Had my guide on my Prague food tour not pointed it out, I would have missed it entirely. Even though I have always been immensely interested in the Holocaust and feel well read on it, including bypassing the extremely popular Český Krumlov and the very intriguing chapel of bones in Kutná Hora in favor of visiting a concentration camp, I had never heard of stolperstein, or stumbling stone as they’re known in English.
But on that warm Prague day only a few streets from the madness that is Old Town Square, our guide explained that these brass plates serve as a memorial to Holocaust victims (to a much smaller number, it also includes those victims who were not Jewish but still died or suffered at the hands of the Nazis-victims of euthanasia, eugenics, Roma and Sinti people, homosexuals-the list is heartbreakingly endless).
The memorials are a cobblestone-size concrete tube which features a brass plate that not only lists the name and birth dates of the victim (whether they were killed or persecuted) but also the dates, if known, of his or her deportation and death. The stolperstein are placed in front of the victim’s last residence. Unlike many prominent Holocaust memorials, the purpose of the stolpersteine is that they’re happened upon by chance, like for me in Prague. The name is fitting as you literally do stumble across these small, nondescript stones. It’s been said that “stolpersteine represent a much deeper intrusion of memory into everyday life.” Because most victims of the Holocaust were not famous individuals, but rather ordinary men, women, and children who had done nothing wrong except being deemed “different.”
The project was started by Gunter Demnig, a German artist who was born in the years immediately following the Second World War and would obviously have felt the effects and ghosts of modern history’s most horrific event. Since the first stolpersteine was installed in 1992 in front of Cologne, Germany’s City Hall, remembering the Sinti and Roma people who were deported to extermination camps following Heinrich Himmler’s infamous Auschwitz decree, over 56,000 stolpersteine have been laid in 22 European countries. I think the saddest thing is learning about the countries and cities that forbid stolpersteine from being placed there, never mind the fact that it’s simply a memorial to the victims, the people who no longer had a voice after they were snuffed out. Memorials should be about remembering, not made into a political fight.
During our many history/Holocaust related talks, my friend Jennifer mentioned that she looks up each and every victim she encounters after stumbling across his stolpersteine. So even though I saw this stolpersteine in Prague going on two years ago, it wasn’t until earlier this year I decided to see what I could find on Ida Aschenbrennerova.
I learned that she was on Transport X number 524 and was deported to Terezin from Prague on February 12, 1942. That she lived at Rybná 11. And that she didn’t stay long at Terezin, as little more than two months later, on April 25, she was deported to Warsaw where she was then murdered. The fact that she was a 60 year woman would have immediately made her a target for extermination.
Until the stolpersteine, Holocaust victims were often just a number. But stolpersteine help in giving victims like Ida and the tens of thousands of others a story to tell. I only hope on future trips to European countries I’ll be able to stumble across more.
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