Remembering victims under the National Socialist regime in Berlin through creative storytelling

Holocaust Memorial by Roberta CaldasBerlin is said to be a city of ghosts (Ladd, 1997). It has staged the most horrific political regime of the 20th century, which has left traces in the landscape. These traces remain even if the sites of terror have being torn down, reused as something completely different or memorialised in the city. This article will analyse traces of commemoration in urban spaces in Berlin for the victims of the National Socialist (Nazi) regime from 1933 to 1945. It will explore how these victims are remembered and commemorated in Berlin and how their personal stories have the power to sensitise and touch current generations on the horrors of the Third Reich. For this purpose, the article will present two case studies: the Stumbling Stones (also known as “Stolpersteine” in German) and the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe (commonly known as the Holocaust Memorial).


Types of Memorials

Generally, memorials for victims and heroes can be classified under two chronological categories: the memorials that are set during the political regime and those that are established after the end of it, when there is already a temporal distance that allows people to have a more holistic perception of events. Especially in severely controlled political systems, it can be difficult to understand exactly the limiting circumstances that people live under, so many memorials created after the end of the political rule differ enormously from those set during the regime. Furthermore, memorials created during a dictatorship are almost rare to find due to the strict controls these governments created during the period (Caldas, 2015). In the case of the victims of the Holocaust, there has been no documented memorials in Berlin that was created during the Nazi rule.

Aside from their chronological categories, memorials can be separated into descriptive categories. These are: (1) Naming public space; (2) Support informative media  (3) Commemorative markers; (4) Spontaneous commemorative markers; (4); Abstract commemoration;  (5) Museum (Caldas, 2015).

Naming public spaces are the most common form of commemorating individuals globally. It consists of naming squares, streets, public buildings, etc. as subject of commemoration. Sometimes, it is accompanied by supporting informative media that come in the form of interpretation panels or plaques and most recently, as digital media like mobile applications and audio guides.

Commemorative markers for victims or heroes are permanent markers that can come in the form of plaques, columns or rocks or anything that carries a reminder of someone’s life or death. They would often carry the person’s date of birth and/or death and some also mention the circumstances or place of a person’s death or their important deeds during their lifetime. In a way, commemorative markers are similar to tombstones outside of the cemetery. Spontaneous commemorative markers are those that are put right after a tragedy has occurred. They function as shrines or serve as a way and a place to mourn a lost life. Spontaneous commemorative markers often come as crosses at the place of death or at a place of importance to the deceased. They area often created using simple or perishable materials. They are different from regular commemorative markers with the immediacy of their creation, which allows people to immediately mourn and honour the lost lives.

Abstract commemoration consists of sculptures, statues and pieces of art that evoke meanings to commemorate the subject. The most effective abstract commemoration forms are those that seek to evoke experiences and emotions from the public related to the event that it commemorates. Museums are forms of commemoration that can host exhibitions about one or more victims or heroes. They have the opportunity and space to display objects or provide more complete experiences to the public.


Commemorating Holocaust Victims in Berlin

There were many different types of victims targeted during the Nazi rule. They were not only the Jewish people but also those who did not fit into the system’s social and racial standards, such as homosexuals, Jehovah’s witnesses, Communists, Socialists, Sinti and Roma, people with mental or physical disabilities, those who could not or would not work, among others. The exact numbers of how many people were exterminated during the Nazi regime are unknown, but it is estimated that there were 11 million victims, from which 5.4 million to 6 million were Jewish and 5 million were non-Jewish people.

It is hard to imagine how many people were the 11 million who died during the Nazi regime, but when a face or a name is put to each number and their personal stories are told, this number gets a whole new personal meaning. This is a way of humanizing the 11 million victims – seeing the personal stories of the Holocaust makes the number of victims (and of heroes) more than a number. They remind readers that each of these numbers was a real person. By doing so, they sensitise readers on the horrors the victims have suffered and they remind people of today of how important it is to keep this memory alive, hoping it no longer repeats.

Below are samples of memorials in Berlin. The Stumbling Stone is a commemorative marker and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is an abstract commemoration complemented by a museum. Each will be described and analysed how they tell the history of Nazi persecution through the victims’ and heroes’ personal stories.

Stumbling Stones by Roberta Caldas

Stumbling Stones

The Stumbling Stones artistic project, also known as the“Stolpersteine” is an idea by the artist, Gunter Demnig and it has been widely implemented in many parts of Germany and Europe. They have been installed in over 610 places in Germany, Austria, Hungary, the Netherlands, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Norway and Ukraine (Haflon, 2015). Berlin had its first plaque laid in 1996. The project’s goal is to lay a brass plaque for every Third Reich victim in Europe. The brass pieces are laid on the sidewalk in front of the victim’s last known home. The project has already reached 18 countries with more than 48,000 stones. Demnig works 300 days a year setting the stones that can be sponsored by any person for a 120-euro fee.

