, deportation and death, if known. Then, he installs it into the sidewalk in front of the person’s last residence or workplace. The €120 cost of each memorial is covered by donations from individuals, school classes or communities.

Susan and I stumbled upon our first Stolperstein outside a townhouse on Pariser Platz next to the Brandenburg Gate. Now home to the Brandenburg Gate Foundation, the building was reconstructed between 1996 and 1998 on the site of the former home of Max Liebermann (1847-1935), a German painter known for his portraits and his collection of French Impressionist paintings. On March 5, 1943, the Jewish artist’s 85-year-old widow, Martha Marckwald Liebermann, was notified to prepare for deportation to the concentration camp at Theresienstadt. Hours before police arrived to take her away, she committed suicide in the couple’s home, where they had lived since their marriage in 1884.

Stolperstein for Martha Marckwald Liebermann, Berlin, Germany

In Dresden, Susan and I found a Stolperstein commemorating Blessed Alois Andritzki (1914-1943), a Sorbian Catholic priest and martyr who was chaplain of the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Dresden. He was arrested in January 1941 for criticizing the Nazis and defending people’s freedom to practice their faith. After being sentenced to prison, he was moved to the concentration camp at Dachau, where he later became ill from typhoid fever as a result of the camp’s poor hygienic conditions. When he expressed his longing for the Eucharist, a Nazi warden murdered him by lethal injection. Father Andritzki was beatified by the Roman Catholic Church in 2011. His Stolperstein was placed outside the Dresden Cathedral in June 2011.

Stolperstein for Blessed Alois Andritzki, Dresden, Germany

We also discovered a similar initiative in Dresden, called Scars of War: Memorial Depots in Dresden. On February 13, 2001 — the anniversary of the destruction of Dresden and 56 years after the end of the Second World War — stainless steel capsules called Dresdner Mahndepots were set into the ground at 56 locations throughout the city. Each six-centimeter-diameter capsule lid is engraved with ORT (for location) and a corresponding number. The sealed capsule contains a text with information about the site’s relation to the history of Dresden during World War II, as well as a current photo of the building. Susan and I spotted ORT 11 outside the Taschenbergpalais, where military departments were housed to defend the city against the advancing Soviet and Allied armies.

Click here to see a list of German cities that have Stolpersteine, and here for Gunter Demnig’s official Stolpersteine site.  For more about Dresdner Mahndepots, including a map of their locations in Dresden, click here.

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