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Remembrance culture
Cobblestones to ensure people aren’t forgotten

A precious memory – or are people stepping on the persecuted here? Stolpersteine are now widespread in Europe – but they are not without controversy.
A precious memory – or are people stepping on the persecuted here? Stolpersteine are now widespread in Europe – but they are not without controversy. | Photo (detail): © picture alliance/dpa/Sven Hoppe

Artist Gunter Demnig has been placing stones to commemorate victims persecuted and murdered by the National Socialist regime. They are becoming living history lessons for the descendants.

By Wolfgang Mulke

Anyone walking down Crellestraße in Berlin’s Schöneberg district will soon come across one of the Stolpersteine (stumbling blocks) installed there. The little bronze cubes set into the cobbles are conspicuous: four shiny stones represent the fate of the Davidson family, another two stand for a couple by the name of Marchand. These former Jewish neighbours were executed in Nazi concentration camps. That should never be forgotten.

What sculptor Gunter Demnig wanted when he placed the first stone in the ground in Berlin in 1996 was to commemorate people like the Davidsons and Marchands – and all their fellow countrymen who were persecuted between 1933 and 1945. “Could it happen again?” says Demnig, who wasn’t born until after World War Two, in 1947. “I keep on asking myself this question.” During that time 6,000 Jews and others suffering persecution were deported and executed, and that was just from Schöneberg. Many of them lived in the Bavarian Quarter, not far from Schöneberg town hall. There’s even a stone resting amongst the cobbles for Albert Einstein, winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics, who had to flee to the USA to escape the Nazis.

Back then, Gunter Demnig had no idea how big the art project would one day become. The idea caught on quickly. Today the memorial stones can be found in about 1,200 local authority areas in Germany alone. And Demnig is already paving the roads in other countries with them: the dark past rears its ugly head in all the regions once occupied by Germany – currently 27 countries. The total number of Stolpersteine has now reached 80,000. “It’s a success story I never could have dreamed of,” says Demnig. Gunter Demnig at work in Berlin, where more than 9,000 “Stolpersteine” have already been laid. Gunter Demnig at work in Berlin, where more than 9,000 “Stolpersteine” have already been laid. | Photo (detail): © picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild/Britta Pedersen

Trodden on

Remembrance of this nature also encounters criticism though, especially in the Jewish community. For instance Demnig is not allowed to place any Stolpersteine in Munich. “People tread on the Stolpersteine or walk over them disrespectfully,” said Charlotte Knobloch, president of the Israeli religious community in Munich. The criticism hit home: Munich city council banned the Stolpersteine in the 2000s, and since then only upright markers have been allowed to commemorate the persecuted. But the decision is still controversial amongst the city’s residents today. A counter-initiative was set up in 2018, which places stones on private land and invites relatives and members of Jewish communities to the dedication ceremony.

Demnig can’t understand the decision made by Munich’s city council. “I think the allegation is absurd,” he says. Based on this argument, no one should be entering St. Peter’s Cathedral, where tombs lie beneath the floor slabs. Many others seem to hold a similar view, because the demand for Stolpersteine is ongoing. Demnig installs 150 of the 10 x 10 centimetre cuboids each month. Those requesting a stone can sometimes have a long wait until the stone is placed. In Amsterdam it’s four years at the moment. Stolpersteine in Amsterdam commemorate Anne Frank, the Jewish girl of diary fame, and her sister Margot. Stolpersteine in Amsterdam commemorate Anne Frank, the Jewish girl of diary fame, and her sister Margot. | Photo (detail): © picture alliance/Klaus Rose

Building new friendships

The project has certainly had one effect: it is keeping the memory alive for later generations. It’s important for schoolchildren to be able to identify one of their relative’s former neighbours or schoolmates amongst the abstract number of six million murdered Jews, explains the artist. “If the relatives then talk about that, it’s another way of learning history.”

The project set something in motion for Simon Lütgemeyer and his family. “Two Stolpersteine in front of the neighbouring house got me thinking,” remembers the architect, who lives in an older neighbourhood in the Berlin district of Prenzlauer Berg. He and his wife researched the history of the building in which they live – and came across the descendants of the Jewish family who used to own the property in the process. The grandchildren lived in the USA. They established a close contact and soon the brothers Peter and Werner Gossels – both over 80 – even dropped by to visit them in Berlin.

Lütgemeyer would like to have placed Stolpersteine in memory of their persecuted ancestors too. But the Gossels didn’t want that. They couldn’t come to terms with the idea that their names might be trodden on by people’s feet. Now there’s another way of remembering here as well, in the form of a memorial plaque in the entrance hallway of the apartment block. The management team at Brandeis University near Boston has now become aware of the research on the Gossels brothers conducted by the Lütgemeyers and has invited him over to find out more about his research project.

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