Stolpersteine are small, only noticed if you happen to be looking down. But these “stumbling stones” hold large pieces of the individual and collective memories of those the world lost to the Nazi Holocaust.
Photo of The Week: Stolpersteine
There are many monuments great and small to the millions of Europeans lost to the Nazi Holocaust. There is Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., the gray abstract pillars of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin and dozens more.
In Heidelberg, I “stumbled across” another memorial to the murdered millions. It is both very small and enormous. It is 10 cm (4”) square and it ranges over thousands of kilometers in diverse towns and cities in some 23 European countries.
This monument is called, collectively, solpersteine in German. That translates as stumbling stones because you can easily “stumble across” a part of this monument unaware. Thousands of the cobblestone-sized blocks have been laid. They memorialize the Jews, Roma, homosexuals, communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Resistance fighters, black people, the mentally ill and physically disabled and others who were all victims of the Nazi’s rabid “purification” campaign during World War II.
The stones I found near the Old Town main square in Heidelberg mark the last family residence of the Wertheimer family. Julius was apparently the head of the family, father to two sons. He was 56 when he was first taken into “protection” at Dachau. Two years later he was deported from there and killed. Klara, his wife, was 59 when she was deported and died shortly afterward. Fritz was just 16 when he was taken away. The last two lines on his stone read 1940 Auschwitz. Murdered. His older brother, Karl, was the “lucky” survivor. In 1937, at age 22, he fled to Colombia.
How the Stolpersteine Came to Be
The concept of the stolpersteine began in Berlin in 1992 when German artist Gunther Demnig had an idea. December 16the of that year was the 50th anniversary of Heinrich Himmler’s 1942 order to deport the Sinti and Roma “gypsies” in Germany to concentration camps. Demnig thought the date should be commemorated. He engraved the first sentence of that infamous decree onto a stone and laid it in front of the town hall in Cologne. From there, the idea blossomed into what he calls a “decentralized monument.” It would become the largest in the world.
He began making small concrete blocks topped with inscribed brass plaques. One person, one block. He then set them into the pavement in front of the last place where those people had freely chosen to live before falling victim to the Nazi terror. Whether it was deportation to an extermination camp, death by exhaustion, hunger or disease in a labor camp, euthanasia, suicide, or a more fortunate escape abroad that caused them to leave their homes, the stumbling stones now mark where they were a part of daily life before the horror.
Personalizing the Holocaust, Bringing the Victims Home
Six million dead—or eight million or twelve million—is a number impossible to comprehend. But a group of small brass squares in the sidewalk, each marked with “Here lived…” followed by a name, a date of birth, the time of leaving, a date and place of death… that is something personal, comprehensible. That is something that allows you to feel the true tragedy of one plus one plus one, and on and on to seeming infinity.
The stolpersteine represent a kind of “coming home” for these disappeared people. Set flush with the other paving stones, they become an intrinsic part of the neighborhood, just as those they commemorate once were. They remind us that these people walked here. They rode their bikes here, walked their dogs, took out the trash and brought in the shopping. They laughed and cried, courted, gossiped with neighbors, perhaps danced in the street on festive occasions, all right here, over this pavement, where the stones still remember them.
By 2017, stolpersteine have been placed in more than 1400 cities, neighborhoods and towns in 23 European countries.
Who Places the Stones?
The stones are ordered by relatives of the victims, by concerned individuals, often by residents of the buildings where these people once lived. Students, historical researchers and others all help come up with the names and other information and the correct locations for the stones.
The entire solpersteine program is a private initiative, although Demnig does require that all local state and city permissions are received before he begins to create new stones. To have a solperstein created and placed costs 120€, and there is a waiting list of many months. That’s because each stumble stone is created and laid by hand. Michael Friedrichs-Friedlander makes the stones and embosses the brass plate. He can make about 450 per month. Demnig then travels across Europe and lays them.
Since pedestrians generally step around them, the brass plates tend to oxidize instead of being regularly “polished” by shoe soles, as Demnig intended. They can turn brown or even black and unreadable, so residents often keep them cleaned and polished.
One observation the artist has made is this:
“One of the most beautiful pictures, I find, is this aspect that, when you want to read, you have to bow, before the victim.”
For more information about the stolperstein project and Gunther Demnig, visit the Stolpersteine website here.