I honestly do not recall when I first saw “stumbling stones” (or “Stolpersteine”) in Germany, and in the beginning there were very few.
When you walk the streets of my native country today, however, they are hard to ignore and you can find them even in the smallest towns.
They are cobble-sized, brass-plated stones which are installed into sidewalks and spell out the names of Holocaust victims.
You do not really stumble over them, since they are flush with the surface, but they are meant to trip you mentally, to slow you down, to make you bow in front of them, so you can read their inscriptions.
The seeds for today’s “Stolpersteine” project were sown in 1990, when the German artist Gunter Demnig came up with an idea.
He wanted to visibly bring to the attention of Cologne’s citizens that, 50 years earlier, 1,000 Roma and Sinti (“gypsies”) had been deported from their city in what was a test run for the Holocaust. To do so, Gunter Demnig created a device which allowed him to paint a trail onto the streets and sidewalks of Cologne which read “May 1940 – 1,000 Roma and Sinti.”
This marked the path the Roma and Sinti were forced to walk from their homes to the train station. From there, they were deported to ghettos and ultimately to extermination camps.
Three important things happened next.
One, the painted trail started to wear away and Gunter Demnig approached Cologne’s city administration with the idea to replace portions of the fading trail with brass inscriptions.
Two, 1992 marked the 50th anniversary of the Wannsee Conference and Gunter Demnig decided to install a brass-plated stone in front of Cologne’s city hall with the inscription of a decree by Heinrich Himmler (Adolf Hitler’s henchman) spelling out the deportation of Cologne’s unwanted citizens.
Three, while Gunter Demnig was replacing portions of the fading trail, an elderly woman approached him and said, “that’s all very nice what you are doing, but Roma and Sinti never lived here.”
That’s when he realized that people either didn’t know or had forgotten their former neighbors.
Since Germany celebrated its reunification in 1990, its society was in search of a new identity, which also meant a reexamination of its history. Thus, Gunter Demnig’s remembrance project came at a perfect time.
While it took him some years to convince a hesitant society to embrace his “Stolpersteine” project, it finally took off in the year 2000, and since then has become the largest and most popular decentralized memorial in the world.
Today, you can find about 72,000 stumbling stones in more than 2,000 towns across 24 countries. They are typically installed in front of the last voluntary residence of a Nazi victim and their inscriptions (done in the local language) will often start with “here lived” followed by a name, a date of birth and his or her fate.
Victims were mostly Jewish, but other ethnic groups were targeted as well, as were the physically and mentally handicapped, communists and socialists, gays and lesbians, deserters and anti-war activists. Too often their fate was deportation and extermination, but occasionally you can read about a person who was able to survive and quite a few of them found a new home in the United States or Palestine.
What makes this remembrance project particularly successful is the involvement of local schools. While I was traveling with Gunter last month to learn about his work, we regularly engaged with students and their teachers who had researched the Holocaust victims, who had sponsored stumbling stones (for about $150 each), and who had used this as an opportunity to learn about their history.
At one point, I also witnessed an installation in front of a high school, and instead of the phrase “here lived” one could read “here studied.” Now each time someone enters the school, he or she is confronted with the names and fates of 13 former students.
At a number of events I also encountered descendants of Nazi victims who had come to Europe from afar, either because they had been invited to a ceremony by a neighborhood association, or because they themselves had initiated the installation.
As a Jewish proverb states “a person is only forgotten, when his or her name is forgotten.” Gunter’s work is immensely important in this regard. It allows for remembering, grieving and closure, it reinserts the names of Holocaust victims into their former neighborhoods to “never forget,” and by doing so it also restores part of their dignity.
Before my time with Gunter came to an end, I asked him whether placing the stumbling stones had become routine, since there are now more than 72,000 “Stolpersteine” in sidewalks throughout Europe.
He replied: “I can install stumbling stones in my sleep, and before each installation I may simply look at names on a piece of paper. But once you place them into the ground, read the names of the former residents, look at the houses they once lived in, and realize what happened to them, sometimes whole families, it hits you, and on certain days you can only cry.”
For more information on the stumbling stones project visit http://www.stolpersteine.eu/en/
This article was submitted by Dr. Michael G. Noll of Valdosta, who is on sabbatical at Valdosta State University, and who is currently doing research on remembrance culture, particularly in his native country Germany.