“I cannot wait! I’m eighty-two years old and I cannot wait any longer. I need to go there!”
The urgency of Margrit Osner Deligtisch’s mission had overridden all the commonsense reasons to stay home in these COVID years. In October 2021, she and her friend Fredie Adelman traveled from New York City to Frankfurt, Germany, to complete a journey of remembrance.
Their destination was an apartment building on a quiet residential street, once the home of Margrit’s mother Carola, her brother Ludwig, and their parents, David and Klara Rosenwald. Margrit and Fredie traveled to take part in a short ceremony centered around the placement of four memorial markers, small brass tiles cemented in among the bricks of the sidewalk. Each is inscribed with a name, birth and death dates, and details of their journeys during World War II. The letters of the inscription were small enough that Margrit and Fredie had to bend down to read them.
The tiles are called Stolpersteine, “stumbling stones” in English. But the purpose here is not to trip someone. The idea is that pedestrians should “stumble upon” them, breaking stride to read the tiny words. Placed on many streets in Germany since the 1990s, the Stolpersteine are singular components of an innovative, decentralized memorial to victims of the Holocaust. Each tile is sponsored and paid for by the current residents of the home, €120 (or about $136) each. With this sponsorship comes a commitment to respect the stones, to tend them.
The ceremony lasted about a half hour. I filmed it poorly because I was crying the whole time. We were greeted by volunteer members of the Frankfurt Stolpersteine committee and the woman who had provided the funding for the plaques. They held up a banner that read: Steine gegen das Vergessen (Stones Against Forgetting). The ceremony opened with a saxophonist and a bassoonist playing a few short pieces to set the mood.
Then the committee chair read the biographical information they had uncovered. The plaques mark the 1941 deportation of David Rosenwald and Klara Pulfer Rosenwald, both of whom died in Łódź after a year of forced labor and imprisonment; their son, Ludwig escaped to Paris but died there soon after. Their daughter Carola Rosenwald also fled to Paris and ultimately came to the United States.
The ceremony was guided to a close by a member of the Frankfurt Stolperstein Committee:
During the ceremony, people from the neighborhood congregated to listen and participate. “I noticed a young man with a small child on his shoulders stop and join,” Fredie said. “People peered out of windows and massed along the sidewalk, and by the time the plaques were unveiled, and we left, there were probably close to twenty bystanders paying their respects.”
Of the four Rosenwalds whose names were inscribed, only Carola survived the war years. She married Karl Osner, a political activist and secretary of the Frankfurt Socialist party. Karl had been imprisoned for his socialist sympathies in the 1920s. In 1933, Carola and Karl fled to Paris on bicycles. There, in 1939, Karl was again arrested. Carola escaped south with baby Margrit. They were reunited after Karl’s escape and fled Vichy France on the Capitaine Paul-Lemerle, a converted cargo ship, making their way via Martinique to New York City. There they opened a typewriter repair shop on Amsterdam Avenue; Osner Typewriters & Business Machines continued to operate out of the same cramped space until 2001. The small brass plates, now embedded outside the Rosenwalds’ apartment, mark the beginning of Carola’s journey from Frankfurt to New York.
Stolpersteine are part of a vast memorial envisioned by the Cologne artist Gunter Demnig. In 1992, he created a memorial in remembrance of 1,000 Cologne Romaand Sinti who were marched to the municipal exhibition grounds on May 6, 1940, for deportation to extermination camps. Demnig fashioned a single brass marker inscribed with the deportation order and embedded it in the municipal square in front of the Cologne city hall.
In Demnig’s wild imagination, this was the first of 17 million brass memorial blocks placed throughout Europe, each one naming a single victim of the German Nazi reign of terror—just an artist’s fantasy, until it wasn’t. With encouragement from his friend, the pastor of the nearby Antoniterkirche, Demnig laid in the following years a few more Stolpersteine in Cologne and then in Berlin without municipal consent. It was only in 1997 that cities in Germany and Austria began to grant permissions for laying the memorial tiles.
Each marker is made by hand, the first ones by the artist himself. But as the movement grew, the task of making and inscribing these memorial blocks was taken over by the Berlin sculptor Michael Friedrichs-Friedländer. Craftsmen in his atelier (workshop) have created over 60,000 Holocaust memorials, averaging 400 to 500 per month. Each is inscribed on custom-cut brass tiles measuring ten centimeters (just under four inches) square, with tabs on each side used to fasten it to the concrete base. The letters of the inscription are purposely cut small.
It is common to find clusters of markers on the sidewalk, remembering an entire family who was deported. Some neighborhood groupings remember entire communities which were annihilated. In some places, a longer brass bar—a Stolperschwelle, or “stumbling threshold”—is embedded to memorialize a group. The Stolperschwelle of Stralsund, in northeastern Germany remembers 1,160 sanitarium patients who were deported to Poland and murdered.
