A Holocaust memorial project has Germany stumbling over its pastWorld Jewish Digest | May 1st, 2006
It was already dark on a December afternoon when Gunter Demnig came to hammer stones into a sidewalk in
Neighbors and a smattering of politicians looked on; curious pedestrians stopped and watched the proceedings from the street. Soon the artist had completed his task. He filled in mortar around four shiny, engraved brass-plated cobblestones. A handful of teens read aloud from the short biographies of the deceased SchÃ¤fer family,
In a nation that celebrates its artists, Demnig is an eccentric: ein Kunstler as the Germans say, an artist in the broadest sense. He spends seven days a week in his workshop in
Driven by a passion to illuminate his country’s past, Demnig has single-handedly embedded more than 7,500 memory blocks that now sit glimmering on the worn, gray sidewalks of 140 German towns and cities. While he may have his critics – some say he works too independently and does not allow outside participation; others claim Germany doesn’t need more grim reminders of its history – the fact remains that he has installed a living, growing memory to the Holocaust.
“Germans often ask me what’s the point, 60 years after the war, planting these stones in the ground,” Demnig said one Saturday afternoon before he left home to hammer in stones across western
Indeed, the country has come a long way in recent years, dealing with its legacy of National Socialism and the Holocaust. Since the early 1980s, books and films, museums and reparations, school curricula and public monuments – like the sweeping Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe that opened in Berlin last May – heave helped bring a hyper-sensitivity to Nazi crimes in the German consciousness. But unlike the previous forms of commemoration, Demnig has forged something new in
One Stone at a Time
Demnig, 57, was jailed in the 1970s for his inflammatory artwork about
Starting each Stumbling Stone inscription with “Here lived,” followed by the resident’s name and facts of birth and death, Demnig installed the first 55 stones in the once heavily Jewish
“A lot of people are oblivious to what happened here [during the war],” said Valeska, a slim, 19-year-old students who attends the progressive-minded Hermann Hesse high school in Kreuzberg, now a multiethnic and middle-class quarter of the city. The school, whose curriculum focuses on subjects like racism, fascism, immigrant integration and discrimination, also includes a Stumbling Stones club.
Valeska, along with eight other teens, research the lives of World War II victims, raise money to buy new stones, and participate with poetry and music while Demnig installs the stones. The cost for one stone is 95 euros, or about $115, which the students earn by hosting movie nights and other community events. So far, the students have paid for nine of
“Having this club is an important step in knowing about our history,” Valeska said. “They always tell us about the war but not about what happened to the people. The good thing [about the stones] is that you don’t have to go to a museum or a memorial to see them. People who aren’t interested come across them naturally. They ask ‘What is this?’ and then they learn about things they didn’t know.”
At its essence the “monument is unavoidable,” said Elke Allinger, a longtime German resident of Kreuzberg who has watched the stones spread their gold-colored hue across her neighborhood and city. “It’s something gripping–you can see it, that so many Jewish neighbors once lived here and are no longer.
“[The stones] let people approach history very directly and personally,” she added. “We all know that six million Jews died. But here you have the names of the victims and sometimes four or six in a family. It is very concrete. These stones are uncovering history. The masses get a face.”
Last year, the German government awarded Demnig a Verdienst der Bundesrepublik prize for good public service in honor of his original–and by now wildly successful–project. Families from Sydney to San Francisco and South Africa to South America have come to Germany in recent years to pay homage to dead relatives by planting stones on the sidewalk outside their former homes.
In Berlin–sprinkled with more than 1,000 brass-plated squares, from Kreuzberg and Charlottenburg in the west to Mitte in the east–one often stumbles on clumps, or rows, of three or more stones commemorating entire families like the SchÃ¤fers that were deported to the camps.
When first installed, the stones shine with a bright, metallic luster; in time, most of them darken from oxidization and must periodically be cleaned. But the writing engraved on them never vanishes. And in downtown parts of the city where there is constant foot traffic, like the gallery streets around Hackescher Markt, it is still easy to spot the years-old brass gleaming from a good distance. As Demnig said, “The more people you have walking on them, the brighter they become.”
“When I started this project, I was afraid of stepping on people’s names,” he confessed. And it’s true, Demnig might have avoided some early controversy by placing plaques on houses instead of underfoot–a questionable and even possibly sacrilegious place for the names of the dead to reside. “But then I thought about the Catholic churches where bones are buried underfoot–and [I realized] this isn’t even a gravestone. It’s only a small monument. And now this monument is growing over Germany.”
Which isn’t to say the project pleased everyone from the start–or still does. Berlin bureaucrats initially refused granting Demnig a permit allowing him to tear up the sidewalk, although he went ahead anyway. Several years later, cities like Cologne, Frankfurt and Stuttgart gave the green light, and Stolpersteine became an accepted fact in most German communities–but still not all. Neo-Nazis have vandalized dozens of cobblestones, painting them over, tearing off the brass and sometimes stealing them from the ground entirely. In the last five years, Demnig has received two death threats by email–which by today’s standards, he jokes, is “pretty good.”
“I will continue. I don’t worry about [those threats],” he said.
Exporting an Idea
Orders are currently backed up longer than a year as Demnig continues to work, alone in his studio, producing on average 20 stones per week. And now Demnig is attempting to take the Stumbling Stones project international. With some installations already in Vienna, he wants his next foreign jobs to be in Amsterdam (where stones exist in memory of deported homosexuals) and Copenhagen. Governments in Ukraine and Hungary have also shown interest, he said; Poland, on the other hand, has rejected the proposal, claiming the shiny brass plates look so good that people would try to steal them.
Even more cynical responses have come from closer to home, like Munich, the conservative stronghold of Bavaria where Nazis traditionally found wide support–and where administrators and Jewish leaders today said no to Stolpersteine based on fears that neo- Nazis would stomp offensively on them. Authorities in Steglitz, a working class neighborhood in southwest Berlin, initially tried to block the project, claiming that the smooth stones posed a hazard to pedestrians who might literally “stumble” and fall down.”
“I found that argument preposterous,” said Alexa Dvorson, a Jewish American journalist in Berlin. “Demnig’s unimposing monuments are evocative because they force you to reflect on the spot: you’re actually standing where a Jewish resident, with a name and address and a date of birth, lived a life that was taken away.”
“It is a modest and fine contribution to the commemorative culture that exists in Germany,” said Michael May, executive director of the Berlin Jewish Community, about Demnig’s work. May said he has been surprised by the powerful, emotional response of viewers to the project and by the number of people who take part in stone-planting ceremonies. “It has a certain effect on people,” he said.
And clearly the artist, digging with his own self-invented way into Germany’s and Europe’s past, wants that effect to continue.
“I’m really lucky to go to bed thinking of my work and to wake thinking of my work,” Demnig said. “It is a project that has grown on its own–a monument [I want] to realize across all Europe.”