Choose Your Own Adventure
From Cologne to Charlottesville: following breadcrumbs on the trail of white supremacy, Fascism and the alt-right with Germany’s Stolpersteine
I knew this kid here in Berlin. Firat. I met him at a martial arts school here. We joined at the same time, so we were white belts together. Me, and this 19 year old boy. Firat.
He was wiry and slight, and had the floppiest shock of black hair that he was always kind of flipping out of his eyes.
He walked on the balls of his feet, almost bouncing, he was so light. Leaning forward, barely staying on the ground, as if about to take flight. Sometimes he leaned so far forward, if he stumbled on something, he’d fall.
So the trick for Firat, of course, was to never stumble.
My friend, the Israeli architect Zvi Hecker, has said, that when one is uprooted more than once, one is inclined to build a world to withstand destruction.
Zvi was talking about architecture but, I wonder if we don’t build that kind of structure in our minds sometimes too. And for the same reasons.
It had been a few years since I had been on the mats, and I had forgotten what it was like to be a white belt. You sort of huddle together off to one side; nobody knows anything, or anybody. You watch the other students, who move fluidly, with confidence, while you’re very aware that you are rolling around the floor with all the grace of a wooden crate. So you help each other figure things out, support each other, understand each other. It creates a bond.
It took me back, four cities ago, to the beginning of my training, at the beginning of this century.
Walking around Berlin is like walking through quantum time
That seems so weird. Berlin is my 6th city.
Walking around Berlin is like walking through quantum time: the 1990s, pre- and post-wall exist side by side with old 70s West Berlin pubs and 1960s East Berlin Plattenbau. Bridges built in the 1700s span the river from the stately old Alt-bau homes on one bank to the steel and glass geometry of Bauhaus office buildings on the other. Construction cranes are everywhere, buildings knocked down, built up, refurbished, re-purposed, re-opened. A thousand slices of time, existing all at once, shimmering in the tangle of Berlin’s streets, each one as fragile as a moment, each one shining as long as it can before it… disappears.
And standing in between all these trembling moments of time, is the War.
In Berlin, if you stumble, it’s on a cobblestone. Not on a loose stone in the pavement, but on the sun bouncing off a brass plate. You stop, and you look. Hier wohnt… here lived… and a name, a date of birth, a date of deportation, a date of death. Little brass-plated cobblestones the same size as all the rest, but shinier, more durable, meant to last.
These are the Stolpersteine, and they are found all over the city, sometimes alone, but more often in clusters of two to five, entire families in one location, or groups of students in front of a school, groups of workers from a former Brauerei. Stolpersteine means “stumbling block” and you are meant to stumble on these — they are supposed to give you pause, maybe even a little pain, maybe even be something difficult to get over. Because these are people, the people who lived here, wherever you have stumbled, in their last freely chosen place of residence before being deported and exterminated under the Third Reich.
Germany is the only country in history that has shown such profound and prolonged regret
Berlin is a city of monuments — enormous, towering monuments to the Soviets who died in battle, the massive gravestone maze marking the body count of murdered Jews, the cold cement block torture cells of homosexuals, the black pond that speaks silently of the deaths of the Sinti and Roma.
Panels of the Berlin Wall pop up here and there, like those handfuls of ancient soldiers who march in military parades, the last living witnesses of an old war we should never forget but that’s already fading away.
And one day soon, the last of those old soldiers and survivors will disappear, and there won’t be anyone left to remember for us. So the monuments act as guideposts. Germany is the only country in history that has shown such profound and prolonged regret, and made such persistent reparation for the genocide it is responsible for. All the histories that arose from the ashes of that war live side by side so Germans remember not only the atrocities of World War 2 itself, but the systems that led up to it and the iniquities that rose out of it, too — the Soviet occupation of the East, the rebuilding of the West, the stumbling blocks of reunification, of opening borders, of tearing down walls.
