They’re supposed to make you trip. Raised just millimetres above the cobblestones, these small brass plates have a strange feel underfoot. Hence the name Stolpersteine, literally “stumbling stones.” For 25 years, an artist has been installing these across Europe. Today there are thousands all across Berlin.
Each stone represents a person who was persecuted by the Nazis. It stands at their last address before they were arrested, deported, forced to flee, or murdered. Not everyone on a Stolperstein was necessarily Jewish, nor were they necessarily killed, even though most are both.
Each stone has a sponsor — a person who is responsible for writing a biography on stolpersteine-berlin.de. If they were to place Stolpersteine for every single person who was persecuted, then every sidewalk in Berlin would be made entirely of brass, and each name would be as anonymous as before. That’s why sponsors are needed.
On Tuesday, I got two Stolpersteine installed near my home in Neukölln. I had researched about people on Stolpersteine before, but never taken the initiative myself. A dozen people, including local politicians, gathered at Brusendorfer Straße 23 to tear up some cobblestones and pound the brass cubes into place. These stones were for Anton and Anna-Maria Grylewicz, who lived at this address until early 1933.
Grylewicz was a Neukölln worker who played a leading role in more than one episode of Berlin’s revolutionary history. He was a member of the Revolutionary Stewards, a secretive group of trade unionists who organised strikes during World War I. He later worked in the headquarters of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), serving under the fiery chairwoman Ruth Fischer. (She was also a Neuköllner, living at Andreasberger Straße 9 in Britz.)
In the late 1920s, Grylewicz was among the thousands of communists driven out of the party in Stalinist purges. While Fischer and others tried to get back into Stalin’s good graces, Grylewicz set out to build a new organisation. He became the leading figure of the United Left Opposition (VLO) of the KPD. This was the first “Trotskyist” organisation in Germany — called that way because Leon Trotsky was the most well-known of the countless communists who fought back against Stalinism.
What do you know about Trotskyists in Berlin? If you watched the first season of Babylon Berlin, you’ve seen the avant-garde Russian violinist Alexei Kardakov, a hapless bohemian who keeps getting shot. The real Trotskyists, however, were mostly industrial workers like Grylewicz. Their main campaign was for a workers’ united front.
As the Nazi Party grew after 1929, Germany’s two big workers’ parties refused to close ranks to defend themselves against the fascist threat. The social democrats said that the communists were really “red-painted fascists” or “Kozis”; the communists said that the social democrats were in fact “social fascists.” Both parties argued that they couldn’t fight alongside the one fascists against the other fascists.
If they were to place Stolpersteine for every single person who was persecuted, then every sidewalk in Berlin would be made entirely of brass, and each name would be as anonymous as before. That’s why sponsors are needed.
While both SPD and KPD downplayed the danger of a fascist victory, it was up to Leon Trotsky and others to sound the tocsin. Trotsky wrote, in a pamphlet criticising the KPD leadership: “Worker-Communists, you are hundreds of thousands, millions; you cannot leave for anyplace; there are not enough passports for you. Should fascism come to power, it will ride over your skulls and spines like a terrific tank. Your salvation lies in merciless struggle. And only a fighting unity with the Social Democratic workers can bring victory.”
The solution was a united front, which he described thus: “Communist workers must say to their Social Democratic counterparts: ‘The policies of our parties are irreconcilably opposed; but if the fascists come tonight to wreck your organisation’s hall, we will come running, arms in hand, to help you. Will you promise us that if our organisation is threatened you will rush to our aid?’ This is the quintessence of our policy in the present period.”
Trotsky’s pamphlets were published by Grylewicz in Brusendorfer Straße 23. Tens of thousands of copies were distributed throughout the workers’ movement. The need for a united front was particularly felt in red Neukölln, where the two workers’ parties got almost two thirds of the votes, compared to just 20 percent for the Nazis, in late 1932.
The struggle for a united front was not successful. After power was handed over to Hitler, Nazi stormtroopers ransacked the Grylewiczes’ apartment. The couple fled to Czechoslovakia, and then to France, and then to Cuba. Grylewicz, already quite old, had to make a living as a carpenter.
It was only in 1955 at age 70 that he returned to West Berlin. In this anti-communist “front-line city,” no anti-Stalinist communist groups had survived. Lacking options, Grylewicz re-joined the SPD, but never renounced his revolutionary beliefs. When the youth movement erupted in 1968, a new generation took up the banner of Trotskyism again. Young students would visit Grylewicz in a retirement home to learn about the revolutionary tradition.
There is a connection to today: one of those students was a 15-year-old Michael Prütz. Prütz, who is now rather advanced in years himself, is leading the campaign to expropriate Berlin’s biggest landlords.
Now, people who walks past this small Neukölln street might trip and learn more about this history. I am happy about that.
A final thing I learned about Stolpersteine: the sponsors have to pay! I was informed, only minutes before the ceremony, that I am on the hook for €120 per stone. I’m not worried, but it’s still a lot of money for a freelance journalist and historian. If you would like to help out with this commemoration of the Grylewiczes, any contribution would be much appreciated.
Red Flag is a weekly political column by Nathaniel Flakin.