Remembrance of historical events tends to take place in formal settings, whether it's the Establishment on display at the Cenotaph or a left-wing meeting to recall events in working class history. It is rarely a part of everyday life.
The laying of “Stolpersteine” (stumbling stones) in over 800 German cities and towns seeks to fill that gap by placing memorial stones in the pavement naming the Jews who once lived at that location but were killed or forced to flee Germany by the Nazis. The idea is that passers-by should “stumble” on the stones and be reminded of Nazi racial persecution in a way that relates to the fate of individuals.
They may also perhaps see a familiar location in a new way or be prompted to ask questions such as how the property came to be in its present owner's hands. The stones also serve as a reminder in a time where there will soon no longer be any eye-witnesses left to testify to what happened.
I recently attended the laying of stones in the small town in rural central Germany where my mother's family lived and where she grew up until the age of 12. She was the only survivor of her family — a number of lucky chances enabled her to emigrate to Palestine in 1934 — and it was as recently as 2009 that we found out in detail what had happened to the rest of her family. Eight stones were placed at the site of the house they lived in, along with others for some of the other Jewish inhabitants of the town.
About 200 people attended the laying of the stones. While a limited degree of local resistance had been felt when the Jewish population had been remembered on the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht in 1988, this had now disappeared, according to former mayor Helmut Schmidt. The crowd covered a wide age range.
As the only person present with a direct link to those being commemorated, I was asked to speak at the stone laying ceremony. After some personal and general remarks I finished up by saying:
“Remembering is about the past. But it is also necessary to draw lessons from it for the present. We live in a time where the same opinions — racial hatred and suspicion of people who are not like us — that then took my family from a happy life to death, are today finding more supporters across the whole of Europe. That cannot be allowed to happen!
“Remembering the past should therefore be the foundation for taking an active stand for threatened minorities so that we do not again need to lay ‘stumbling stones’ in the future.”