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Stumbling Stones honor victims of Nazi terror

Stolpersteine are placed in the pavement in front of the house and information including the person's name and important dates like death and deportation are engraved into the metal. (Lina Marie Schulenkorf/YJI)

Dresden, GERMANY – To notice one of the largest Holocaust memorials in the world, it is necessary to look down.

Stolpersteine, or Stumbling Stones, are small, square memorial plaques made of brass that are set into the pavement in front of the last place of residence chosen by victims of the Nazi regime.

Set into the walkways of Dresden, these stones are considered the largest decentralised memorial in the world.

The idea of the Stolpersteine came from the artist Gunter Demnig, who sees the stones as a way of remembering and reviving the memory of the victims. He cited a quote from the Talmud: A person is only forgotten when his name is forgotten.

The names of the people and their ordeals after their arrest and deportation are engraved on them.

Another of the artist’s ideas was to reverse the process intended by the Nazis – to degrade each of the murdered people to a number – and instead create the possibility for individual remembrance and bring their memory back into the cities and centers of people’s lives.

According to Demnig, he chose the name ‘Stolpersteine’ because of its ambiguity in German, as people should not only literally stumble over the stones and become aware of them, but should also stumble upon this person.

Each year in Germany, there are several days when the Holocaust and its victims are commemorated. One of these days is Yom HaShoah, the Israeli Holocaust Remembrance Day, on May 6.

In addition to public commemorative events such as the annual reading of the names of Dresden’s victims in the Frauenkirche, groups are formed to clean the Stolpersteine in private on the various days of remembrance.

Stolpersteine have received much praise and have now been laid in 31 European countries.

Relatives of Holocaust victims, such as Shlomo Ben Avi from Israel, also welcome the Stolpersteine.

“I think it’s a good idea, I had the stones laid and paid for them myself. When we pass by here, we stop, say a prayer and clean the stones,” Ben Avi said.

Shlomo Ben Avi standing behind the Stolpersteine of his family. (Lina Marie Schulenkorf/YJI)

The stumbling blocks are not a kind of gravestone or replacement for them, according to Ben Avi.

“We don’t need the stones for personal remembrance,” he said. “The stones are just beautiful, meaningful decoration, but not gravestones.”

While the project is largely perceived positively, there is also criticism from some, including Jewish people.

Holocaust survivor Charlotte Knobloch, who is president of the Jewish Community of Munich and Upper Bavaria, is considered one of the harshest critics of the project.

Alternative forms of commemoration are therefore represented in the city of Munich, which does not authorize the laying of stumbling stones on municipal land.

In a 2014 statement to the City of Munich, Knobloch made it clear what she thought of the idea of Stolpersteine.

“These stones, the names engraved on them and therefore the victims themselves will inevitably be trampled on again – whether out of carelessness or quite deliberately. They can be spat on, dirtied, smeared, soiled with animal excrement or even deliberately desecrated,” Knobloch said. “The inhibition threshold for indifference and wilful desecration is far lower than for other forms of commemoration. Very few people stop to think. Placing them at people’s feet literally means that passers-by pass over them thoughtlessly. On the ground, the victims are as defenseless as they once were.”

Demnig, the artist who conceived the Stolpersteine project, actually chose the brass stones so that they would be permanently polished by the friction of the soles of shoes. More than 20 years later, however, experience shows that the stumbling blocks continue to oxidize, as the majority of passers-by avoid walking over them. Many are dark and difficult to read.

Ben Avi confirmed this.

“I never step on the stones,” he said, “but even if others did, it wouldn’t bother me. They’re not gravestones, but of course it would be appreciated if people didn’t step on them out of respect.”

But when asked whether he would prefer plaques on the walls of the former homes, he answered in the affirmative.

In a 2014 article in the Jewish newspaper Jüdische Allgemeine, Daniel Killy, a spokesman for the Jewish community in Hamburg, showed he is also annoyed by the stumbling stones. He accused the artist of making millions from the murdered people, as one stone costs €120, or about $130 USD.

Killy was in agreement with Knobloch’s argument of trampling on them and describes the use of Nazi terms such as ‘racial abuser‘ on Stumbling Stones as further denunciation of the murdered.

All the profits from the sale of the stones go to a foundation set up by Demnig, while the artist counters the criticism by saying that he wants to make people think with the Stumbling Stones – and not sugarcoat anything.

Avi criticized the intention of physically stumbling, despite his positive attitude towards the stumbling blocks.

“I don’t want people to stumble,” said Ben Avi. “Stumbling is a negative thing and people shouldn’t get the feeling that the victims mean them harm or associate them negatively.”

Ben Avi continued, “I don’t want the stumbling blocks to become places of remembrance for strangers. The memory and mourning of these people is something personal within the family. We don’t need the mourning of strangers who never knew these people.”

Despite his criticism, Ben Avi remains convinced of the Stolpersteine and urged Youth Journalism International to also speak with his father, Stuart Ravi Coman Levitt, who lives in Canada.

Levitt is also positive about the Stumbling Stones.

“The concept is similar to the Walk of Fame in Hollywood and nobody complains about the names being embedded in the ground,” Levitt said.

Anyone who wants to lay a stumbling block can propose one to an oversight organization and the person’s relatives. After initial approval, minor research – with the organization’s assistance – is required before the stone can be laid. The artist often attends when a stone is laid.

Many cities also offer the possibility of a cleaning partnership with local volunteers to keep the stones in good condition.

In Dresden, there is an association called Stolpersteine für Dresden (Stumbling Stones for Dresden), which also cleans the stones.

It’s not a difficult job, as metal cleaning agents or just lemon juice and salt bring back the luster.

Lina Marie Schulenkorf is a Reporter with Youth Journalism International.

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