Stolpersteine: A history of Germany's stumbling stones of remembrance
Stolpersteine have been in Germany since 1992. We take a deeper look into the origins of the stumbling stone Holocaust memorial project that has spread across every corner of Europe.
What is a Stolperstein (stumbling stone)?
German streets are punctuated by a unique and ubiquitous memorial for those targeted by the National Socialist regime. In total, there are over 100.000 brass-plated Stolpersteine or “stumbling stones” throughout Europe. Anyone who has lived in or visited Germany has likely stumbled upon more Stolpersteine than they can count.
While the arresting Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, just metres from the Reichstag in Berlin, testifies to Germany’s dedication to its Erinnerungskultur (culture of remembrance), it’s the inconspicuous nature of artist Gunter Demnig’s Stolpersteine that make them such poignant presence.
Each stone is just 10x10 centimetres, a cube made of golden brass which is most commonly laid before the last voluntary residence of victims of the Nazi regime. The same wording is used on almost every stone. At the top, they read “Hier wohnte” (here lived), followed by the name of the victim and their birth date. This is followed by the date the victim was arrested or deported, sometimes an exact date, sometimes only a year, and where they were held prisoner.
On most Stolpersteine, the last line reads one of three words: “ermordet” (murdered), “befreit” (liberated) or “überlebt” (survived). In many cases, a number of Stolpersteine are laid alongside each other, where a whole family has been memorialised.
These distinctly condensed biographies are all hand-engraved by Berlin metalworker Michael Friedrichs-Friedlaender. And while they are absent of personal detail, it is perhaps their banal, precise and repetitive language which makes the project so effective at communicating the magnitude of human suffering caused by the Nazis. Demnig has called his project, “The world’s largest decentralised artwork.”
A brief history of Germany's Holocaust memorials
Until the 1960s, Germany did little to reckon with its history of state violence and fascism. After the Second World War, the country went through a process of so-called denazification (Entnazifizierung). While some faced consequences at the Nuremberg trials for their role in Hitler’s dictatorship, many former Nazi and SS officials escaped punishment.
These people were allowed to integrate back into German society without consequence and were often granted a so-called Persilschein, a certificate named after the German washing detergent brand Persil, which supposedly proved their now “clean” political standing.
In the 1960s Germany began its process of Vergangenheitsbewältigung (literally "coping with of the past"), an official effort for the country to recognise and process what had happened in its recent history. With this came further efforts to adequately acknowledge how many people had suffered and died under the Nazi regime. More and more Holocaust memorials were erected across Germany, but none as widespread as Demnig’s Stolpersteine.
The first Stolpersteine in Cologne
The first Stolperstein laid by Demnig did not memorialise an individual, but stated the details of Heinrich Himmler’s Auschwitz Decree. The 1942 decree commanded the deportation of Sinti and Roma people living in Germany. 50 years later, in 1992, Demnig laid the first Stolperstein before the city hall in Cologne. Over the following years, Demnig placed the first stones which remembered specific individuals, some of the earliest being trade unionists and Roma victims of the Nazi regime.
The Stolpersteine of Anne Frank, her sister Margot and mother Edith. The stones lie outside their former house in Aachen, Germany, their last chosen place of residence before the German-Jewish family fled to the Netherlands.
The Stolperstein: A stumbling block
Initially, Demnig did not ask permission from local councils as to whether he could lay the memorial stones and today there are still some critics of the project. The former president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Charlotte Knobloch, believes Demnig’s Stolpersteine to be disrespectful to Jewish people because they are placed on the ground, meaning passers-by may walk over them or they could potentially be damaged. For this reason, there are no Stolpersteine in Munich.
In contrast, Israeli publicist and former diplomat Avi Primor has said the placement of Stolpersteine on the ground is meaningful: “The Stolpersteine are the opposite of repression,” he said to Deutsche Welle. “They are at our feet, right in front of our eyes, forcing us to look down.” Demnig agrees; responding to the criticism he said to the same outlet, "Whoever wants to read the inscription must bow to the victim first.”
A Holocaust memorial on every German street
When a new stone is installed it is often the people who live in the neighbouring building who initiate the project. After finding out the wartime history of their building and the personal stories of its previous inhabitants, locals may contact Demnig and ask him to lay a stone. The ancestors of the victim or victims are then contacted and asked to give their permission. If they agree, it is often the locals who donate the 120-euro production fee.
When the stone is laid, it is common that neighbours and sometimes the victims’ family are there to watch. At 76, Demnig has now been doing the project for over 20 years and some moments are particularly moving for him. Once, two sisters who had fled Germany for Scotland and Colombia were reunited at Demnig’s stone laying after 60 years of separation. “There they were,” he said, “standing in front of the former home, saying, "Now we're reunited with our parents." At moments like that, I know what I'm doing this for,” Demnig told Deutsche Welle.
