“The living owe it to those who no longer can speak to tell their story for them.” – Czeslaw Milosz
I tripped, which probably wouldn’t surprise most who know me. This time, however, it was no momentary lapse of coordination. A small brass plaque protruding slightly higher than the rest of the cobblestone had caused my stumble.
Etched in the brass was a name and dates. I don’t speak German but gathered enough to understand this was no ordinary plaque.
The brainchild of German artist Gunter Demnig, stolpersteine, or stumbling stones, have been laid throughout Europe to memorialize those persecuted or killed by National Socialism between 1933 and 1945. Usually bearing the heading “hier wohnte”, or “here lived”, the 10 cm by 10 cm stones are embedded in the sidewalks outside the last chosen home of the victim. Where the building no longer exists, it may be installed before the last place of work.
One stone is laid for each person and multiple stones may be placed in the same location, a way of reunifying families torn apart by prejudicial ideology. The stones are imprinted with the name, date of birth, and information regarding the date of deportment or arrest, as well as the internment camp. At the bottom is noted the date of murder. Where victims survived persecution, this is also indicated at the bottom.
More than 50,000 stolpersteine have been installed in 20 countries since 1997, with many more planned. The stones themselves say little but the placement speaks volumes, injecting a humanity into inhumane circumstances. The stones are a simple, yet powerful, reminder that these were once neighbors, co-workers and friends. Looking at the homes before which they’re placed, I am able to imagine their lives before the horror that befell them -the streets they walked, the parks they passed through, the synagogues they attended.
While there are pockets of resistance to the installation -Munich continues to ban them on City property, a ban many hope to overturn – I prefer them to memorials at places of death, so common in my own country. It is far better to remember the years of a person’s life than to mourn their moment of death.
As I travel through Europe now, I seek out these stones, hoping to stumble so that I might once again remember.