‘Stumbling’ on plain-sight memorials

Several months ago, I ran into (not literally, thanks be!) an old acquaintance in a Tom Thumb parking lot.
It was chilly, so the usual pleasantries of reconnection were short. But she made an urgent request. As a Jew who had successfully exited Germany in advance of the Holocaust, she asked me to tell our TJP readers about something that has happened since in her native country: the profusion of commemorative plaques — permanent, ground-level reminders of those many others whose lives ended in that horror of all horrors.
Stolpersteine — literally, “stumbling stones” — now mark many places where long-gone victims once lived or worked. Permanently imbedded into pavements, these are literal “stumbling blocks” in the paths of pedestrians who now walk the cities of 18 European countries. They cannot be ignored.
Gunter Demnig, an environmental artist from Cologne who had first worked on several Holocaust memorials since the early ’80s, came up with this new idea a decade later. Taking his lead from the Talmud — “A man is not forgotten until his name is forgotten” — the Cologne resident began the installation of these sidewalk stones in 1993. Since then, many thousands have been placed.
Following Demnig’s original, each stolperstein is a 10-by-10-by-10 centimeter brass-faced concrete block whose inscription reads: “HERE lived (or worked) NAME, born YEAR, FATE, and DATE AND PLACE OF DEATH.” It is set in front of the last place occupied by that person of his or her free will, before Nazi deportation. In addition to Jews, other victims are remembered, such as Nazi-defying Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals and Romani.
By the end of two decades, more than 35,000 stolpersteine had been installed, most in Germany, but others in Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic. On July 3, 2013, the 40,000th stone was laid in the northern Netherlands near the German border. On Jan. 11, 2015, stone No. 50,000 was placed in Turin, Italy, preceding the 70th anniversary of the Auschwitz death camp liberation.
The original mission has broadened over these years to include certain others: surviving adults who were able to escape, and children who were saved. And the project has entered the most up-to-date realms of communication, including social media: A locator map is now available at www.stolpersteine-online.com, and the Stolpersteine mobile app provides updated pictures and data plus download assistance for searches. There is a YouTube video, a documentary film, and much more that can be accessed by the computer-savvy; the official website is www.stolpersteine.eu.
An interesting sidelight: Although more than 1,000 German towns and cities now embrace stolpersteine, Munich, where the Nazi movement originated, stopped allowing them in 2004, when its civic leaders decided that the city, so near to Dachau, was already surrounded by memorial sites. And surprisingly enough, strong support for continuing this ban has come from a leader of Munich’s 4,000-member Jewish community, Charlotte Knobloch, 82. She, who survived in hiding with a Catholic family, has argued that the victims are victimized again by people walking on their stones.
However, the ban has recently been lifted, due to residents like Peter Jordan, 91, who saw his parents’ stones dug up when it first went into effect: “It was as if they were deported a second time,” he said. And like 82-year-old Ernst Grube, who survived a concentration camp after losing his closest family members to the gas chambers: “The time has come for relatives to be allowed to choose their own way of remembering their dead.”
As I recently finished reading The Nazi Officer’s Wife, Edith Hahn Beer’s amazing Holocaust memoir, a single reference to one stolperstein in its appendix reminded me that it was high time to keep my pre-Thanksgiving promise. So I scurried off to learn enough to properly honor my autumn commitment to that old acquaintance’s request. The results are above, and I hope I’ve succeeded.
Now I’ll continue following the growing reach of this unusual project. Please do the same!

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