Scattered throughout Europe, planted in the streets and sidewalks of cities whose past is not forgotten, commemorative brass plaques eternalize the lives that were lost in the great tragedy of the 20th century. Called the Stolpersteine (in English: “stumbling stones”), the shiny bronze plaques commemorate the victims of the Nazi regime in more than 1,100 locations in 21 countries.
More than 67,000 of these stones are solidly rooted across cities in Europe, including 916 places in Germany alone, where large strides have been taken to memorialize Jewish life, history and culture. Each Stolperstein commemorates a victim of the Holocaust at that person’s last known address. The plaque includes the victim’s name, date of birth, deportation date and death date, if known. In Berlin, more than 5,000 Stolpersteine have been carefully implanted in the city’s sidewalks and streets, serving as a constant reminder of the many valuable lives lost tragically during the Holocaust.
But unlike many museums, the stones specifically pay tribute to individuals – names that can too often be forgotten when focusing on the sheer number of victims the Holocaust accounts for. Standing before a stumbling stone in a vibrant neighborhood in Berlin, the world comes to a stand-still as the engraved name of a single individual triggers an empathetic reflection of the life that might have been lived on that very street.
Multiple stumbling stones are often found on the same street, marking former locations of deportation. They therefore put into question what has often been said by many Germans – namely that they didn’t know what happened to their next-door neighbors who suddenly vanished.
The Stolpersteine are a project initiated by German artist Gunter Demnig, who strives to bring back the names of the millions of Jews, gays, Gypsies, and politically or otherwise persecuted victims who were either killed by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945 or driven to commit suicide.
“A person is only forgotten when his or her name is forgotten,” Demnig frequently says, citing the central text of Rabbinic Judaism, the Talmud. Frequently, it’s family members of Holocaust victims who sponsor a stone in memory of a loved one. Sometimes, residents purchase a stone in honor of a victim who once lived in their building. And on other occasions, people sponsor stones simply to promote the project and help preserve the memory of those who suffered – without having any particular ties to an individual. Whenever someone chooses to sponsor a stone, Demnig visits that location personally to install it and say a few words about the meaning of his work.
The Stolpersteine are embedded securely into the ground, so “stumbling” over them is meant in a figurative sense: by spotting these tiny memorials, people stumble over them with their hearts and minds, stopping in their tracks to read the inscriptions and bring someone back to life. Even though each stone takes up only a few inches of space, all 67,000 Stolpersteine dispersed throughout the continent together make up the largest Holocaust memorial in the world.