When one is uprooted more than once, says my friend Zvi Hecker, one is inclined to build a world to withstand destruction. Zvi was talking about Urbanist architecture, about how the 20th century drive of the futurists: Nationalists, Zionists, Communists, Fascists, Supremacists to purify our own species has driven architecture and new technologies to produce glass walled buildings and open pathways, that puts the improved humans on display… and under surveillance. All data is available all the time to those who see themselves as guardians of the human race.
After martial arts class, me and Firat usually took the same Ubahn on our way home. Like most 19 year olds, he spoke in a frustrating mixture of mumble and speed, and his German was much much much better than mine. I didn’t always understand what he said, but what I got was: he came with his family from Syria, and gone through Turkey to get to Berlin. In Turkey, he had gotten beat up a lot for being Syrian. So he was learning martial arts because he never wanted to get beaten up again.
When one is uprooted more than once, one is inclined to build a world to withstand destruction
Once most of the eyewitnesses to history are gone, facts can easily get twisted. It all depends on who’s doing the telling. Monuments can be re-purposed. The Statue of Liberty can be renamed the Mother of All Monuments. Because monuments tend to commemorate large groups of people — the victors, the liberators, the heroes, the victims — giant chunks of humanity get lumped together in one representative block, the shimmering human valor and the trembling human suffering they’re meant to commemorate just… disappears.
The Stolpersteine returns people — individual people, with names and birthdays and addresses — to the neighborhood they called home before being torn away from their daily lives, interred, deported, murdered. It’s a different kind of memorial, small brass cobblestones, exposed to the elements and existing only through the will to remember — like humans.
Monuments act as guideposts
The Stolpersteine project was begun in 1992 by the Berlin artist Gunter Demnig. Demnig had already commemorated the 1940 deportation of 1000 Sinti and Roma people in a public outdoor artwork in Cologne. But when the paint began to fade due to weather conditions and use, the artist looked for more permanent options.
Demnig was interested in the Cologne deportation of Roma and Sinti, referred to at that time as gypsies, as the last dress rehearsal for the later mass transportation of the Jews to ghettos, concentration camps, extermination camps. Around the same time, he found himself in an argument with a local resident who had lived through the war, and was convinced that no Sinti or Roma had ever lived in her neighbourhood at all.
Of course, Demnig couldn’t produce a Sinti or Roma person from that neighborhood as living proof. So he did the next best thing: he researched the public records, found a Roma resident at that person’s address, and engraved their story in four brief but undeniable lines on a brass-plated cobblestone so it would never fade: name, birth date, deportation date, and death. He installed it just in front of the building, so the woman couldn’t help but stumble across the life that once lived there too.
As Russian artist Leo Tsoy says, monuments are a kind of propaganda too, even if, as in Berlin, the propaganda is meant as a warning to not repeat the mistakes of the past, like the moral of a fairy tale told by the Brothers Grimm.
But the monuments in Berlin are so big, the city so saturated with them, they become easy to ignore, like inconvenient truths or uncomfortable realities. And who wants to be bogged down with reality? Tourists play hide and seek around the Holocaust memorial, take videos of the video inside the memorial to homosexuals, laugh and smile around the black pond for the Sinti and Roma. They take selfies at the Berlin Wall, add their chewing gum to the panels at Potsdamer Platz (which is truly disgusting, by the way). And life swaggers along, leaning forward into the future, until it stumbles… and falls.
Firat wanted really badly to be a hero, a badass martial artist, but he was so gangly and spastic, he kind of spazzed his way through everything, mistaking speed for skill. Because I had trained before, I shared what I knew with him, and found ways to get him to slow down and really learn the stuff we were doing. I think he appreciated it.
After a while, whenever he stumbled, he learned how to turn it into a roll.
After the first Stolperstein was laid, Demnig expanded the project to include all victims of Nazi persecution, and embarked on a private campaign that has spread across Europe. As of January 2017, over 56,000 stolpersteine have been laid across Europe, one by one, 18 cm brass squares trailing across 22 countries like Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs… only the breadcrumbs are people, and the trail is the path of fascism and it’s wildfire spread over the course of those 6 years.
