Some of the most impressive, subtle and modest memorials in Berlin are the “Stolpersteine”. Translated into English as ”stumbling stones”, they are 10 by 10 centimeters concrete cubes bearing brass plates engraved with the names, life and death dates of Nazi persecution victims. They are placed in front of buildings where the commemorated persons last lived, studied or worked voluntarily. The stones are well incorporated into the sidewalks, so one can easily step on them without noticing.
They are part of an European-wide memorial started, in 1992 in Cologne, by artist Gunter Demnig, as a way of commemorating the Jews, Sinti and Roma, people from the political or religious resistance, homosexuals, Jehovahs Witnesses and other people who were persecuted and murdered during the Nazi regime. Since then, Demnig laid memorial cobblestones in 22 European countries and, as of 31 January 2017, their number exceeded 56.000.
In Berlin, the first Stolpersteine were laid in 1996 and, as of March 2017, there are over 7500 such memorial stones all over the city. You can find a map with all of them on stolpersteine-berlin.de, and also some info (like a short bio of the commemorated person, the exact address of the stone and the date it was laid).
If you are visiting Berlin, chances are that you will pass by Humboldt University, in the center of the city, on the boulevard leading to Brandenburg Gate (Unter den Linden). When you see it, make sure you remember to look down before you step into its open front yard. 20 Stolpersteine commemorating former students persecuted and/or murdered by the Nazis are laid in front of the prestigious university (which, by the way, was alma mater for 40 Nobel Prize Laureates).
One of them belongs to Max Bayer, a teacher at the Jewish Deaf and Mute Institute, who dedicated much of his adult life to helping the disabled children living there, in the context of minimum and eventually no financial help from the German state.
According to a short bio, posted on the University’s website, Bayer was born on 21 September 1906 in Aschbach in Bavaria. He became a teacher at Israelitischen Taubstummen-Anstalt (ITA) in Berlin-Weißensee (an institute founded in 1873), when he was 23 years old. Here he met his future wife, Gisela Schrage, who also taught deaf children.
From 1932 to 1934, he attended the Faculty of Philosophy, but he was probably unable to finish his studies. (At a census question, of May 1939, regarding higher education, he answered “No”.) During his studies, he continued to work at the ITA, although at that time, the conditions for persons with disabilities in Germany, thus also for the ITA, deteriorated continuously.
In 1939, the head of the institute took ten kindergarten children from the ITA to London. There he obtained a document from the British Ministry of Education that allowed him to bring the other children and the employees to the UK. But the war started in September that year and they were forced to leave them behind.
At that time Max and his wife, Gisela, lived in the Prenzlauer Berg district of Berlin and in 1940, Bayer was registered as one of only three teachers responsible for 22 children still living in the Israelitische Taubstummen-Anstalt.
From early 1941, he was probably forced to work in a warehouse, states his bio. On December 21, 1942, he and his wife welcomed a daughter, named Reha, and on 17 May 1943, Bayer was deported to Auschwitz, together with his wife and his five-month-old daughter with the last major deportation train. They have been considered “lost” since that day.
This is just one story of the thousands that lay at out feet every time we walk through Berlin and if we knew at least some of them, maybe we would walk a little slower or pay a little more attention to all the history Berlin radiates at every corner.
To be continued.