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Stolpersteine, Stones of Remembrance

The small engraved brass-covered stone lies level with the ground but stands out from its surroundings; a Stolperstein, Stumbling Stone or Stumbling Block. One of over 61,000 to be found in many cities and villages in 21 European countries, especially Germany.

"A person is first forgotten when his name is forgotten" - Talmud. Part of a Holocaust memorial built one stone at a time, this stone is keeping alive the name of someone who died or was persecuted during the Third Reich.

Engraved on the 10 cm, (4 inch), cube is starkly basic information: name, year of birth and fate, with dates if known, together with "Hier wohnte" - here lived, if it is one of the majority that lie in front of the last chosen home. Often there is more than one "stumbling stone" outside that home.

The word most commonly seen engraved is "ermordet", murdered, sometimes, "Freitod" "Suicide" or "Flucht in den Tod" - "killed whilst trying to escape". Less frequently the name of a concentration camp followed by "Ueberlebender", survivor.

These "stumbling stones" could be in memory of Jews, Sinti, Roma, Jehovah's Witnesses, Christians who were against the regime, communists, homosexuals, the politically persecuted, mentally or physically disabled.

But all are memorials to victims of Nazism: persecuted, exterminated or expelled.

The Stolpersteine project was the inspiration of Cologne-based sculptor Gunter Demnig, who had the idea of commemorating Germany's Nazi regime victims in 1990, and began with 1,000 gypsies who had been driven from Cologne. He painted a route 16 km (almost 10 miles)long from their homes to the exhibition grounds at Cologne-Deutz, which had been one of the terminals for Buchenwald concentration camp 350 km, about 220 miles, to the east of Cologne in Thuringia.

Demnig began to think of ways to commemorate each victim individually rather than trace a route, and the priest of the Antoniterkirche, in the center of Cologne, supported him when he began Project Stolpersteine in 1993.

Two hundred and fifty hand made memorial stones were produced and displayed in the church.

In 1995, still without official approval, he installed some stones in front of the homes of Cologne victims, and in 1996 several dozen more in Kreuzberg, Berlin. Also illegally, although permission was granted later.

Initially it was to commemorate anonymous concentration camp prisoners who had numbers instead of names. A stone was created for everyone whose details he was given, so "the name is given back".

Ein Stein. Ein Name. Ein Mensch - One stone, one name, one person.

Germans began to see the stones at their feet or they read about them, and the idea quickly gained followers, with many deciding to commission them in their own communities. For 120 euros, anybody can sponsor a stumbling block, its manufacture and its installation, and each one is placed only at the initiative of persons and groups, not government organizations.

Now those who contact Demnig range from neighborhood groups and school classes to individuals, and they will have researched all types of archives, as well the database of Yad Vashem Israel's official memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust in Jerusalem, to find the names of people who perhaps lived in their homes and streets.

The blocks are still made by hand in his Cologne studio. A brass covered cube of concrete on which the wording is hand engraved, because Demnig thinks this is a major part of returning the victim to a person, one who has a name and had a life. No longer just "a number" destroyed in a concentration camp.

Gunter Demnig concentrates on this work, there is a long waiting list, and also installs many of the stones himself. Sometimes alone but more often together with local residents, the victims relatives and religious or city officials. It is a communal event.

Increasingly cities have adopted the Stumbling Stones project, although some still have not done so, including Munich, the birthplace of National Socialism. Mainly because Munich born Charlotte Knobloch, former president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, and longtime leading member of the Jewish community in the city, has objected to people walking on the names of the dead.

"Given the fact that Jewish people have been kicked with boots in the past," she says, she doesn't want to see "their names again kicked with boots and made dirty."

While there are also homeowners who worry that the value of their property might decrease if a stone is placed outside, and it has been known for Stolpersteine to be ripped from sidewalks in some towns in eastern Germany, although this is an exception rather than the norm.

In many respects the blocks are memorials not only "by" Germans but are also another means "for" Germans to remember.

Small memorials commemorating individuals, those who died and those who survived.

Here lived Albert Richter,
Born 1912
Fled to Switzerland 1939
Captured at the border
Imprisoned in
Loerrach prison
Found Dead

These shining markers seemingly scattered randomly throughout towns and cities make the scale of what happened during those years easier to envisage. Reminders that one suddenly comes upon and stop to read when they appear along a sidewalk, outside a building that had been someone's last home or where they had worked, and which show these were ordinary people; with family, friends, neighbors and a life.

A difference from trying to process the enormity of the number 11 million, or seeing an unknown name among hundreds of others on a large memorial.

There is little information engraved on a Stolpersteine, but it is these bare facts, combined with a building, which can turn a walk down an average German town or city street into an unforgettable journey back into history, and the lives of those who are not forgotten.

Images: Stolpersteine in front of Blumenthalstrasse 23, Cologne, in memory of Siegmund, Helene and Walter Klein Siegmund, a Cologne lawyer and his son Walter died in Auschwitz, Helene from a broken heart. Photographer Msacerdoti -
Stolperstein in front of Soemmeringstr. 70, Cologne Ehrenfeld, in memory of Albert Richter a racing cyclist. Photographer Nicola ...Both photographs via de.Wikipedia - Giorgio Sacerdoti, grandson of Siegmund and Helene Klein, nephew of Walter, places a stone together with Gunter Demnig (r). Photographer Udo Gottschalk via Express.de

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