I am among those who did not notice the Stolpersteine – the stumbling blocks or stones paved into Berlin’s sidewalks, at the entrances to buildings where Jews and other Others (Roma and Sinti, homosexuals, people with disabilities, communists and other dissidents) used to live prior to their expulsion and extermination between 1933-1945. I’ve heard about them, naturally, but ever since I came to Berlin, over a year ago, I simply couldn’t trace the Stolpersteine. And then, one day, my younger son stopped and stared at the pavement, and asked, ‘Mom, what’s that?’ And there they were, a few golden stones, remarkably reticent, the inscription minimal, starting with ‘Here Lived’ followed by name, date of birth, date of expulsion, destination, fate (usually murdered) and date and place of death (if known). ‘Ah!’ I said and stared for a while.
And so, ever since I’ve noticed the Stolpersteine, I stop and stare. I am not doing this as homage, or as a self-conscious act of commemoration although this is the commemoration project that touches me the most. I start calculating. I calculate their age; I decipher the kinship relations (parents and child, two elderly sisters living together, an aged single man?); I check the dates of deportation and death, curious to know how far from / close to the end of the war it happened; I check whether kin were deported together; I wonder, how awful it must have been, to be separated at such a moment (as if that was the awful thing about this whole ‘thing,’ but it is the most awful thing for me, when staring). So every single time I stop, I stare for a few minutes (calculation is not my forté, story-making is).
Now here’s the thing – ever since I’ve begun to stop-and-stare at the Stolpersteine, I notice that something happens in the space surrounding me. Sometimes I block the entrance to the building or the sidewalk if it’s narrow. Sometimes it looks peculiar, someone staring for so long, so intently. Occasionally someone would say something (once, on Karl-Marx-Straße, it sounded hostile and harsh, but I couldn’t decipher the words), on other occasions people just stop to check what it is exactly that I stare at. Somehow, every time I stop, something happens in the space surrounding my stopping-and-staring and I become a living Stolperstein, an interference in the ‘natural’ flow of people and purposeful movement.
My stopping-and-staring transforms the designation of the space determined as ‘sidewalk,’ into a ‘side-stop’ and ‘side-hindrance’ and probably ‘side-dissatisfaction’ or ‘side-wondering.’ Someone told me that Berliners do not stop-and-stare, that this is mostly foreigners’ practice. Indeed, it doesn’t take too long to understand that even in the midst of the multi-culti Berlin, it is very easy to become a stumble-stone oneself, when walking the city, penetrating its institutions and bureaucratic spaces, consumerism palaces and parks. Makes you think of ‘Diversity Destroyed: 1933-1938,’ the 2013 commemoration project. Makes you wonder if diversity was ever restored. Makes you wonder if the time- frame ‘1933-1938’ implies that now it is safe to stop. Maybe I am diversity, how else could the city become diverse if not for its Stolpersteine, those carved in stones, those inscribed on bodies (says Sara Ahmed). I too am a project of restoration, without me, no claims for diversity are possible.
Coming from ‘a land without a people’ occupied by ‘a people without a land,’ where some expulsions and massacres are erased from public space and memory – this indeed is a sobering experience. In Tel-Aviv-Jaffa, a public remembrance action that seeks to recall and restore the Arab street names by hanging paper-made street signs over the Hebraized signs, is met with legal measures such as arrest, a ‘state-ment’ if you like ( says de Certeau). This state-ment attempts to interrupt memory, it won’t allow for any stumbling, that’s for sure, no moments of hesitation in the Hebraized urban landscape. Nevertheless, in both cases: the solicited stumbling upon the Stolpersteine as well as the disobedient stumbling upon names that are not to be remembered, the act of stopping affirms, suspects, tries out, transgresses and respects the trajectories that it speaks (says de Certeau).
It is impossible for me to think of one without remembering the other, now that I am here, in Berlin, and I become the carrier of diversity. It is impossible to escape the similarities between the city that commemorates and the city that forgets, both branded as diverse. Ever since I came here and transformed into an alien and a living Stolperstein, I can see how forgetting is embedded in commemoration, how the two can occur concurrently. Because diversity is something that happens to me, not to the city.
Although Berlin needs people to stand for ‘diversity,’ when I stop-and-stare I do not belong, I interrupt. I can feel it in my surroundings; it recalls all the other interruptions I produce as a foreigner in the city. Das ist Deutschland! Deutsch Sprechen! I am repeatedly told by bureaucrats. But Das ist nicht Deutschland! I desperately tell the clerk in the municipality of Neukölln, this is not Deutschland anymore! Look at the waiting room! Look outside your window! Where is Deutschland?! Berlin needs me to diverse, not to belong. Becoming an obstacle on a path designed for circulation causes too much stress. To stand still in the city is to risk appearing mad, not belonging among the respectable (says Helen Scalway). And the respectable, I am told, do not stop-and-stare in Berlin !
Ruth Preser is a post doctoral fellow at the ICI – Institute for for Cutural Inquiry Berlin. Ruth studied History at the University of Haifa in Israel (BA) and Gender Studies at Bar-Ilan University (MA, PhD) where she also taught. Her PhD dissertation, ‘A Narrative Investigation into Queer Separation’ (2012) explored lesbian relationship dissolution and asked how belonging is negotiated and worked once life/stories cannot adhere to neoliberal convictions of ‘proper gayness.’ Prior to coming to the ICI, Ruth spent a year as a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for European Ethnology and the Center for Transdisciplinary Gender Studies at Humboldt University, Berlin.
The Stolpersteine were initiated by artist Gunter Demnig. Click here to learn more about the Stolpersteine.