This is not a race report, rather the first instalment in a series where I will explore and document a running project undertaken by myself and a friend, Thomas.
The project was Thomas’ idea, suggested on a very rainy run at the end of September 2020. We both share Jewish heritage, and he had the idea of running to every Stolperstein in Berlin, where we both live.
A Stolperstein is a small brass cobblestone placed in the street outside the house of a victim of Nazi persecution. They are very easy to miss when walking, but in fact there are over 75,000 Stolpersteine placed in towns, villages and cities across Europe. You can learn more about the Stolpersteine project here.
In Berlin alone there are over 8,000 Stolpersteine, placed at over 3,000 separate addresses (each person gets their own Stolperstein, even if multiple people from the same family lived in the same household). So this project is no small effort. Generally we are doing two runs per week, and hoping to visit all the Stolpersteine by the end of 2021.
The structure of our runs means that it can take a long time to cover even a very short distance. When we arrive at each address we:
- Find the Stolperstein(e)
- Take a close up photo of the Stolperstein(e)
- Take a photo of the door to the house with the Stolperstein(e)
- Read the person’s story
Often it takes a surprising amount of time to even find the Stolpersteine, since the street may have changed in the last 70 years, and the Stolpersteine are not directly outside the door.
Once we have located the Stolpersteine and taken a photo the interesting part begins. This is when we learn about the person who lived there. By finding the Stolpersteine on this website we can read some information about the person.
So far we’ve come across people who’s only record is what we can see engraved on their Stolperstein, whereas in other areas of Berlin almost everyone has a biography on the Stolpersteine website.
Many people’s stories are not easy to read. There are common threads that link a lot of the people: barred form their profession, forced labour, deported, murdered, is an upsettingly common timeline.
It is particularly challenging when there are a large number of Stolpersteine in a small space, Linien Str for example has 20 Stolpersteine across just 12 houses. When there is no running to be done between the Stolpersteine there is no time to process each story.
It was only in doing a little additional research for this write up did I discover that each Stolperstein is engraved by hand, in order to prevent the process from becoming anonymous.
This is an aspect of the Stolpersteine project that has really resonated with me. Often large scale memorials struggle to preserve the individuality of the people commemorated, and conversely, individual memorials may not capture the scale of the holocaust.
However, I feel both the scale and the individual present in the Stolpersteine. Each handmade plaque is placed in a location relevant to that unique individual, but running around the city and seeing the sheer number of Stolpersteine gives a sense of overwhelming scale.
By February 2021 we have visited around 20% of the Stolpersteine in Berlin, and we have ‘met’ a wide variety of people. Of course the Stolpersteine are not only for Jews, but also Muslims, communists, resistance fighters, the disabled, homosexuals, the homeless, and more.
Some of the most memorable houses we have visited have been that of Julius Fromm (the inventor of the modern, seamless, condom), Hans Achim Litten (who interrogated Hitler in court in 1931) and Hannah Karminski (a key organiser of the Kindertransport which brought my own grandmother to safety in England in 1939). Of course there have been many more interesting people with rich lives to learn about. Far too many of recall.
Even though only a small number of the people we meet have memorable stories, we find it important to visit every Stolperstein, because of course each Stolperstein is there for a person who’s life was equally important.
Every one of the people commemorated by a Stolperstein was an individual, and although their entry in the history books may only recall their name, date of birth, date of deportation, and the camp they were murdered in, they still lived a life as meaningful as anyone’s.
On a lighter note, one particularly warming thing I have noticed is the reaction of people who see us searching for, or looking at, the Stolpersteine. Often a passer-by will stop and check we know what we are looking at:
“They are commemorative plaques – all over the city!”
“Yes, we’re visiting them all.”