The identities of individuals, communities, and nations are often influenced by how we understand the past. Memorials, artwork, and other symbols can divide a country, but they also have the potential to bring together people from different communities and walks of life in honoring people and events from history that are in danger of being forgotten.
This is what German artist Gunter Demnig discovered as he used his art to keep alive the memories of victims of the Holocaust. His public art has prompted thousands of people, from around the world and across generations, to learn about and discuss this difficult history. Demnig began his work in 1997 when he started installing plaques honoring individual Holocaust victims in streets near their former homes across Europe. The plaques are called Stolpersteine, or “stumbling stones.” One Stolperstein, in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee, reads:
HERE LIVED CHAIM SHATTNER
Since beginning the project, Demnig has relied on participation from others to help it spread. In 2013, journalist Andreas Kluth wrote:
Private individuals—Germans who are curious about what transpired in their building, schoolchildren doing a project, surviving relatives of a victim, anybody who is interested—conduct their own research about a victim at a specific address. They submit this to the artist, pay him a small fee (€120) and then wait for their installation date. (Such is the demand, the wait is currently about six months.) Demnig usually lays the Stolperstein himself, often giving a talk as well.
Thousands have participated since 1997. Kluth continued:
There are now almost 40,000 such Stolpersteine in several European countries, most in Germany, thousands in Berlin alone. Some streets that used to be centres of Jewish life teem with them. My own street, in elegant Charlottenburg, is one. In front of my own front door are five Stolpersteine, and they were among the first things that my kids and I noticed when we first came to look at the place. We bowed down and I read the inscriptions out loud. My seven-year-old daughter wondered what this might be about. Since she asked, I began to tell them, for the first time, about the Holocaust. As I did so, some of our neighbours-to-be paused and joined us and an ad hoc conversation arose—all before we had even moved in . . .
Demnig calls his project "a decentralised monument" or, alternatively, "a social sculpture" . . . As the artist, he retains control over every part of the process. Each Stolperstein is handmade because, he says, any form of mass-manufacturing would remind him of the mechanised and bureaucratic murder at Auschwitz. But to grow, the project relies on the initiative of volunteers who grasp that, as a rabbi in Cologne once told Demnig, "a human being is only forgotten once his or her name is forgotten." . . .
At first [the Stolpersteine project] was purely conceptual since, as he says, "laying 6 [million] Stolpersteine in Europe seemed an absurd notion." Then he talked to a priest who said, "Well, you can’t lay 6m, but as a symbol you could start small." In 1996 he laid the first Stolpersteine in Berlin, illegally. Three months later, the plates—51 of them, all along one street—came to the attention of the authorities when the stones impeded construction work. They wanted to remove them, but the workers refused. Bureaucrats came to inspect the stones, and they were retrospectively legalised.
By 2000, Demnig was laying Stolpersteine legally. But they were never uncontroversial. Every now and then, he meets resistance from landlords who would rather not have remembrance thrust upon them. And right-wing extremists hate the very notion: Demnig says he has received three death threats.
Even among those who want to remember, not all like the approach. Most notably, Charlotte Knobloch, who was president of Germany’s Central Council of Jews between 2006-10, feels that the Stolpersteine are undignified because pedestrians are in effect trampling on a victim’s name. Knobloch still leads the Jewish community in Munich, where she survived Kristallnacht as a six-year-old girl, so that city is among the few that, so far, do not allow Stolpersteine in public spaces, though some residents put them in their private pavements . . .
[Demnig] perceives the act of stepping on a nameplate quite differently from Knobloch. "The more people walk over a Stolperstein," he argues, "the greater the honour to the person who lies there." His original vision was that pedestrians polish the brass plates just by walking over them, thereby "refreshing the memory each time". Instead, it turns out, people usually step around the plates, perhaps associating them with gravestones, which they are not. This means that the metal oxidises and turns brown or even black, which in turn, ironically, makes it look as though the Stolpersteine were left untended. Often, residents then polish them the old-fashioned way. A lady in my building regularly lights candles and strews white roses around the Stolpersteine in our street.
There is also the idea of stumbling across something unexpected, as implied in the name. Demnig feels this was put best by a boy aged about 14 or 15: "You’re not stumbling physically, you’re stumbling with your head and with your heart." For children especially, Demnig says, stepping over the name of a victim in their own street day after day makes the Holocaust concrete as nothing in their formal education could do. And, he adds, "one of the most beautiful pictures, I find, is this aspect that, when you want to read, you have to bow, before the victim." I sometimes look out of my own window and see pedestrians doing just that in front of my door.
Kluth interviewed Howard Shattner, who made a documentary film about the Stolpersteine project.
In his documentary, he shows one installation where the tenants in a building had got together to sponsor a stone. "One of the most special moments for me was talking to that group of Germans. I was so moved by the fact that they had no connection to the person remembered, other than that he lived in their building, so they researched and wanted to have that memorial. It’s much more meaningful to me that people are doing this from their heart." Before he knew it, he was giving each of them a long, deep hug. There is little body contact in German culture, but these embraces came quite naturally.
So this is yet another connection that the Stolpersteine help to make: not only between residents and the places they live, between schoolchildren and a past that their ancestors were responsible for but that seems unfathomable to them now, or between random pedestrians pausing to reflect and striking up a conversation—but also between Germans and Jews.