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Friday, October 24, 2008

Stumbling over the Holocaust

Stumbling over the Holocaust [1, 2]
By Jefferson Chase
The Boston Globe

On a brigth, cold afternoon in Berlin last month, some 100 people stood watching as sculptor Gunter Demnig dug up a bit of sidewalk in front of the elementary school at Admiralstrasse No. 14. Beside him was a 4-by-4-inch brass-plated cobblestone. Its inscription -- "Here lived Willi Hopp, born 1899, died Nov. 17, 1944 in Auschwitz" -- referred to an apartment house that once stood there.

The onlookers applauded as Demnig embedded the stone, its surface slightly raised from the pavement. Someone could come along and trip over it. And that's precisely the idea.

Part of an innovative, if quixotic, effort to map out Nazi genocide by marking the homes of its victims, the tiny brass memorial at Admiralstrasse 14 is the latest addition to the more than 3,000 "Stumbling Stones" that Demnig has laid in cities and towns throughout Germany over the past decade. Demnig, who looks more like an explorer in his broad-brimmed leather hat than an artist or a historian, calls it "a decentralized monument to the past."

Where the memorial stones are laid is determined not by governmental committees, but by history itself, as researched by Demnig, schoolchildren, or patrons. (The costs of the project, around $100 per installation, are paid by private sponsorship.) No distinctions are made between Jewish and other Holocaust victims: You can stumble equally well over the names of Sinti and Roma, Jehovah's witnesses, political undesirables, the mentally ill, and homosexuals.

The effect on the viewer is all the more striking and personal for being accidental. Approximately 140,000 of the 566,000 Jews who lived in Germany in 1933 were killed. Staring down at the modest testimonial to a single human destiny, one can't help but imagine a face to go with the name -- or picture neighbors peeping from behind curtains as someone was taken away.

If genius is simplicity, then Demnig's idea of unobtrusively fixing the Holocaust in Germany's urban geography qualifies as a kind of genius -- especially when one compares the Stumbling Stone project to the official, 27-million-euro Holocaust Memorial being built next to Berlin's Brandenburg Gate. That monument, composed of 2,700 concrete slabs, has been a bone of bitter contention since it was first proposed in 1988. Organizers and politicians have fought over everything from whether a monument was needed at all to what form it should take to whether firms that profited from the Holocaust under Hitler should be allowed to participate in its construction. Residents of the city scorn the project, for the most part, and many object to its being dedicated only to Jewish victims, excluding other groups.

"You'd think with a Holocaust memorial," noted the German-Jewish pundit Rafael Seligmann, with acid reference to the notorious sorting procedures at Auschwitz, "we'd at least try to avoid a selection."

Demnig's idea is free of identity politics. His own interest in Nazi crimes against humanity stems from the discovery that his father had fought as a Wehrmacht soldier for the fascists in the Spanish Civil War, and the Stumbling Stones originated in an earlier documentation of the deportation of Sinti and Roma from his native Cologne. Nevertheless, Demnig's work has not been universally welcomed. While most cities now accept the project, Demnig has been sued by building owners, who claimed the miniature memorials lowered their property values, and resistance in small towns remains strong.

"In villages, everybody knows everybody," says Demnig. "Some people remember what happened and don't want it made public." His first stones were laid in guerrilla fashion after local authorities refused to grant him the relevant permits.

Others have objected that the cobblestones, because they are made to be walked on, are disrespectful of the dead. But Demnig rejects the association with gravestones, pointing out that the locations of the stones are not gravesites and the individuals they name have no remains. Plus, the friction from the soles of people's shoes actually polishes the brass, in effect honoring the dead.

Monolithic memorials often stumble over diverse public expectations -- as illustrated most recently by the controversy over the World Trade Center memorial in New York. Memorials are expected not only to honor the dead, but to offer survivors a site for enacting their grief and to teach society about the horrors of the past. The Stumbling Stones manage to address all these needs, albeit in piecemeal fashion.

Demnig knows he won't succeed in laying stones for all of the 6 million-plus victims of the Holocaust throughout Europe. Indeed, it would be a feat if he managed to commemorate even the German victims. Intentionally or not, Demnig has created the sort of "open" monument which postmodern theorists often posit and architects rarely achieve. The very nature of the project reminds us that history, like memory itself, is an ongoing process.

1 comment:

Ellen said...

Found your site by accident. Just came back from Germany. Saw some stumbling stones and was moved by them. I am a member of a Humanistic Jewish group here in the U.S. FYI, check out the Society for Humanistic Judaism at

Humanists are like atheists. We just don't spend time arguing about God.
Ellen Rapkin