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Stumbling over history

You encounter them throughout the city of Salzburg. Some glint in the sun, others have been given a darker patina by time and weather. But all have one thing in common: They are symbols “lest we forget”.

Josef Witternigg, born 1881, arrested for resisting the regime in 1934, perishing from the consequences of his imprisonment on 28 February 1937 in Salzburg. Emilie Fischer, born 1885, deported in 1942 to Theresienstadt concentration camp, murdered 26 December 1943. Ida Petermann, born 1939, deported to Auschwitz 14 January 1944 and murdered there. Many such so-called “stumbling stones” catch our eye as we stroll through the city of Salzburg. These square plates made of brass were incorporated into the paving outside houses and apartment buildings where the people they commemorate once lived. Recalling the terrible individual fates endured by members of the Salzburg community – back then, though not so very long ago.

Salzburg takes a first step

The stumbling stone movement has had a profound impact ever since it was initiated by German artist Gunter Demnig in Cologne, Germany, in 1992. By 1997, stumbling stones were beginning to have a ripple effect, with the town of St. Georgen near Salzburg granting permission for the first two stones to be laid there. Ten years later and the first stumbling stones followed at seven locations in the city of Salzburg itself. Today, 356 of these stones remind us of the victims of National Socialism – with more authorized and added year by year. If we look beyond Austria’s borders, we discover there are currently over 56,000 stumbling stones in 20 different countries. In fact, the stumbling stone project has grown into the biggest decentralized memorial the world has ever known. And Salzburg took its own first step exactly 20 years ago.

Fates engraved in brass

We continue our walk, making our way from the Bärengässchen in Mülln, where we read the memorial stone for a young Sinti girl, Ida Petermann, across the river to the Franz-Josef-Straße in a newer part of town, where the fateful dates for Emilie Fischer are engraved in brass. At Max-Ott-Platz, three more stones catch our eye. One of these bears the name of Andreas Rehrl, born 1899. He died while trying to defuse a bomb on 17 November 1944, compelled to do so as a forced laborer. We now mull over whether we should sit down at a coffeehouse somewhere. Or perhaps not. Following these stones, reading of one terrible fate after another, tugs at your very soul.

Lest we forget

That said, it is hugely important, especially in a city as beautiful as Salzburg, not to pretend that those dark days never happened. Ultimately, we do sit down for a coffee, enjoy the views of this beautiful city, take in the spirited hustle and bustle. But we also talk quietly about those stones, about the stories and fates of each person. “A person is only forgotten when his name is forgotten”, it says in the Talmud, one of the most important writings in Judaism. When we go for a walk from now on out, we will always cast a glance down at the paving every now and then, to read those names. To remember. Lest we forget.