While taking a walk through our new neighborhood in Stuttgart (Germany) yesterday, my husband and I came across this:
I was thrilled to see these blocks, because I’d recently read about them in an article on NPR. The bricks, called Stolperstein or “stumbling stones” began as an art project in Berlin during the mid-90s by an artist named Guenther Demnig. The stones are meant to commemorate victims of the Holocaust, and each one is inscribed with the name, birth date, deportation date and camp name, and death date (if applicable) of a victim of the Holocaust. Demnig began by doing the research himself, but now others all over Germany can commission him to install bricks if they provide him with the information.
The bricks that we came across were in front of a stately apartment building in a quiet dead-end street. They’re almost unnoticeable, but quite powerful once we stopped and realized that a family that once lived in this building had been deported to a concentration camp during a period of deep hatred and persecution in Nazi Germany. Neither of the parents survived; the son, Fritz Jacobson, seems to have.
One of the most interesting things about living in Germany has been discovering the ways that people live with the Holocaust. As a student in the U.S. public school system, we learned about it in literature or history class. It was a difficult period, but it was finished in a matter of weeks and then you didn’t have to think about it again. It was somehow separate from “our” American history.
However, here in Germany, the country’s past seems to creep up in ways that it never could in the U.S. For example, when looking for an apartment, we visited a building built in 1912 that had a bomb shelter. Similarly, the apartment we chose is in a building built in 1900 and seems to have a very dark cellar or bomb shelter (that I’m too chicken to venture into quite yet). It’s a little thing, but it makes me wonder who lived here during the war? Did a Jewish family in my apartment building get deported? Am I living in their apartment? Similarly, when I walk down the street and peek into antique shops, I have to wonder if any of the gold menorahs in the window or the glittering jewelry from the turn of the last century were confiscated from deported Jews. Can you think of anything quite like this in the States? I can’t.
And so the stepping stones are that much more fascinating to me. Of course I’ve seen a larger Holocaust memorial in the city center, standing pretty solitary and seemingly forgotten. It’s some modern conglomeration of blocks, and I wouldn’t have known what it was until I read the plaque. I also find it curious how in the States we tend to refer to the political party/the aggressors as “the Nazis.” However, on the plaque and here in Germany I tend to hear them referred to as Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (the National Socialist German Worker’s Party). Calling them Nazis seems to have a dissociative effect in that they were this great evil body, and naming them as such gives us the power to defeat them (there’s a little René Girard for you). But calling them by the full political name (which I don’t remember hearing in school) reminds me that they were a political party, like any other, and that this could happen again.
Demnig seems to make a similar argument against abstraction in the NPR article on his stumbling stones:
“I think the large Holocaust memorial here [in Berlin] will always remain abstract. You have to make the decision to visit it,” Demnig says. “But not with the stumbling blocks. Suddenly they are there, right outside your front door, at your feet, in front of you.”
Of course, some critics of the project argue that the bricks are 1) bad for property values and 2) victimize the victims yet again when passersby step on the stones. However, I like them for the way they force you to reflect on the past. For this reason, the debate could be an interesting one to pose to a class during a history or literature lesson on the Holocaust. It begs the question: How do we remember the past? Are large, heady exhibits, like the Holocaust Memorial in D.C., more or less effective than the tiny stumbling stones in helping to memorialize the past?
What do you think?
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