“If one person dies, it’s a tragedy. If a million people die, it’s a statistic.”
This cynical statement was attributed to the late Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin (1879-1953). It was quoted to me by a Russian Jewish orchestra conductor who spent his childhood in Moscow under Stalin’s rule.
Like many other German cities, Freiburg is trying translate the statistic of six million Jews murdered by the Nazis back into the tragedy of individual people dragged from their homes and put to death. They do this by setting little squares of metal into the street or sidewalk in front of the houses where the people used to live. The two in the photo are embedded in the street in front of a hotel in the Rathausgasse in Freiburg. The one on the left reads:
and the one on the right:
Murdered 1942 in
These little squares of metal are known as “stumbling blocks” (Stolpersteine), but you can stumble over them only in a figurative sense, meaning you are made aware that these two murdered people used to live right here, so they aren’t just statistics, but real people.
The “stumbling blocks” are an initiative of the artist Gunter Demnig, born 1947 in Berlin.
All you loyal readers of my post 1170 km to Gurs might recall that in front of the main railway station in Mannheim there is a sign that looks just like this one, but with a different number. At first glance both of these look like perfectly normal yellow road signs, such as you might find on any regional highway in Germany.
But wait! These signs don’t normally point to places over a thousand kilometers away. And who ever heard of a place called Gurs, anyhow?
Gurs is a city in the southwest corner of France. It was the site of a concentration camp that was used by the Nazi collaborators of the Vichy government to intern Jews and other people considered undesirable by the Nazis.
Within a few hours on October 22, 1940, the Nazis rounded up 6504 Jewish men, women and children from the regions of Baden and the Pfalz, including some 300 Jewish citizens of Freiburg, and deported them to Gurs. Many died there of hunger or illness, and in 1942 the rest were sent east to Auschwitz or Maidanek, where they were murdered.
On the 60th anniversary of the deportation, in October 2000, Freiburg citizens erected a plaque explaining what had happened. The text on the plaque concludes: “Too many people looked away back then, too few resisted. This must not and will not happen again.”
This is where the main Freiburg Synagogue used to be, until it was destroyed by the Nazis in 1938.
My photos in this post are from 2007. I revised the text in 2018.
See more posts on the city of Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany.