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STOLPERSTEINE / STUMBLING BLOCKSBy Russell Schulz
In many ways Berlin is a combination of two of my favorite places—Austin and Manhattan—stirred into one big sloppy stew: endless possibilities, wonderful cultural offerings, plenty of weird things, great restaurants, lots of young, creative people working hard, enjoying life, being hopeful.
But, more than any other city I know, Berlin also is a place that has been regenerated and rebuilt within the shadows and ashes of World War II.
In 1995—fifty years after the end of the war—a German artist envisioned some memorials scattered around the city. He called them Stumbling Blocks—small brass plaques, about four inches square, embedded in the cobblestone sidewalks. Each Stumbling Block would memorialize someone arrested, deported and eventually murdered by the Nazis. They would be placed in front of the victim’s last Berlin address. Today, with the help of a charitable foundation, this project has grown and Stumbling Blocks have spread throughout Europe. But most of them are in Germany and thousands are in Berlin. I live in a formerly Jewish neighborhood so I see dozens of them every day. I admit it: sometimes when I’m walking to the bus or the supermarket or the gym they make me feel uneasy—when I happen to glance down, and especially when someone has polished them or left a handful of flowers.
A couple weeks ago I saw an announcement taped in a store window: four Stolpersteine were going to be installed in front of the apartment building across the street from our apartment. Neighbors were warmly invited.
I went. It was one of the most extraordinary events I’ve ever attended.
A crowd had gathered—maybe twenty-five: neighbors, some members of the foundation, a violinist, a rabbi, and relatives who had flown over from the US. After a few minutes a truck pulled up and some workers jumped out and went to work. With banging of hammers they pulled up some cobblestones and started to lay the Stumbling Blocks.
The violinist played something. Then someone explained that everything would be in English for the benefit of the family. The banging continued. A volunteer read the biography of the four people being remembered. Not much was known because there were no records, but the victims were a Mom, a Dad, and their two teenagers. They were clothiers. They had fled to Belgium but were arrested there and sent to Auschwitz. For some unknown reason the seventeen-year-old son died at another camp. The mother and the fifteen-year-old daughter died in Auschwitz on the same day.
Another violin piece. More banging. One of the relatives spoke and thanked the hosts. The Mom in this family was his grandmother’s sister. He said the family never knew much about what had happened.
The rabbi spoke. More banging. He sang and some people joined in. The rabbi prayed. Then a violin piece by Bach. The banging stopped and the workers drove off. They had more Stumbling Blocks to install.
The crowd drifted. The family and the rabbi stood there looking at the Stumbling Blocks.
Q. What is the purpose of a memorial?
Q. …thanksgiving? Remembering? Going on?
Q. Can we say, with Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered
And confidently waiting, come what may,
We know that God is with us night and morning
And never fails to greet us each new day.
(Trans. Fred Pratt Green, Hymnal 1982, no. 695)
Russell Schulz retired from Seminary of the Southwest as associate professor emeritus of Church Music, and he was director of music at The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Austin. Russell now lives in Berlin, Germany.
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