Understanding Stolpersteine Across Europe

When I was in Europe recently with Overseas Adventure Travel, I took the Central Europe trip Jewels of the Bohemia. On that trip, I finally saw the memorial stones to those lost in the Holocaust that I had heard so much about over the years. They have a German name, stolperstein, or stolpersteine for the plural which literally means “stepping stones” or “stumbling stone,” or “stumbling block.” We saw them in many places in Prague and Budapest, and probably in some of our other stops as well. Those on the pre-trip reported having seen them in Berlin.

Stolpersteine are part of a project by German artist Gunter Demning that started in 1992, and commentates not just the Jews who were lost or deported during the years of the Holocaust, but anyone of any faith or background who underwent the experience of this atrocity because they had differing or opposing beliefs than the Nazis. They are technically an art installation of individually handmade, small gold stones placed outside the last home or workplace where the people lived freely before being deported. They can commentate one or multiple family members. They are still being erected today in parts of Europe where they are permitted, organized, or paid for by family members who have done enough research to know where their family members lived prior to deportation. Deportation dates are taken from Nazi records and often include the exact dates. The Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, Israel known as Yad Vashem, also has these records on file. Death dates often just include the year accompanied by the name of the concentration camp where they were sent. Whole families are often placed together in a set of stolperstein blocks since whole families often lived together during the war years. As of 2019, approximately 75,000 stolperstein blocks have been installed across Europe in 20 languages, with the stolperstein project continuing to this day. 

Aside from the stolpersteine being erected to memorize Jewish lives that were lost, there were other groups of people who were lost and are being memorialized. These groups include Catholics, homosexuals, Roma people (gypsies), the disabled, Jehovah’s witnesses, black people, Protestants, and members of various political parties such as Communists and the Resistance movement.

Some cities around Europe have rejected having these stones placed on the ground because they didn’t want people stepping on the names of the dead. In those cases, other memorials were erected, such as in train stations. Whole city councils and current property owners have gotten involved in the discussion so permission could be granted on both public and private property for the installations to occur. In some cities like Frankfurt, the victim’s families cannot pay for the stolperstein stones; rather, it must be paid for by the property owner to ensure respect for the dead.

The good news, if there is any, is that in all my research, it appears that any complaints against them were borne out of the desire for respect. In other cases, the stolpersteine were preferred to multiple large memorials cropping up around the city. However, the desire to not step on the stones, although an obvious sign of respect, can also be traced back to the Holocaust itself and the Nazi destruction of Jewish cemeteries. The headstones were removed and placed into the pavement so people could intentionally desecrate the memory of a Jewish person. Thus, the current stolperstein project is both a tribute to those who perished during the war, and a reminder of the historic events that led to the project.

Major world events such as World War Two have yielded literally millions of small stories that lead to a larger historical fabric. One small stone in front of a person’s former home might give an image of that person in their kitchen. It’s a small thing that any person can relate to. What is harder for any traveler to wrap their heads around, is the true extent to which these atrocities took place. Stolpersteine are still created lovingly by hand, and to date cover the Netherlands, Germany, Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary, Poland, Italy, Slovenia, Slovakia, Belgium, Norway, France, Croatia, Luxembourg, Russia, Romania, Greece, Spain, Belarus, Finland, Moldova, Lithuania, Denmark and Sweden.

Having now been to four concentration camps and one labor camp, I can say without doubt that it’s not the sites where millions perished that had the greatest impact on me. Rather, it’s the empty Jewish ghettos and the stolpersteine I saw all over Europe that personalizes the history for me in a way that a larger monument never could. While a major church or museum can make us realize what is gained culturally in a country, seeing the remnants of destruction across Europe in very personalized terms makes us realize what has truly been lost. An entire people, a culture, a person cooking in a kitchen or hiding in an attic. When looking at these small gold stones, I could visualize the living while I could hear the Nazi’s arriving to deport them.

To find out more about the stolpersteine, click here.   To make a dedication for a loved one who was either deported and survived or perished in the Holocaust, as a friend of mine recently did in Berlin (photo below), click here.

Photo: George Fogelson (Berlin) All other photos Jann Segal

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