The artist cited the Talmud, the Jewish addition for the bible, as his inspiration saying that “a person is only forgotten when his or her name is forgotten” (Haflon, 2015). Each stone carries the name of the victim, the year of birth and date and location of death and deportation, when known. The Stumbling Stones include all victims of the Nazi regime and gives something that was denied to them and to their families due to the circumstances of their death: a place of memory, a tombstone to show their final resting place. It is also a way of personifying the number with a name and a personal story. It effectively captures the curiosity and emotions of those who stumble upon it, as one Israeli tourist in Berlin remembers:

“I rented a room in nice location in a cool neighbourhood. The first thing I noticed when I arrived to the building with all my luggage, was the Stolpersteine in front of the main door of the building. There were six of them and from the names I noticed it was a family. And now me, a Jewish tourist, sleeping in the very same building. It is a  sad history but at the same time there is a circle being closed here, which is more positive. As an Israeli in Berlin it is inevitable to think about the Holocaust in general. Now when I think about this family in particular, I feel somehow connected to them because I live where they lived”.(From the Interview of Haflon, 2015)

Recently, a book with walking tours through some of the Stumbling Stones of Berlin was published (Koordinierungsstelle Stopersteine Berlin, 2014). The walking tours take visitors to twelve neighbourhoods of the city telling the personal stories of selected victims represented by the Stumbling Stones. The Stumbling Stones is a commemorative marker, although it also comes from a private initiative, common to spontaneous commemorative markers. It is a memorial project that remembers individual victims much after the end of the regime and works as places of memory and grief outside of the traditional cemetery.

 Holocaust Memorial by Roberta Caldas

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

With 2,711 concrete plinths, the same number of pages in the Talmud (Aktives Museum Faschismus und Wiederstand in Berlin e.V. 2014), and located at the former death strip of the Berlin Wall, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe provides a strong emotional experience. Designed by the American architect Peter Eisenman, the plinths of the memorial are set at different heights and inclinations on a regular grid and an irregularly undulating ground level. Visitors can always see an exit when they enter the memorial due to the regularity of its grid. However, as visitors immerse themselves through the core of the memorial, it becomes claustrophobic and emotionally draining.  One can also never know if he or she may bump into another person because the plinths’ varied heights do not allow anyone to see the immediate periphery. However, visitors will always have the exit in sight, but they cannot get away from the given path. A person can also hear sounds from other visitors but will not know where they come from. The paths are very narrow so visitors are forced to walk alone, side by side with these blocks that resemble to tombstones. Although Eisenman left the memorial open to interpretation (Torisson, 2010), it is safe to assume that he wanted to evoke an emotional experience for people as they walk between the concrete plinths. Feelings that can be observed are of solitude and of not knowing what the near future holds.

Holocaust Memorial by Roberta CaldasBelow the memorial is an information centre that contains personal stories of persecuted people during the Nazi regime. The exhibition starts with a timeline presenting the history of Nazi policies from 1933 until 1945 and the effects it brought to the Jewish community. The next room, called Room of Dimensions, indicates the Nazi occupied countries on the top of the walls and the estimated number of Jewish victims in each country. Looking to the ground of the dark room, visitors see excerpts from letters of Jewish victims to their friends and families or diary entries that are lit from below. In the next room, the Room of Families, is an exhibition that uses fifteen Jewish families’ deportation routes from their homes until they were killed in concentration camps. The exhibition describes people’s everyday lives until the Nazi rule and their ultimate deportation. The following room, the Room of Names, uses sound as a tool to evoke a connection from the visitor to the victims. It is a dark room that projects on each wall a victim’s name with his or her respective date of birth and death. Visitors listen to the story of the person behind the name. The last exhibition room, the Room of Sites, presents some of the sites of terror from the Nazi rule. The last room of the circuit does not provide an exhibit, but is dedicated to information on actions by the German government that are being taken today. It contains several computers with information of other memorial sites and museums under the Nazi rule and contains a database of the listed Jewish victims of the Holocaust.


The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is an abstract commemoration to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, but underneath the site is complemented with information by a museum dedicated to a group of victims, using their personal stories to personify the number of Holocaust victims.


