Friday, 22 August 2014




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                                                   Courtesy Wikipedia  (Work Of Marrante)

    There it was. A feeble reflection of the afternoon sun on the cobbled pavement. Embedded were two inscribed brass squares and a little distance away was another single one, just as we were told to expect. More than 40000 such quiet reminders across hundreds of  places in Europe.

   For all the ideas, innovations and inventions introduced into the world by the Germans, the shadow of the holocaust remains like a gossamer shroud in the periphery. Engineering marvels of Daimler, Mercedes, BMW; intellectuals like Hegel, Marx, Einstein, Kreuger; the printing press and the computer; the finer aesthetics of Goethe, Brecht, Mozart, Beethoven, the list continues to encompass every aspect of life where German contributions make their presence felt. Why that blue thing that you are lounging around in right now, a pair of which is found in every wardrobe anywhere around the world, we have only the young German immigrant  to the US, Levi Strauss to thank for! Even the German victory in the recent FIFA World Cup had allusions to the dark days in German history with commentators pointing out Goetze's birth in reunified Germany and the first win for the team after The Wall came down.

   There gleaming quietly on the pavement is yet another evidence of the German way of doing things. The Stolperstein. The 'stumbling stones'or the 'stumbling blocks' as they are interpreted. Walking around the old quarters of the Nuremberg city, these brass plaqued bricks were first brought to our notice by our hosts Jaideep and Babli. Crowds bustled around in the market place, tourists craned their neck  focussing their lenses on the architectural wonders of the ancient church and buildings. All the while, these little four inch brass cuboid fitted around a brick and embedded in the concrete, quietly reminded of the people obliterated by the National Socialist German Workers' Party that went down in history as the Nazi Party.

   Laying the 'stolperstein' is not a Government initiative. It is the effort of an individual, Gunter Demnig an    artist, that has resulted in more than 40000 such little memorials across hundreds of European towns and cities. Gunter Demnig laid the first plaque in Cologne on 16th December 1992, to  mark the 50 years since Heinrich Himmler signed a decree to deport Sinti and Romas to extermination Camps.

   "...a person is only forgotten when his or her name is forgotten..."

These words from the Talmud, inspired Demnig to commemorate not just the Jewish  victims of the Nazi regime but also the homosexuals, communists, gypsies, physically and mentally challenged who bore the brunt of Hitler's maniac obsession for Germany to be the land of the perfect Aryan race. The brevity of the German inscriptions only highlight the terrible reality of the last days of millions of victims.
                                      HIER WOHNTE  ( Here Lived)
                                      DEPORTIERT      ( Deported)
                                      ERMORDET       ( Murdered in)

Silently these plaques repose in front of a building, the last address of their residence. These sparse words solemnly  hint at the full life they must have led with laughter ringing the rooms, festooning life's milestones, pondering on melancholies or seeking answers to the vagaries. They were just living till a cataclysm wiped them off the face of this earth. The stolpersteine exist in ones or twos or in groups of four or five. Sometimes an individual or two. Or sometimes an entire family. We came across many more in our visit to other places. It is understood that this memorial project can never quite cover the millions whose lives were snuffed out. And yet it is an effort to symbolise the act of bringing them back home where they last lived.

Stolpersteine in Bamberg

    What started off as an individual project soon had the involvement of interested people. Some of them were relatives of the victims, some were conscientious citizens wanting to unburden the gross misdeeds of their predecessors or some are children tasked with a school project to initiate them into the dark history. The people first begin by researching on the  previous occupants of a building or a house, it could be the one they reside in, tracing them through public records, getting in touch with surviving relatives, verifying, cross checking and correlating with database to establish the occupation of the house and the circumstances under which they fled or were rounded off to extermination camps. Victims are not just the ones who were exterminated but also those who fled their homes and committed suicide   Once the notions are crystallised and established as facts, the people then get in touch with Demnig's office which dispatches a team with inscribed brass plaques. The commemoration is a solemn event where sometimes the surviving relatives also join the researchers.

    There are however, some places that do not endorse this thread of belief. In places like Munich, some in the Jewish community object to the memorials placed on the pavement where people would walk all over it and thereby show disrespect to the deceased. And then there are some who would rather live in the denial mode and not be burdened by the guilt of the past. Very few would like to move on with the world leaving the past behind with constant reminders of the previous occupants.

   Stolpersteine, the stumbling blocks, perhaps are a way to build bridges with the dark past and make amends by a generation of people who contribute their bit to erase the nightmares of the yesteryears. A peep into Stolpersteine's website only affirms how serious people are in this endeavour. The number of plaques catching the sunlight on the pavement are growing day by day stretching out to Austria, Netherlands, Poland, Belgium as more and more places welcome the idea.There are no dates free for the year 2014 and those of 2015 are also fast filling up. The stumbling does not happen physically but the little memorials do make the first timers stop in their tracks, stoop and bend their head to acknowledge their existence. For the others, it is the giving of space as they skirt the memorial, heading out into their routine life.