Stolpersteine, Stones of Remembrance
"A person is first forgotten when his name is forgotten" - Talmud. Part of a Holocaust memorial built one stone at a time, 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 home of choice. 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, "Schicksal Unbekannt" - Fate unknown.
Less frequently the name of a concentration camp followed by "Ueberlebender" - Survivor.
A Stolperstein might be placed for someone who survived a concentration camp alongside Stolpersteine for parents or siblings who did not. "Reuniting" families.
These "stumbling stones" can 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, forced laborers.
But all are memorials to victims of Nazism: persecuted, exterminated, expelled, or who managed to escape by fleeing.
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 continue to be made by hand. A brass covered cube of concrete on which the wording is hand engraved, because Demnig thinks this a major part of returning the victim to a person. One with a name, and a life. No longer just "a number" destroyed in a concentration camp.
There is a long waiting list, and Gunter Demnig no longer has time to both make and lay Stolpersteine, so since 2005 every Stolperstein has been made by sculptor Michael Friedrichs-Friedländer in his studio outside Berlin. So many and each memorial as moving as the next, but he says of the 34 Stolpersteine he once made for 30 orphans and their four carers that were to be placed in front of an orphanage in Hamburg:
"They were between three and five years old. I couldn't sleep for weeks."
Gunter Demnig installs many of the stones, 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."
Since 2017 it has been possible to lay Stolpersteine on private, not public, land in Munich.
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,
Fled to Switzerland 1939
Captured at the border
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 that 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.
(Photo credits: 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 - Dahlmannstraße Berlin, photographer Kai-Uwe Heinrich via tagesspiegel.de)
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