The Stolpersteine project has been going on for 27 years, making it the world’s largest decentralized memorial. Like most things in Germany, the project is reassuringly organized. Of course, that penchant for organization can go to the wrong extreme, as every person remembered by a Stolperstein could personally attest. If they were alive.
To install a Stolperstein, first an individual must be researched and documented — not actually that hard to do, thanks to the German love of record-keeping — a distinct departure from the Soviets, who destroyed their records when vacating Lithuania, for example. It says something about a regime who are so sure of their righteousness that, even in the face of utter defeat, they still kept their records. Again, German organization… but today, turned around once again for the benefit of historians, researchers and families who do, in fact, have a right to know.
While federal governments are not directly involved in the project, Demnig has set up relationships with community organizations and museums to assist in the administration of the project. Local Stolpersteine groups exist in every neighborhood of Berlin, and across Germany. Around the rest of the world, things can be a bit more hit and miss; nevertheless, the project persists.
If possible, surviving family members or descendants are contacted for their approval. Demnig makes a point of always laying the first Stolperstein at a new location, although additional people remembered may be added by local councils or groups. In cases where very large groups of people were rounded up and deported, Demnig installs a Stolperschwelle” (“stumbling threshold”), in order to hold all the names.
The Stolpersteine and Stolperschwellen are paid for solely through private funding, which removes it from memorial as State propaganda, and keep memory on a human scale. The stones are paid for by local groups or individual historians, but never the families, the survivors of the person commemorated, because, well, they’ve paid enough, haven’t they? They’ve already paid in blood.
After a couple of months in the dojo, I received a surprise promotion. The instructor knew I had trained before, so on the one hand it made sense. But for the other students who didn’t know anything about me, well — I wasn’t sure — nobody said anything — but suddenly people who had been friendly were distant, a little cold. The next time I trained with Firat he said, wow, you’ve only been here a couple of months, same as me, and already you’re promoted. That’s incredible. And I understood he was letting me know what the others were saying, why they were distant and cold. And I understood that by telling me what no one else would, he was also telling me he was still my friend, my fellow white belt. And for a time, my only ally, this 19 year old forward slash of a boy.
When one is uprooted more than once, says my friend Zvi Hecker, one is inclined to build a world to withstand destruction. Zvi, who has been uprooted himself many times, knows a thing or two about destruction, and the different forms it can take.
One day on the train home, I explained a different approach to a technique Firat had been having trouble with. He thanked me, then dug in his pocket and pulled out his monthly subway pass. Here, he said, thrusting it at me. Why are you giving me this? I asked. There’s still 20 days left on it. There’s a problem with my papers, he said. I can’t go to school anymore, so I don’t need this now. You keep it anyway, I told him. You don’t want to get caught without it — you’ll get fined. Firat shrugged and put it back in his pocket.
The next time I went to the dojo, Firat wasn’t there. Germany had just sent the first wave of refugees it won’t accept back to their last places of residence. I asked about Firat, and our instructor told us the same thing Firat had told me that night on the train: there had been a problem with his papers. Firat had been deported. I haven’t seen him again.
The Stolpersteine I’ve stumbled across in Berlin are polished by foot traffic — they are never especially faded, but shine brightly among the other competing histories that make up the city. On Rosh Hashana, Kristallnacht and Pesach (Passover), some of them are strewn with flowers and candles, families or strangers paying homage, honoring their suffering and the celebration of rebirth, remembering the people they have lost, that we all have lost. They shimmer in the sun here, like sequins under spotlights, trembling and shining as long as they have someone to remember them, as long as there is light.
Stolpersteine can be found in 1200 towns and cities throughout Europe. To find Stolpersteine, visit the project’s website at www.stolpersteine.eu.
Music used in this episode is from the soundtrack to the film Oni Baba, by Hikaru Hayashi, the original studio recordings of Jeff Buckley performing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. Thanks to Jennifer Morrison, Ivan Chiarelli and Annique Delphine reading from Stolpersteine in Berlin. And special thanks to the anonymous contributor who recorded the sound of live drone strikes on civilian homes in Aleppo, Syria last year and uploaded them to Youtube, also used in this episode.