Stolpersteine memorials outside of Germany
Stolpersteine remember Jewish, Sinti, Roma and LGBTQ+ people, politically persecuted trade unionists and resistance fighters, Jehovah’s Witnesses and euthanasia victims. And the project is not limited to Germany. Since the first Stolperstein outside of Germany was laid in Austria in 1997, the project has been expanding across Europe. As far north as Norway and as far south as Greece, the past decade in particular has seen the 10x10 brass plaques laid across all corners of the continent.
Countries that were invaded by the Nazis, such as Belgium, the Netherlands and France, have the most Stolpersteine outside of Germany. Italy, also with its own historically fascist politics, has hundreds of stones, while countries such as Finland and Sweden have just a handful.
As of yet, there is only one stone in the United Kingdom, which was placed as recently as June 2022. It lies in Golden Square in London’s Soho and commemorates the life of Ada van Dantzig, a young Dutch painting conservationist. Van Dantzig returned to the Netherlands to help her family flee the Nazis, but after their escape plan failed, most of the family were deported to Auschwitz, where they were murdered.
The same summer also saw Demnig travel to Ireland to lay the country’s first six stones. The row of stones was laid outside St. Catherine’s School in the Portobello district of Dublin, colloquially known for its large Jewish community as Little Jerusalem.
One of the laid stones remembers Ettie Steinberg, a seamstress who attended the school and is thought to be one of the few Irish Jews to have been killed in the Holocaust. Steinberg moved from Dublin to Antwerp with her Belgian husband in the late 1930s. The couple and their son moved through Europe fleeing Nazi invasions. As the risk of persecution became clearer, they attempted to escape. Their visa applications for Northern Ireland were accepted, but after their documents arrived too late, the family were deported and murdered at Auschwitz.
People who want to discover more about victims of National Socialism commemorated by Stolpersteine can use a number of Stolpersteine apps to trace their stories. Below is a list of apps specific to Stolpersteine in different German cities and states.
In recent years, developer Nicola Andersson was contacted by Steffi Mühlbauer, a teacher at a school in Berlin, who suggested Andersson create an app with Mühlbauer's students. The students' school lies in the place of the former Zeisler family home. Daniel, Jetti and Josef Zeisler were murdered in the Holocaust, while three other Zeisler children escaped to Israel and England. The app is still being developed by Andersson but the pupils have also created a podcast about Stolpersteine in Berlin.
Stolpersteine North Rhine-Westphalia
The media company Westdeutscher Rundfunk has recently created an app in North Rhine-Westphalia, Stolpersteine NRW - Gegen das Vergessen (Stolpersteine NRW - Against forgetting), on which users can scan Stolpersteine in the federal state to find out more information about the person behind the Stolperstein name.
The Stolperstein of Jewish philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin is one that lies in the west German state. Benjamin killed himself after an attempt to flee to neutral Portugal and on to the United States with a group of Jewish refugees was thwarted by the Gestapo and the Franco government.
The official website for the city of Hamburg adopts a phrase from one of Berlin's Stolpersteine locations which demonstrates the appropriateness of the project's decision to place stones outside victims' former homes. The quotation reads: "The horror didn’t start in Auschwitz, Treblinka or in other camps... it started in our neighbourhood, in our house, outside our door." The local authorities also offer an app where visitors can find out about the 6.767 stones in the Hanseatic city.
Offered by the Library Society in Saxony, the Stolpersteine Guide app gives users an overview of all the Stolpersteine in Germany and provides detailed information about the individuals and families behind each stone. The NSDAP created their first chapter in the state's largest city, Leipzig, in 1922 and in 1938, 50 percent of the city's Jewish population were violently removed from their homes in the first of many deportations.
The pervasive presence of Stolpersteine
Behind each Stolperstein lies a complex and often tragic story. And in the days surrounding Holocaust Memorial Day in Germany, January 27, it is common to see locals cleaning, polishing and laying candles beside the Stolpersteine nearest to their front door.
Part of the idea behind Demnig’s project was to engage with the Talmud’s statement that “A person is only forgotten when their name is forgotten”, and it is clear that Stolpersteine have ensured that the process of reckoning with Nazi atrocities, both in personal experiences and across society, continues in Germany and Europe. The omnipresence of Stolpersteine reminds us that throughout history, and today, systems of racism, religious, sexual, ableist and political persecution are often woven into the fabric of our everyday lives.
Thumb image credit: Dan Race / Shutterstock.com