Creative storytelling of sites through digital media

Technology now plays a vital role in improving the stories of such memorials. The book entitled, Making Sense of Audience Engagement by Brown & Ratzkin, documents strategies on how to engage different types of tourists that go to museums and heritage sites. One type of cultural tourist mentioned in the book are the “technology-based processors”, who are mostly younger people who read and write blogs, are active in social media and other digital venues for engagement (Brown & Ratzkin, 2011). They usually would use the Internet as their main source of information in deciding where to go and they would also rely on websites and mobile applications (also known as “app”) such as Trip Advisor, Lonely Planet and Wikipedia among others to learn more about specific places (Caballero et al, 2015).

Using technology as support informative media for memorials has the power to connect and keep the attention of younger generations to the uncomfortable heritage that belongs to all of us. Using self-guided tours through mobile applications and printed thematic leaflets as an offline alternative, this can help convey the victims’ personal stories in the cityscape, particularly to younger people (Caballero et al, 2015).

For example, in the case of the Stumbling Stones, there are several mobile applications designed by independent publishers, which pinpoints where the stones are located in individual cities or regions. At the moment, there is no single mobile application that documents all the stones and the existing ones are also not available as mobile applications in English. The mobile application for Berlin is one of the best functioning ones, which uses geo-location to show the stumbling stones nearest the app user. By clicking on the name provided by the application, the user is redirected inside the app to the Stolpersteine Berlin website, which provides information in German on each of the Berlin victims represented by the Stumbling Stones of Berlin. The app only works online.

QR Condes by Roberta CaldasAt the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the feelings of solitude and dread are enhanced by a virtual concert provided by the Memorial through a mobile application. QR codes for downloading the Virtual Concert app have been available since 2013 and they can be found on the floor around the memorial. The symphony entitled “Vor dem Verstummen” was composed by the German artist, Harald Weiss and was played live at the memorial in 2008 by musicians of the Berliner Kammersymphonie. Visitors can listen to the entire track offline outside of the memorial or interactively inside the memorial. The way it works inside the memorial is that at different areas, visitors can listen to different instruments of the composition and different volumes that range from muted to very loud.

Another mobile application suggested at the Memorial’s visitor center is Yopegu. Yopegu is a commercial app that sells different tours in several cities. The tour to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe can be downloaded for free and the audio guide tour lasts eight minutes and four seconds and it narrates the history and objectives of the memorial, including some interviews of relevant people. It can be heard in both English or in German.

Several independent audio guides and podcasts are available in iTunes and in SoundCloud that lets people get more information about specific places and helps users deepen their sensory experience of the city. An example of this is the Go Walk the Talk platform. The website was created by heritage specialists who research and create short posts on a weekly subject or location in Berlin. A podcast is also produced on SoundCloud as part of the story of a site. The written information and mp3 file can be downloaded for free and can be accessed by users when they visit the designated areas. Episode 17 and Episode 19 are about the Stumbling Stones and the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe respectively.


This article highlights that personal stories are important to make memorials more meaningful and captures the interest of visitors. It also underlines the role of technology as a possible tool to convey meanings to modern and mobile visitors.  Mobile applications can provide a larger range of media that work better for each individual visitor, particularly for “technology-based processors” who are very connected to social media and the Internet. Mobile applications can host written text, pictures, videos, audio guides, augmentative reality and also provide interactive maps connected to each of these media. Unofficial platforms that provide information on memorial sites such as the Yopegu app, could be used by visitors but with care. It is important to find a platform that one trusts the veracity of information provided. Content created by specialists like the Go Walk the Talk platform or from the official media of memorials should be preferred. The interactive concert provided by the Virtual Concert mobile app is a creative and innovative way of evoking experiences. It engages visitors in an abstract commemoration site through audio interpretation.

As a city of layered memories, of ghosts and of a dark past, Berlin is a good place to look at the different layers of the city to humanize history. Indeed the sites have been transformed or torn down, but glimpses of the past still emerge. The Stumbling Stones project by Gunter Demnig is an important reminder that harsh political regimes should no longer happen and it is executed with subtlety, sensitivity and innovatively, which does not disrupt the urban fabric.  The design strategy by Peter Eisenman for the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is also very commendable. It effectively evokes the emotional response needed for a memorial but doing it in an abstract way. Landscape architects, artists and other designers involved in shaping the urban sphere have to be mindful of these considerations in creating well thought of spaces in our cities.


About the Authors

 Roberta Caldas is a PhD candidate at BTU Cottbus-Senftenberg in Germany where she is developing a manual for dictatorial heritage interpretation using personal stories. She is a Brazilian travel and heritage journalist with a M.A. in UNESCO World Heritage Studies. Roberta is the co-founder of Go Walk the Talk, a project that familiarizes people with the heritage around them using different media. Visit Go Walk the Talk for more information.

Gabriel Caballero

Gabriel Caballero

The authors would like to acknowledge Ms. Ute Linden for her ideas to the direction of this article.



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