November is a difficult month for Germany.
It hosts the anniversaries of two crucial events which fate has decided should fall on the same day. On 9 November 1989, it was the momentous day of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Yet the same November date also marks what is regarded as day one of the Nazi Holocaust – the so-called “Kristallnacht” (“night of broken glass”) of 1938 when Hitler’s henchmen ransacked more than 1,000 synagogues. The organised mass violence was just a mild foretaste of what lay in store for Europe’s Jews.
Berlin has not spent much time on the wall anniversary this year – not least because this November marks the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Those who witnessed the event in 1938 and survived were mostly young children at the time. Their number dwindles each year.
So Berlin is being left to rely increasingly on the likes of Gunter Demnig. Back in 1992 the artist came up with the idea of sinking little brass plaques bearing the names of Holocaust victims into the pavements outside the homes from which they were dispatched to the death camps. Called “Stolpersteine” or “stumbling stones”, there are now thousands of these plaques all over Germany. Berlin is no exception; there are scores of them set in the stone pavements of the still mainly gas lit streets near my flat. To mark this year’s anniversary, somebody decided to put candles on several of the “Stolpersteine”. Viewed unwittingly from a distance they just looked pretty. Yet the effect was misleading. From close up the immense yet unexpected sadness was instant.