I look down at the ground in front of me about 93% of the time when I walk. I do this for two reasons: 1. I am a cheapskate and love to find coins on the ground, and 2. I don’t want to step on a crack and break my mother’s back.
Several weeks ago, while I was still in Berlin, I was looking-down walking around town as usual and suddenly saw something on the ground I had never noticed before. There were four tiny brass plaques embedded in the pavement. Each one had the name of a person who had lived at that address, along with his or her dates of birth, deportation, and death.
These little memorials are called Stolpersteine, or stumbling stones. Thousands of them have been placed in Germany and several other countries to remember the Jews and other minorities who were deported and killed by the Nazis in the 1930s and ’40s.
Yesterday was the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass in November 1938 that marked the official start of the widespread Nazi terrorism against Jews and other minorities in Europe. It was also the 24th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I learned today that many people commemorated both with prayer vigils, art tributes, and other small memorial services.
Ever since I’ve moved to Germany, I’ve had a hard time coming to terms with 20th century German history. I’ve been obsessed with World War I for the past few years, and have recently expanded my obsession to World War II, but my brain just can’t comprehend everything that happened here from 1914 to 1989. My American education taught me about the oppression and death of millions of people because of the World Wars, the Holocaust, and the Cold War, but it hardly mentioned the myriad European cultures that also got destroyed in the process. And these losses weigh me down every time I read a personal account of a Holocaust survivor or see a cathedral that was reconstructed after getting hit by a bomb.
After moving here, I also half-expected to to have in-depth conversations every day about everything that has happened in this country, and to see giant statues on every street corner memorializing these losses. But instead I’ve only talked to a few people about it, and have found some museums that explore it, several buildings that mention it as a side note, and multiple brass plaques that have been cemented into the ground.
I think this is because Germans get a thorough 20th century education in school, and they’ve already dealt with the horrors of their recent past. So the kinds of memorials that are around pay tribute to what happened, but also allow Germany to rebuild and renew what was lost. And these small Stolpersteine I’ve found serve to subtly remind us all that as we walk forward together towards a better future, we must remember to keep our heads humbly bowed and our eyes on the past.