'Stumbling Stones: How 100,000 plaques shape Holocaust memory

The Stumbling Stones commemorate all victims of National Socialism – those murdered in camps, those who survived, and those who escaped by fleeing to Palestine, the United States or elsewhere.

 ARTIST GUNTER DEMNIG installs the Stumbling Stones. (photo credit: SHERYL ABBEY)
ARTIST GUNTER DEMNIG installs the Stumbling Stones.
(photo credit: SHERYL ABBEY)

Wearing his trademark khakis, clogs and wide felt hat, artist Gunter Demnig angled out of his van and approached those of us gathered outside an old half-timbered house. Local historian Michael Schroeder stepped forward to greet him. “Yes, everything is in order,” he assured him, though Demnig could see the German efficiency for himself in the cordoned-off street, the perfectly aligned brooms, and the municipal workers awaiting instruction.

Demnig opened a cardboard box and, one by one, removed nine concrete cubes faced with brass plates the size of the cobblestones they would replace in front of my family’s ancestral home. I conferred with him to ensure the correct placement: My great-grandparents’ stones should be at the top; then my great-aunt’s, great-uncle’s and cousins’; at the bottom, the stones for my grandparents and my mother. “Yes,” I confirmed. “That is how I want them.”

“Want” is a peculiar word to use in connection with an art installation intended to honor the memory of relatives driven out of their hometown in the 1930s, six of whom were later murdered by the Nazis. I did not want any of this. But I believed it important that my family be remembered there – exactly there – in the village of Bleichenbach in central Germany, where my mother’s family had lived for centuries. 

And so, in 2016, I requested that Demnig’s Stolpersteine (Stumbling Stones) be installed in Bleichenbach. In November 2017, I traveled with my adult son, Alex, to be part of the ceremony in which they were installed.

From illegal to ubiquitous

My family’s commemorative plaques are nine of nearly 100,000 Stumbling Stones installed by Demnig to date. The artist first conceived of the idea – setting plaques inscribed with Holocaust victims’ names and details of their fate atop stones laid in front of their last homes – as part of an initiative commemorating Roma and Sinti Holocaust victims in Cologne in 1992. Three years later, he laid the first Stumbling Stones in Cologne, without the city’s permission.

 THE STUMBLING STONES commemorating nine members of the Leopold family. (credit: SHERYL ABBEY) THE STUMBLING STONES commemorating nine members of the Leopold family. (credit: SHERYL ABBEY)

The following year, Demnig installed a second group, also without permission, in Berlin. As the number of Holocaust witnesses diminished, interest in the project grew. Soon, residents of Berlin were forming groups to conduct research on whom the Nazis had deported from their neighborhoods and were providing the information to Demnig. Eventually, the municipality of Berlin authorized the installations.

The effort spread to other German cities – Hamburg, Frankfurt, Stuttgart – then to smaller towns and villages, and later to other countries. Stumbling Stones now appear on streets and sidewalks in 30 European countries. In 2017, the Pestalozzi School in Buenos Aires became the first Stumbling Stone location outside of Europe when it installed them to honor hundreds of German Jewish children who found refuge there during World War II. 

The Stumbling Stones commemorate all victims of National Socialism – those who were murdered in camps, those who survived, and those who escaped by fleeing to Palestine, the United States or elsewhere. The large majority have been placed for Jewish victims, but there are also stones for Roma and Sinti, gays, dissidents, the disabled, and those whom the Nazis labeled “asocial.” 

Stumbling Stones have become a familiar part of the European landscape. They are the focus of guided tours in Amsterdam, Budapest and Rome. They have taken over Demnig’s professional life. 

The power of the personal

Unlike concentration camps, Holocaust museums, and other large-scale memorials, Demnig’s project helps passersby relate to the Holocaust by focusing their attention on individual victims, one at a time. “Sometimes you need just one fate,” Deming has said, to think about how a victim’s life relates to your own. 

“Sometimes you need just one fate.”

Gunter Deming

My experience has borne this out; each time I have “stumbled” across Demnig’s stones – in Amsterdam and Utrecht in Holland, Frankfurt and Freiburg in Germany – I have found myself imagining personal lives: Did he play piano in that parlor? Did she pass here every morning on her way to school? Did the neighbors stand by as she was dragged out of this home?

