“While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands”. (Michel Rolp Trouillot)
“Mourning has validity at both the individual and collective level, in the intra-psychic and the interactive. It involves pain, work and discovery”. (P.C. Racamier, La genie des origins).
In a recent issue of The New Yorker journalist Elizabeth Kolbert explores the phenomenon of the Stolpersteine, a public art project and work of German conceptual artist and sculptor, Gunter Demnig, since her own great-grandmother was “disappeared” during the Nazi Holocaust. Born in 1947 in Berlin, Demnig now resides in Cologne. In stark contrast to most memorials designed to command attention, his understated Stolpersteine, (stumbling blocks) reside quite literally underfoot. Each piece consists of a block of concrete onto which a brass plaque has been carefully affixed. These blocks, which are 10×10 cm, approximately the size of a Rubik’s Cube, or a child’s hand, are embedded into a walkway, or lowered in amongst cobblestones; in a manner which results in the surface of the plaque lying nearly flush with the pavement. Each plaque is stamped by hand, as a gesture, according to Demnig, deliberately expressed in opposition to mechanized, bureaucratic mass murder, executed within the extensive slave labor and extermination camps operating with impunity during the entire Third Reich (1933-1945). (“A Stone for My Great-Grandmother”, newyorker.com, February 16, 2015)
Stolperststeine are carefully hand-crafted in order to commemorate all Jews, Roma, Sinti, dissidents, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Freemasons, blacks, military deserters, resistance fighters and communists, who were deported and exterminated. These small metal plaques also commemorate the mentally and physically disabled victims of euthanasia, as well as: those who survived incarceration and sterilization-clinics, and those who were forced to immigrate or committed suicide as a result of Nazi persecution. Each stone has one name, date of birth, date taken away and date and manner of death (if known) and is placed into the ground outside of this individual’s last known address or workplace. The time and date of each installation is announced in local news outlets for the benefit of those who would like to attend. At this point, Demnig says that the increasing numbers of such victims are much too great and now his project needs to be understood as largely symbolic; and yet, he continues.
Whenever possible, this artist lays the stones himself, in the presence of those who commissioned each piece; as he travels around in a minivan with an assistant and their essential tools. In silence, Demnig kneels down, with one knee covered with a protective leather pad, clears out a designated space, inserts the stones, adjusts them into place, and finally adds wet cement. He then steps back to survey his work, brushes off plaques and cleans them with a cloth. Demnig remembers one installation where people from four countries gathered to attend, without previous knowledge of one another, and soon discovered that they were all related. Anyone can sponsor a plaque’s manufacture and installation for family, friends, neighbors or co-workers by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org
In 1995, Demnig began implanting his Stolpersteine, (a term which roughly translates as something close to “ Stumbling Stones”). His first cubic pieces were placed on public land, at the request of survivors, in Cologne, without permission. Then a second group was installed in Berlin, also without permission. Both cities eventually legalized these emotionally-laden, heavy, “stones”.
As the number of those who had actually witnessed the Holocaust diminished, interest in the Stolpersteine actually grew; in almost reverse proportion. In Berlin, residents gathered in order to discover the identities of those who had been deported right out from their own neighborhoods. Information came from rumors, schools, relatives, and various organizations such as Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. As the project grew, students in various cities and countries volunteered to raise funds and help.
As this endeavor eventually spread to other German cities, it also took root in other countries, including Holland, Belgium, Italy, France, Luxembourg, Austria, Russia, Hungary, Croatia, Norway, the Czech Republic, Ukraine, Slovenia, Slovakia and Poland. At present there are more than six thousand Stolpersteine in Berlin together with more than 50,000 others embedded in public grounds throughout Europe. The Stolpersteine project has now been identified as the “largest decentralized, grass roots memorial in the world”.
Demnig’s choice of the “stumbling stones” as an artistic vehicle for his memorial project is particularly apt, given an old folk story in pre-Holocaust Germany, that it was a custom for non-Jews to say, whenever they stumbled over a stone, “there must be a Jew buried here”. (Jude als Schimpfwort Archiv, Raid-rus, 28 March, 2007). These “stumbling blocks”, as metaphor made manifest, and the slight uneasiness that they create along pedestrian walkways, serve to unbalance routine steps and interrupt the smooth progress of many would-be, upright and upstanding citizens. Some of these small scale, brass stumbling blocks may even cause some pain. Nevertheless, their humble, earth-bound, solid, cuboid presence carries an existential invitation.
Stolpersteine, now buried in many a common ground, lie there and wait, as a timeless expression of hope. Their very presence, in those places where they have been accepted, suggests that at least some of our awake and aware and otherwise willing, kind souls, might pause for a moment, to bend a knee toward the ground, in order to read what is written on each plaque, about the crimes involving both victims and perpetrators. Upon each installation, the Stolpersteine shine bright with metallic luster and in time, this brass will tarnish. Those living nearby are often asked to keep them polished as a gesture of renewal and to stave off indifference and oblivion. (Ruth Breuer, ARAS Connections, Issue 3, 2012)
Not everyone has been or is currently receptive to installations of Stolpersteine and this memorial project has been met with a number of past and ongoing stumbling blocks along their way. In Munich, for example, the city’s Jewish community rejected these plaques as undignified, on the grounds that they did not represent an appropriate venue for remembering the Shoah. More specifically, many felt that they would simply offer another opportunity for German jack-boots and other “good Germans” to symbolically demean and trample over their Jewish victims. In response, Demnig rejected their suggestion that these brass plaques should be placed on walls since he feels that people tend to ignore plaques on buildings, whereas they consistently look down to the ground. (http:// moreintelligentlife.com,May/June, 2013).
In addition and not unexpectedly, Neo-Nazis and their sympathizers have vandalized Stolpersteine, in many countries, by painting them over, as well as removing them entirely in order for these memorial stones to be ritually and otherwise, destroyed.
Disturbing as this may be for some, the truth is that an ancient, deeply rooted, sadistically cruel and ongoing-mindset, that briefly manifested as Nazism, has also survived the Holocaust. More or even equally important, is that an independent conceptual artist, who cares, rather any politician with a self-serving agenda, has found a culturally specific way to offer a grass-roots, cross culturally adaptable option for honoring the “disappeared”.
Here we have a heartfelt humanistic challenge, not limited in time or space to Germany, or Nazi victims and perpetrators, since the tragedy of the disappeared is a long standing, ongoing, world-wide phenomenon. Demnig’s Stolpersteine project makes clear that in the genuine interest of healing, the humanities and related arts may have even more to offer than politics, and those closely related, seductive illusions of some kind of official justice.