Installed where people walk and congregate, the markers tend to collect dirt. In Germany, special days have been designated to clean and polish the small brass memorials: International Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27, and the Reichspogromnacht (or Kristallnacht) of 1938, November 9.
But not everyone thinks the markers are a good idea. Some groups and communities have been outspoken in their opposition to the memorial blocks. One of the most vehement critics of the project has been Charlotte Knobloch, a leader in Munich’s Jewish community. In her view, placing the memorial stones in the sidewalks, “underfoot,” to be trod on, is disrespectful to the memories of the victims. Because of this criticism and that of others, no Stolpersteine have been installed along Munich’s public streets, though some have been placed in the city’s private walkways and doorways.
Beyond the rationales given by both sides on this issue, the Stolpersteine fuel important discussion among Germans concerning their neighbors deported and murdered by the Nazis. The victims included Jews, Romanies, Black Germans, Jehovah’s Witnesses, political opposition leaders, people with physical and cognitive disabilities, homosexuals—essentially anyone who did not fit the model of Hitler’s mythical master race. They numbered in the millions, lived next door and on the next block.
The Stolpersteine are not the only German memorials to the victims of the Holocaust. In 2005, a national memorial opened in Berlin. Constructed on terrain where a section of the Berlin Wall once stood, it covers 4.7 acres filled with over 2,000 cement stelae of varying heights. The narrow walkways between them are cold, dark, and disorienting. The stelae of this memorial contain no names, no details; they give no indication of the individual lives that were destroyed during these dark years. Perhaps its designers could find no words powerful enough, deep enough, to convey the horror of systematic murder.
This central national monument is something that visitors can choose to visit on their trip to Berlin. Or not. This is not a city space that Berliners traverse to go to the shops or the playground; it is not a destination for a Sunday stroll. Instead, the visceral chill of its cold gray concrete is to be avoided, ignored, circumvented as Berliners on the neighboring streets navigate their daily lives—an encapsulated tumor in the cityscape.
Demnig has criticized this type of centralized monument. As he explains, ceremonies are held there but once a year and reported in the news. In contrast, the Stolpersteine are a decentralized memorial, where local groups and individual sponsors take part in the conversation and help shape the presentation. It is as though one had taken the massive stelae of the national memorial, blown them apart, and scattered the shards across Europe, each one engraved with a name.
It is the names that cut to the quick. These names become the labels for our remembering, and memory is specific, not anonymous. Each individual name calls up details, images, emotions which shape our remembering. Seeing the engraving, Fredie described the wide smile and wicked wit of Carola, her warmth in a hug. Through these details, Carola remains a presence in her life.
“My mother was a force of nature,” Margrit said. “But despite her tough demeanor, she mourned every day for family and comrades murdered during the war.”
That is the key to the Stolpersteine: someone living must remember someone deeply enough to apply for a memorial plaque. Someone else must sponsor the plaque, and others must research the individual life documented by the inscription. These tiles give substance to memory.
As Demnig’s idea spread, so did the geographic range of these memorials. You will find them now in the sidewalks of almost thirty countries.
“As we continued our travels in Frankfurt, Florence, and Rome to meet other family members, we came across more plaques and watched people stop and pay attention,” Fredie described. “They stooped to read the words. I saw a family pass by; the mother stopped and then called her children back to explain and take notice.”
In Rome, Margrit also bought a mezuzah, a decorative case containing a Jewish prayer on parchment, often hung in doorways, as a memento of this journey. As she explains, nothing of her grandparents had survived the Holocaust. Nothing they valued had been passed along to her. Once at home, she hung the mezuzah up in her own doorway, a reminder of the family she never got to know.
Following their tour, Margrit and Fredie returned to Frankfurt for the flight home. “When I got on the plane and I looked out the window and saw Frankfurt below, I got really sad, because I realized that I would probably never be back. It was basically a farewell at that moment, and I felt very sad that all that was left were these four stones. That moved me much more than the ceremony. They had already been put in place before the ceremony, I had known that was going to happen. But now that I was on the plane in a private booth, I really wept. That emotion shocked me. I felt really, really sad leaving those stones all by themselves.
“The feeling that I abandoned my family who were relegated to a cold and lonely end was a very, very sad ending to a lifetime of missing them. But now at least they will be remembered or recognized by passersby.”
History, both good and bad, is not somewhere else, to be isolated in classrooms and national memorials; it is not someone else’s story. History is our story, written into the plaques on buildings, archived in the memories of our elders, and now punctuating our sidewalks. History is a constant, continuing presence, surrounding and enveloping us. We need to take the time, our time, to halt our steps, look down, and remember.
Charleen Smith-Riedel is a volunteer in the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Having retired from the tech industry in Seattle, she has picked up on her dated folklore studies, completed at the University of Freiburg, Germany, and is committed to writing on folklife topics for Wikipedia.