I thought everyone knew about them but apparently not! Stolpersteine (literally ‘stumbling blocks’, singular Stolperstein) commemorate individuals (mostly, but not exclusively, Jews) who perished in the Holocaust. The initiative of German artist Gunter Demnig (b. 1947), this project, begun in 1994 and still in progress, is one of the most touching, privately initiated commemorative projects I know.
Demning began by researching victims transported and murdered by Germany’s National Socialist regime and then made bronze plaques to commemorate them. These are inscribed with the name, birthdate, and deportation and death date/location of the individual and wrapped around a 10-centimeter cubic paving stone that is then reinserted into the pavement in front of the victim’s last address. The project has gained in popularity and has for many years been beyond Demning’s ability to administrate, with hundreds of requests streaming in annually. Nonetheless, he and his trusty band of assistants continue to make each bronze plaque by hand. It is a selfless act of love, for which he is not compensated. Nowadays, the European Union manages requests (www.stolpersteine.eu) and municipalities aid in confirming data. If you look down as you wander the residential areas of Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, and small towns throughout Germany, you will see them. Inspired by Demning’s enterprise, Belgium, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, and France have joined the project.
Once the victim’s details have been confirmed, Demning’s studio gets to work. When the plaques are ready (there are usually more than one, since all documented family member can be thus remembered), a small ceremony, is scheduled at the convenience of surviving descendants, often those who initiated the requests. It takes about 18 months from filing a request to the Stolpersteine‘s installation. It’s significant that the plaques are bronze, the metal from which sculptures since Antiquity have been made. Marcus Aurelius in Rome, Donatello’s David, Rodin’s The Thinker, are all bronze. No cheap, quick-and-dirty commemoration for Shoah victims.
Recently, a friend who petitioned to have several family members commemorated attended the installation ceremony, along with her family. She was happily surprised by the fanfare that accompanied the event in that small town in northwestern Germany. A representative from the Mayor’s Office attended, as did a representative from the Stolpersteine committee, and a group of musicians that played appropriate music. In preparation, several paving stones had earlier been unearthed from their resting places in front of the victims’ last residence. Short speeches were made, music played, and a representative from Demning’s studio expertly tamped the bronze plaque around one surface of the paving stone before reinserting it into its pavement home. It was a significant and memorable family moment. Foot traffic polishes Stolpersteine to a golden sheen over time, insuring that victims will not be forgotten as long as the ground lies beneath our feet. Demning wanted pedestrians to ‘stumble’ over these stones metaphorically, keeping history alive in the spirit of ‘never forgetting’. Of course, you have to look down to discover them.
When I mentioned this event to a Jewish friend, he said yes, he’d heard of Stolpersteine, and someone he knew complained that it was so typical of Germans to put Jews on the ground and then to trample on them, a sadly ‘glass is half empty’ interpretation. The mistrustful person found it offensive that plaques were not installed instead on the walls of the buildings the victims once inhabited, apparently not considering that many such buildings were destroyed during World War Two and in the decades that followed. Real estate speculators have their priorities.
I was reminded of this observation recently while in Dresden. I left the main train station from a side entrance, heading to a friend’s apartment. Across the street was a construction site whose barricade wrapped around the corner. The building that had been there was built after the war and may well have been preceded by yet another post-war construction—little was left of Dresden’s architecture after the Allied bombings of 13-14 February 1945. In any event, the residential building that once stood there is long gone, the lot, currently vacant. When I looked down, I saw two Stolpersteine. The former residence of Simon and Gertrud Silbermann had long since vanished, but passersby can still learn that the couple were deported to Auschwitz and murdered on 3 February 1943 and 2 March 1943, respectively. Their bronze memorials shine side-by-side, in what is otherwise, a tidy if vacant corner.
I explained to my friend that embedding these small memorials in the very pavement before their former homes reinscribes individuals where they once lived. Had there been a commemorative plaque on the building, it would have vanished along with the walls where it was affixed. By embedding Stolpersteine in the pavement, the memory of these individuals remain forever part of the city’s fabric and history. Mr. and Mrs. Silbermann and all others thus remembered continue—virtually—to inhabit their chosen corners of the planet and, as long as they remain, pedestrians will ‘stumble’ upon them, read, and reflect. Stolpersteine represent a far more respectful and moving tribute than names inscribed on a cemetery or concentration camp wall or on a demolished building. They celebrate the life of individuals and, as the numbers of them grow, provide a fuller image of what has been lost and of the diversity and vibrancy of pre-World War Two Europe. May the memories of all those honored by Stolpersteine—and the many who not yet are—be a blessing. Memory Eternal!
For tourists—at least for those who look down and notice the Stolpersteine (and I have encountered those who have not)—is simply one shiny stone amidst a sea of grey, standing out the way a gold tooth does. Some may stop to read and learn, while others accept it as an embellishment, like a gold tooth. Inhabitants, however, live among them, polishing (not tramping upon) them on a daily basis. Many probably cease to take notice a few months after a new stone is placed, but memories of the individuals they commemorate live there forever, in the place they once called home, a privilege few, if any, of us could ever hope to enjoy.
Building occupants come and go, they move or are transported feet first to their final resting places. I wonder if restoring these murder victims to the places they once frequented, to the ground they once trod, somehow compensates for the violent dislocation they suffered, restoring to the cosmos a kind of equilibrium to places haunt by dark memories?