Stolpersteine: Stumbling Across Reminders of the Holocaust

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.

Four brass-topped stolpersteine are engraved with the names, birthdates and date and place of death of four members of the Wertheimer family in Heidelberg.

Four small brass-topped solpersteine commemorate the last freely chosen residence of four members of the Wertheimer family near the Old Town Square in Heidelberg, Germany. Three of them died. One escaped.

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.

Pin it for Later:Stolpersteine, The Holocaust Memorial under your feet in Europe
You know you want to remember this for your next trip.

12 replies
  1. Janet
    Janet says:

    Thought I’ve traveled extensively, I hadn’t seen or heard of this until your posting. So poignant. Thanks for opening our eyes to this most personal remembrance.
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    Reply
    • Donna
      Donna says:

      Thanks for that comment, Janet. I have traveled extensively in Europe also, and I had never seen or heard of them until this summer. I was waiting to meet up with a walking tour and thought I’d found it so joined in. Turned out it wasn’t mine, it was a group from a river cruise. But at l east I heard the guide point out these stones before I slipped away again! Now, of course, I will be looking for them. I read that there are many in Berlin.

      Reply
    • Donna
      Donna says:

      Thank you, Maribeth. I didn’t know about it either until this summer, even though I have been in many cities where there are now stones. No I will know to look for them.

      Reply
  2. Suzanne Fluhr
    Suzanne Fluhr says:

    I don’t recall seeing these in the European countries we’ve visited. It is so hard to comprehend the enormity of the Holocaust. These tiny monuments bring it home–literally.

    Reply
    • Donna
      Donna says:

      That is precisely correct, Suzanne, and a major point of the project. to bring the enormity home, by bringing the people “home” in this way. Back to the place where they were actually home. I had never seen or heard of them either before this trip, but now I will know to look for them. I know they are in several towns in the Netherlands.

      Reply
  3. Barbara
    Barbara says:

    Thanks for shining a light on these tiny memorials Donna. What beautiful and thoughtful and powerful memorials to the lives that were cut short.

    Reply
    • Donna
      Donna says:

      I agree they are that, Barbara. And that memorial is growing by about 5-6000 more stones each year. I will now know to look for them wherever I go in Europe. Thanks for your comment.

      Reply
  4. Maria Randolph
    Maria Randolph says:

    I follow on Instagram but just got a chance to come over here and dig into the blog. This is so moving and I had no idea of this aspect of art, memorial, and marker. “Stumbling Stones” is such an apt name in so many ways. I’m so glad you shared this!

    Reply
    • Donna
      Donna says:

      Thanks, Maria. I’m so glad you made your way over from IG and found me here. I so agree about the name of the Stumbling Stones. I did literally just stumble across them.

      Reply
  5. Anita
    Anita says:

    Great post, Donna. I’ve encountered Stolpersteine outside rental apartments in Rome and Berlin, and along streets in several other cities as well. A beautiful idea, haunting in its simplicity.

    Reply
    • Donna
      Donna says:

      Thanks, Anita. I have only ever seen them in Heidelberg so far, Anita. Actually, I may have “seen” them and even walked over them in other places but not really noticed because I didn’t know what they were. Now that I do know, I wll pay more attention and look for them in my travels around Europe.

      Reply

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