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Streets of Brass

Stolperstein - Ghent, Belgium - photo by author

This morning, I asked my wife where she’d parked the car last night.

‘Oh, right around the corner,’ she replied, ‘at the beginning of Independence Lane.’

As I walked out of the house to fetch the car, I pondered the name of the street around the corner. Independence, whose independence, I wondered? Then next, it struck me how our neighbourhood is, in fact, riddled with ‘patriotic’ and somehow sadly ‘belligerent’ sounding street names — there’s a Fatherland Street, and another one called Freedom Lane; one block down there’s a Pacification Lane; and finally, the main road into the city centre which intersects with our street, is actually called War Lane.

Of course, there’s a historical explanation for all these names. As in all cities, many street names are nothing more than history written in shorthand. But that’s another story. What irked me here was why, after having lived in this neighbourhood for over twenty-five years, did the presence of these bellicose names finally give me pause?

The explanation, I suppose, is that for the past nine months we have been hosting a young Ukrainian refugee who fled her home in Kharkiv. Since her arrival, she has become an integral member of our family. And so, that distant war and all the horror and atrocities it involves, somehow slipped off the anonymous pages of newspapers and TV and computer screens, and into our household.

And into my mind.

When this war is over, there will be streets renamed in Kharkiv — one more shorthand exercise to capture history.

As usual when I’m lost in a train of thought, one thing leads to another, and later this morning, on my way to the local supermarket, with the street names still doing battle in my mind, I stopped to look at the neighbourhood’s ‘Stolperstein’.

The ‘Stolperstein’, or ‘stumbling stone’ in English, is a small, cobblestone-size concrete block capped with a hand-inscribed brass plate, embedded in the pavement in front of one of the last houses before you get to the supermarket. The house in question was the last known place of residence of a Nazi victim. The brass plate reads: “Here lived”, followed by the victim’s name, date of birth, and date and place of death in one of Nazi Germany’s ill-famed extermination camps.

The ‘Stolpersteine’ project is an initiative of the German artist Gunter Demnig, started in 1992 and still ongoing, to commemorate victims of Nazi persecution. To date, the artist has engraved and inserted over 75,000 Stolpersteine in cities all across Europe. For more information, a quick internet search will lead you to the ‘Stolpersteine’ Wikipedia page or the artist’s website.

But the name ‘stumbling stone’ is somewhat misleading, as the small stones with their brass plates are flush with the pavement. You will not stub a single toe, or trip and stumble and break a leg, so day after day, hundreds of people, including myself, walk by them, carelessly trod on them, without as much as a single glance.

Imagine though, if mankind had started this project, say, some two thousand years ago, and had placed a brass-topped cobblestone for every single innocent victim of wanton persecution regardless of race, belief or gender, then around the globe we would by now be walking on streets of brass— a dark, golden brass, impossible to ignore, the darkest pages of our history, written in shorthand.

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