Stumbling Stones

In late September 2022, I followed my best friend and her two children through the streets of Möhringen in Stuttgart on a bicycle. As I struggled to stay straight and round corners, I was cognizant of the two children before me weaving in and out of those same street with an adeptness I did not feel. 

You see, memory is an interesting thing. Sometimes you know exactly where you first learned a lesson, and it feels like it should be settled in your mind, something that you retain forever. After all, something that is easy to remember is “just like riding a bike.”

They neglect to say that even though you remember the lesson, there remains a level of vulnerability, where the fear of falling that first held you back returns to trip you up. 

This vacation was a year in the making. Preceded by a week in Greece with one of my oldest friends, I decided to take an additional seven days to explore Germany, visit her family, attend an Ed Sheeran concert, and close it out by experiencing Oktoberfest.

A row of threes lining the horizon with blue skies and a green lawn.
A view of the landscape in Germany on the way back from the Ritter Sport factory/museum.

From the start of the trip, however, things did not go as planned. I had hoped for some serendipity along with some solo traveling, but unexpected news on my second day from home left me uncertain. By the time I reached Germany (with its fall-like temperatures so very different from the warmth of Greece) I resisted all adventure and chose to stay close, attending soccer practice for the kids, and watching Ted Lasso as a distraction. 

However, even with all the changes, there was one thing I wanted to make sure to do. Something that I considered foundational to my work as a public historian and how I first began thinking about how we memorialize the past.  

In the December cover story for The Atlantic, poet Clint Smith published an essay that looked at traumatic memory, reconciliation, and reckoning of that past in Germany. Called “Memories to the Unthinkable” Smith walked us through a trip to Germany where he looked at the different ways they reckon with their history of genocide, and antisemitism. He said, “I learned that the way the country remembers this genocide is the subject of ongoing debate—a debate that is highly relevant to fights about public memory taking place in the U.S.”

A square brass stone surrounded by grey stones. There is a name and inscription and a date of death engraved on the stone.
A detail view of a single stumbling stone.

When planning my trip I wrestled with what I wanted to include in my itinerary. Part of me wanted to see the picturesque: King Ludwig’s castle, Historic Heidelberg, or a UNESCO monastery just an hour from my friend’s home. But I also knew, as someone who makes an almost yearly visit to the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., that I wanted to stand as witness by visiting sites related to the Holocaust. 

My friend and I went back and forth, back and forth, about what to include in the itinerary: did I try to force a trip to Berlin even though I would lose time on the train, or should I visit the museum at Nuremberg? In the end, I decided that when I went to Munich, I would take a small guided tour to Dachau, even though I was cognizant of the issues at sites like Auschwitz where tourists take selfies treating these places of mass execution like playgrounds. As someone who holds memory and remembrance as an essential part of why I am a historian, I wanted to stand, see, and feel—so I could continue to carry that sense of responsibility within myself. 

When I knew that trip to Munich was not happening, I considered another fragment from my own past: a research paper on post-World War II memorials where I first learned about new (at the time) official acts of memory meant to remind people in Germany of the absences on every street where they walked. These stones physically manifested the silences—of lives destroyed and violently changed by prejudice and hate.

And so I found myself on a bicycle, searching the town where I was staying for Stolpersteine, or in English, stumbling stones.

In Smith’s piece, the artist who created these stones, Gunter Demnig is quoted as saying‘sometimes you need just one fate,’ he has said, to start thinking about how someone’s life relates to your own: Maybe they lived on your street, or were the same age you are now when they were murdered. ‘Those are the moments I know they will go home as different people.’ Each stone creates its own unofficial ambassadors of memory.”

A detail view of seven stones with inscriptions and names on them as part of a Holocaust memorial.
A zoomed out view of two stumbling stones.

It is also in Smith’s piece that I learned other viewpoints about the stumbling stones—a reminder that no memorial can fully encompass, or be a full act of recognition, for the terror, the trauma, and the evil. That for some, the stones are akin to stepping on the dead instead of reminders of individual lives amongst the 6 million that were brutally killed. 

But that is not what I was thinking that brisk fall day as I cycled through flower gardens and open fields, stopping to consult the map of Stuttgart Stolpersteine as we went along. Instead I wanted to take a breath and honor the dead.

My friend’s daughter, after hearing what we were looking for, found seven of the stones in front of Jugendfarm in Möhringen. Grouped together, the memorials are surrounded and separated by gray stones of roughly the same shape. On each is inscribed a name and a death date.

  • Ludmila Waesekina
  • Nikolai Kubrizin
  • Lidija Maturnewitsch
  • Viktor Sawtschenko
  • Wasili Dershiruka
  • Lena Gonchar
  • Anatoly Pinzhonin

Seven square stones and one rectangular one in the ground with various inscriptions.
A set of seven Stolpersteine outside a Jugendfarm in Möhringen

We were fighting against sunset and dinner time, so all I could do in that moment was brush some leaves off the stones, take pictures of what I was seeing, with a quiet promise to learn more about these names at a later date.

When I did, I realize that these seven stones are for children, ages ranging from 7 months-2 years.

This should not be shocking, after all we know that children were an equal target of Hitler’s “final solution.” However, it is easy to consider this in the abstract then be confronted with seven individuals who had full lives ahead of them. 

Who were these children? Why were their stones placed here? What was their story?

According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, by 1944 about eight million people were forced to labor for the Nazi regime as they fought on two fronts. These laborers included civilians, prisoners of war, and people held within concentration camps. Many of the prisoners of war were individuals from the Soviet Union. 

These seven children—children of Soviet laborers and thus considered “undesirable”—were placed by the Nazi’s in the Haldenwies Möhringen prisoner of war camp where they died, likely due to lack of care. These seven children, whose only footprints are these seven gold blocks holding their names for posterity.

For the last few months I’ve sat with this story, with who these children were, and how they died. I thought about the lives that they represent for me, and the lives that go un-memorialized every day, or those who disappear because a system determines that they are not worth protecting. 

I sit with the knowledge that we as humans are capable of so much kindness, but also so much evil. I think about Anatoly, Lena, Wasili, Ludmilla, Nikolai, Lidija, and Viktor. I think about vulnerability and age. I think about what we owe each other in the face of unspeakable violence. 

A pile of stonework and building debris.
A view of the debris from Stuttgart that was piled up on Rubble Hill as the city was rebuilt after World War II.

After taking the pictures, the four of us got back on our bikes and began the short journey back home. Even with the short time that had passed I was feeling a little more confident in my pedaling, more familiar with the places that whizzed by as we rode past. My muscle memory was coming back. 

White stone work on the exterior of a stairwell with views of interior windows and doors.
A look at some of the detail stonework at Maulbronn Monastery.

Now months later, I considered the other things we did in Germany, we visited the Mercedes Benz museum—with its own complicity and history with the war—ate at the Ritter Sport museum, visited an incredible World Heritage Site monastery in nearby Maulbronn—marveling at some of the windows and doors that came from incredible architectural renderings, and stood on top of Rubble Hill in Stuttgart looking through the collected post World War II debris. It may not have been the trip I planned, but it was, in the end the trip I needed.

However, I suspect that unlike the bike ride which became easier with time and practice, I will never get over seeing those stones, reading those names. And it is in holding that discomfort that I will push forward for good—in our times—with my very last breath.

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