When you’re in the final phases of writing your doctoral dissertation, it’s pretty easy to become totally absorbed in your own work and lose perspective on everything else. These past few months, all of my energy has really been focused on finishing my PhD. Sure, I use running as an emotional and physical outlet, but it is ultimately also a very self-absorbed sport. I found myself wanting to devote time to something bigger than myself.
Ein Stein. Ein Name. Ein Mensch.
When I read about the Serve the City week happening here in Bremen, I immediately signed up to participate. Thursday morning, a teams of us hit the streets of Bremen to polish Stolpersteine (literally, stumbling stones or blocks). The Stolpersteine are an art project by Gunter Demnig commemorating the victims of National Socialism (the Nazis) across Europe. Gunter lays small brass plaques in the sidewalks in front of victims’ former homes, beginning with “Here lived…” and then listing their name, birthday, and what became of them. Over 43,000 Stolpersteine have been laid so far across Europe.
If you live in Germany, you have certainly gestolpert across a few of these plaques. We had several in front of my apartment building in Hamburg, they are everywhere in Berlin, and I pass many on my walk to the train in the morning here in Bremen. They offer a very concrete connection to those that suffered during this terrible period in history — a family lived in this very house, perhaps the same house where you now live, and here is their story. Suddenly it doesn’t seem so abstract anymore, does it?
My volunteer partner and I spent about 4 hours polishing 12 Stolpersteine in Bremen. You can tell in the before-and-after photos below that some of the plaques were hardly readable anymore and required some extra time and attention. But it was extremely gratifying to see them gleaming afterwards — once again attracting attention as you pass by.
If you’re willing to put a little research and time into it, you can also request to have Stolpersteine installed to commemorate victims of the Holocaust who lived at your address — check this website for more information. There are also many local organizations involved in installing and taking care of the Stolpersteine — you can find a list here of their contact information. And finally, at least in Bremen, you can “adopt” Stolpersteine and volunteer to polish and take care of them every so often — click here for more information.