 The technical specifications and artistic details of the Stumbling Stones reinforce Demnig’s emphasis on the individual. In contrast to the mechanized, mass murder carried out by the Nazis, each Stumbling Stone is made and laid by hand. Each is the size of a large Rubik’s Cube. Each plate, set atop each stone, is the approximate size of the infamous yellow star (required by the Nazis to be at least the size of the palm of a hand). Each inscription begins, “Here lived,” followed by the victim’s name, date of birth, and fate: “Interned at…” “Exiled to...” or, in most cases, “Deported to and murdered at…” Demnig’s website emphatically states: “In direct, conscious opposition to the mass murder committed by the Nazis, the Stolpersteine will never be mass produced.”

In 2005, when the growing scale of the project meant Demnig no longer had time to both make and install the stones, he brought sculptor Michael Friedrichs-Friedländer into the project. In his small studio in the Berlin suburbs, Friedrichs-Friedländer embosses each Stumbling Stone by hand, letter by letter, in 20 languages, with a hammer and hand-held metal stamps. He works mostly alone and in silence six days a week, producing 400 to 500 Stumbling Stones a month. 

Demnig, who is on the road 300 days a year, travels across Europe to install them, though in recent years he has begun entrusting the installation to local authorities in places where Stumbling Stones have previously been laid.

The Stumbling Stones project remains a grassroots initiative, despite its international scope. Local groups, often residents of a particular street or children from a neighborhood school, come together to research the lives of local victims and raise money to cover the the cost of installing the stones. Before they proceed, organizers track down as many of the victim’s relatives as they can to ask for their approval and invite them to the installation. 

Performance art

Although I initiated my family’s Stumbling Stone project, I was not prepared for the experience of attending the installation ceremony that cold morning in Bleichenbach in 2017. Michael, the local historian, accompanied Alex and me to our family’s former home. Local residents – neighbors, a town council member, an artist, a teacher, someone from a nearby town whose family had once lived on this street – had already gathered. 

Once we agreed on the placement of the stones, Demnig got down on one knee and, with a mallet and chisel, dug out nine cobblestones from the sidewalk in front of the house. Silently, he inserted the modest Stumbling Stones in place of the cobbles so that the plaques’ surfaces laid flush with the ground. He troweled cement into the joints and brushed off the plaques. Suddenly, I felt as though we had enacted a belated, miniature burial.

Demnig trudged off to his van, pails swinging. I followed him to say thank you, to tell him how important this project is. He looked me in the eyes, said nothing, and drove off to his next installation. The art was a performance that needed no commentary; it spoke entirely for itself.

Unexpected encounters

Although Demnig remained silent, I could not. I returned to the people huddled around the newly installed Stumbling Stones to read a speech that I had prepared. I relayed my family’s story: their long history in the village, their involvement in its small, close-knit Jewish community, their ownership of a successful general store adjacent to this house, their ties with their non-Jewish neighbors. 

I described how they fled to the Netherlands in 1937, how they were later deported to the Dutch Westerbork transit camp, and how all – except my mother and grandparents – were murdered at Auschwitz and Sobibor. I emphasized how my mother and grandparents managed to survive because a brave couple, Marinus and Wilhelmina deGraaf, who lived on the outskirts of the village of Westbroek near Utrecht, risked their lives by hiding them in their 15-sq.m. attic for more than two years.

I thanked Michael for embracing the project, the town council for approving it, and everyone present for having the courage to face the past and to keep alive the memory of my family. A man who keeps up the gravestones in the nearby Jewish cemetery placed white roses alongside the Stumbling Stones. The group began to disperse.

Then unexpected events began to unfold. An older woman handed me a photograph I had never seen of my cousin, then a toddler, sitting in the spot where her Stumbling Stone was now embedded. A middle-aged history buff passed me an old postcard that mentioned a local sports club, which, he informed me, had been founded by members of my family. 

Next, an older man approached me and asked if I would wait a few minutes for his sister, who was insistent upon meeting me and was on her way. She arrived moments later, and through Michael’s translation, shared bits of stories she had been carrying for 80 years. Her family had lived next door to mine… her mother was my family’s “Shabbos goy”… my cousin Trudi had been her best childhood friend. 

She opened an embroidered bag and removed an antique toy teacup and saucer. “When your family had to leave Bleichenbach, Trudi gave this to me to remember her by,” she said, through tears. “I have kept it ever since. For years, I have wondered why I am still alive. Now I know. I have been waiting for someone from your family to return so I could return this gift.” She handed me the cup and saucer.

If my experiences are typical in any way, Gunter Demnig’s Stumbling Stones are more powerful than the most comprehensive museum exhibitions or the most imposing monuments. They are objects of public art so well conceived, crafted, and installed that they facilitate encounters that otherwise would not occur among descendants of the Holocaust’s perpetrators, bystanders and victims. They require us to remember and enable us to heal.

The writer, who lives in Jerusalem, recently published the poetry collection Along the Edge of Absence.