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Stolpersteine: The ‘Stumbling Stones’ of Holocaust Victims

With hundreds of things to see in Berlin, few tourists pay attention to what lies under their feet. The barely four inch by four inch blocks of brass embedded in the pavement are easy to miss at first. But once you know they exist, you begin to come across them with surprising frequency.

Each stone is engraved with the name, date of birth and fate of an individual who has suffered under the Nazi regime. Known as “Stolpersteine”, or “stumbling stones”, there are over eight thousand of them in the German capital, and tens of thousands of them are spread across Germany and other European countries, making it the largest decentralized monument in the world.

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Two Stolpersteine outside of a building in Heidelberg, Germany for Max and Olga Mayer. They both escaped Germany in 1939 via Switzerland and Spain to the USA and survived the Holocaust. Photo credit: The Profitcy/Wikimedia

The idea was first conceived by German artist Gunter Demnig in 1992 to commemorate individual victims of the holocaust. Each block, which begins with “Here lived”, is placed at exactly the last place where the person lived freely before he or she fell victim to Nazi terror and was deported to an extermination camp. Demnig has now laid over 70,000 stones all over Europe and Russia. He personally oversees the installation of each one—a task that keeps Demnig on the road for 300 days a year.

Unlike other holocaust memorials that focus only on Jews, the Stolpersteine honor all victims of the Nazi regime, including Jews, Sinti, Roma, Afro-German, the disabled, the dissident, and the gays. It remembers those who were murdered in camps, as well as those who survived, but also those who escaped by fleeing to Palestine, the US or elsewhere. For this reason you will find Stolpersteine even in countries that were never occupied by Nazi Germany, such as Switzerland and Spain. Stolpersteine in Switzerland mostly remember people who were caught smuggling illegal written material at the German border. In Spain, a large number of Republicans had fled from their country to France after Francisco Franco's victory. They were caught by the Nazis after they had invaded France, and were deported to Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp. About 7,000 Spanish people were held prisoner there, and were subjected to forced labor.

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Stolperstein of Frau Martha Liebermann, wife of the artist Max Liebermann, in the Pariser Platz 7, Berlin-Mitte. Photo credit: Drrcs15/Wikimedia

The requests to lay memorial plaques come from different groups, usually the relatives of the victims, but also from current residents of the homes previously occupied by the victims, and schools they went to. Each application is thoroughly researched by the local neighborhood Stolpersteine groups comprising of volunteers, before they can decide where and when the laying of stone can take place. Such is the demand for these plaques that a request can take six months to fulfill.

Despite its vast appeal, not everyone supports the drive. Charlotte Knobloch, the president of the Jewish Community of Munich and Upper Bavaria, feels it’s undignified to trample on the names of the victims of the Nazi regime. “After all, was it not the National Socialists who used their boots to humiliate and hurt?” she asks.

In 2004, the Munich city council banned the installation of Stolpersteine. Despite this there are about two dozen Stolpersteine in the city, but on private lands.

Michael Friedrichs-Friedländer, the craftsman who makes each Stolperstein, spoke in support of the project.

“I can’t think of a better form of remembrance,” he says. “If you want to read the stone, you must bow before the victim.”

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The Stolpersteine blocks before they are installed. Photo credit: PFriedmann/Flickr

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Stolpersteine in Berlin. Photo credit: Lorie Shaull/Flickr

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Stolpersteine in Leipzig. Photo credit: Sunjo/Flickr

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