Stumbling Stones: Great triggers for remembrance

Growing up in Hamilton during the 1950s, I learned about Remembrance Day at a very early age.

It was a school holiday then and war was a fresh memory for most families. Mom’s brother was on the scene when Holland was liberated in 1944 and dad’s brother served in a POW camp. Both returned home changed men – “shell shock” they whispered.

Some of my earliest memories are of Remembrance Day perched on dad’s shoulders, peering down to the city sidewalk, as the raw November wind whirled mournfully around my head. There were soldiers clad in brown and blue, bagpipes, drums and flags. It was often rainy, and we would become soaked, feet freezing in our Sunday shoes, as we waited for the parade to pass by on its way from the armories to the cenotaph. I remember shivering through the ceremony, and terrified, covering my ears for the 10-gun salute.

Years later as a parent and school teacher, I encouraged my children and students to learn about the wars by reading stories and Newspaper articles, writing research papers and by participating in the local Legion’s art, writing and poetry competitions. I didn’t have a personal involvement in the war; I did try to remember.

Yet time marches on. My two uncles have since passed away, as have my parents. Every year there are fewer veterans marching in parades, and the wartime experience has become removed and remote.

This past spring, my attitude changed significantly when my husband and I travelled to Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. One of the trip highlights included the American War Memorial in Luxembourg. Our guide suggested that we try to imagine a person standing behind each cross – all 11,000 of them.

In Belgium we toured the battlefields and monuments of the Battle of the Bulge. In Amsterdam we visited the Anne Frank House, a museum with a heart-wrenching story.

As our holiday coincided with Remembrance Day and Liberation Day in the Netherlands, we participated in both. The Dutch take these days very seriously. Being a country that was occupied for five years, war is a very real part of their history. In several towns we noticed museums, cemeteries and concentration camps – daily reminders of freedom’s cost. The cemeteries are meticulously maintained. As part of the curriculum, elementary students tend the graves of fallen soldiers, clipping grass and planting flowers.

On Remembrance Day, all flags in the country are lowered to half-mast. In the city of Assen, we joined several hundred people at the local cenotaph for a ceremony surprisingly similar to those in Canada. There were hymns, meditations, prayers and a moment of silence. Afterwards, the hushed crowd filed past a plaque erected where 10 members of the resistance movement had been executed. The only sounds were muffled footsteps, birds singing and the beat of a single drum. Then, the crowd slipped silently away.

The following morning, every flag was flying high for Liberation Day, a national holiday in the Netherlands. There are street parties, fireworks and a concert in Amsterdam, with King Willem-Alexander and his royal entourage in attendance. We were humbled and honoured to join the Dutch celebrations this year.

Similar to ours, Dutch papers run feature articles for Remembrance Day and one caught my attention. I learned about a little known German foundation dedicated to “stolpersteinen,” literally translated: “stumbling stones.”  

In 1947 Gunter Demnig, a young mason in Berlin, began placing stolpersteinen in the sidewalks of every country whose citizens were ravaged by World War II. Each stone, forged of brass and measuring approximately 10 by 10 centimetres, is laid slightly proud of its surrounding stones and therefore will be stumbled over quite easily if you don’t notice it; hence, the name. Each one is dedicated to the memory of one victim of the Nazis. Individuals may sponsor them at a cost of 120 euros (about $180) each.

My curiosity was piqued.  After reading about stolpersteinen, I went hunting for them. I found some in the old town square of Assen, nestled together in a group of five or six, strategically placed directly in front of the victims’ former home. I stopped to take a closer look. I was slightly embarrassed, all by myself, shopping bags in tow, kneeling down on a sidewalk in a foreign city, but I remained focused.

Each stone reads, “Hier woonde…” (“Here lived…”)  followed by the victim’s name, birth and death dates and the place of death. I wondered who these people were and what kind of lives they led. A few were children. What happened to these kids who lived and played here in this street and bought candy from the sweet shop next door? Did this one do her groceries at the butcher shop or work at the bakery? Did they worship in the synagogue across the way, or in the church on the corner?

As I considered these questions, I began to fathom the true significance of stolpersteinen. There is much more here than meets the eye. These names represent real people. They are all individuals and all part of human history. They were targeted and violated not because of any crime they had committed, but simply because of who they were – and their numbers are staggering. There were millions of them, lives all destroyed, terminated and buried in mass graves in Europe.

These facts are astounding, almost unbelievable, yet true. A powerful surge of emotion caught me off-balance, and I was moved to tears right there, on my knees.  

Not everyone appreciates stolpersteinen. Some Jewish organizations oppose them because the public, quite literally, walks on the names of the victims and they find it offensive. Furthermore, some right-wing members of the Neo-Nazis claim they contribute to the de-valuation of homes in desirable neighbourhoods. However, many Europeans value them. To date, 45,000 stolpersteinen have been laid. I believe that Demnig and his team are on the right track and I was grateful to stumble across his unique mission for remembrance.

Without a doubt, my view of Remembrance Day was transformed by our insightful experience this past spring. I realize not all of us have the opportunity to visit Europe, to experience the memorials and ceremonies up close and to stroll on the very ground where so much blood was shed.

Every Canadian has the freedom to pause and reflect, to consider the evil forces at work in our own time and perhaps to bow our heads in humble prayer for peace.

Let us not take freedom for granted, but recognize it was bought and paid for at a monumental cost. Let us cherish our freedoms and use them to join the chorus of millions of strong, free voices who declare to the world, “Never again.”