‘Stumbling stones’ embedded in European sidewalks remind passersby of victims of Nazi regime
The next time you’re in Kaiserslautern, look down at the sidewalks.
Embedded in them are scores of small brass plaques that memorialize the millions of victims of the Nazi regime. When the sun hits them or Kaiserslautern’s ubiquitous winter rain collects on them, the plaques, called Stolpersteine, glisten and catch the eye.
Stolpersteine means “stumbling stones,” and you’re meant to stumble over them with your gaze and read the text written on them. Each one measures around 4 x 4 inches and includes a person’s name, the year they were born, when, where and, often, how they died. Most start with the mention “Here lived” in German and are laid directly outside the last place the person lived of their own free will.
One cluster of the small memorials on Alleestrasse, just off Eisenbahnstrasse, stopped me in my tracks when I was out running a few weekends ago. The weather-worn Stolpersteine have lost a bit of their sheen, but their message still took my breath away. They memorialize the family of Dr. Paul Tuteur, a successful lawyer before the Nazis came to power. As many Jewish parents did in 1930s-era Germany, Tuteur and his wife Charlotte gave their two children to a family in Belgium for safekeeping in 1938, before they fled to England the following year. The parents tried to bring their daughter and son to England, but after the Nazis invaded Belgium in 1940, they lost contact with them.
The parents’ stones say “Ueberlebt,” German for survived. The stones remembering their children, Carola and Claus, say “murdered in Auschwitz.” Paul and Charlotte Tuteur returned to Kaiserslautern after the war and he resumed his legal career. But, heartbroken by the loss of his children, he soon stopped working and died in 1952.
Other Stolpersteine I’ve come across hold equally gut-wrenching stories, some recalling chapters of history even German friends were unaware of. There’s the story of Bertha Wertheimer, a Jewish girl who suffered from depression who was murdered at a “Toetungsanstalt,” or killing center, as part of the Aktion T4 program. People with mental illness and physical handicaps died by what was euphemistically called “involuntary euthanasia” under Aktion T4.
Barbara Lippert, a Jehovah’s Witness, starved to death in 1944 in the sanatorium she was interned in eight years earlier. Wilhelm Otto Dinges, an unemployed 17-year-old, was conscripted into the Reich Labor Service in 1935 and then sent to Buchenwald under the “work-shy” program. He died there when he was 21.
Their and other life stories are told in a few words on Stolpersteine in Kaiserslautern and in more detail online, thanks to volunteers who have researched and written up many of the victims’ biographies.
German artist Gunther Demnig said he was inspired to create Stolpersteine by a Talmudic teaching that says a person is only forgotten when their name is forgotten. Nearly 30 years after he laid the first Stolperstein in 1991, Demnig spent much of Wednesday morning digging paving slabs out of sidewalks in downtown Kaiserslautern and filling the spaces they occupied with 22 shiny new memorial stones, bringing the total number of Stolpersteine in Kaiserslautern to 152.
There are also Stolpersteine in around 1,200 other German cities, towns and villages, and in 22 other European countries, and Demnig is laying more stones around Germany this month, including in Heidelberg next week. Last month, he laid stones in Italy, including Naples.
So next time you’re in a European city and you see something on the pavement glinting in the sun or shimmering under raindrops, look down. It may be a Stolperstein inviting you to stumble over it and linger for a moment to read its simple inscription, keeping alive the memory of one of the millions of victims of the Nazi regime.
More information Countries with Stolpersteine: Austria, Belgium, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Hungary, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Moldova, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland and Ukraine.
Online map showing where many of Kaiserslautern’s Stolpersteine are: tinyurl.com/qppvkuh
Biographies online of some of the people remembered on Stolpersteine in Kaiserslautern, currently in German only: tinyurl.com/wt3oey7
Calendar of Stolperstein layings in 2020: stolpersteine.eu/en/timetable
Gunther Demnig’s Stolperstein site: stolpersteine.eu