19 September 2011

Stumbling Blocks to Remembrance

It started almost immediately the Nazis came to power. Like stars that twinkle out when the dawn approaches, individuals and families throughout the country disappeared, many never to be seen again. A stumbling block to the happy future of any nation? An extraordinary art project, which is still gathering momentum, reminds us times past which should not be forgotten.

How is a country to remember those of which it disposed so cruelly? That might possibly prove a stumbling block. A small, brilliant idea back in the nineties has led to an art movement which is still thriving and gaining ground to this day. Under your feet throughout Europe you will find stumbling blocks to aid in your remembrance of those long gone. The above remembers Ida Arensberg, deported from Bonn in 1942 at the age of seventy two and murdered the same year.

Gunter Demnig, a performance artist from Cologne, first thought of the idea of a literal stumbling block in 1993. History all too often reduces its victims to numbers, with so many million killed here and so many million reduced to ashes there. What he wanted to do was to create something that would enable ordinary Germans to remember ordinary Germans – something far more personal and immediate than a number, a name. So was born a project in which those long since disappeared and dead were to be remembered, literally under the feet of the general public. Above, an entire family from Lübeck is commemorated. Below, the artist Demnig prepares to lay two new stumbling blocks in Bad Kissingen, June 2009.

Neighbors the Meyers and the Löbensteins may have lived next to each other for years. The Meyers were murdered in Auschwitz, the fate of the Löbensteins remains unclear. Of course, some memories are painful and we may not wish to stumble on them under our feet as it can lead to some discomfort. Although the immediate reaction is down to the individual, there has been some opposition to the stumbling blocks or stolpersteine as they are know in German. That is the literal translation and, put more loosely it means an obstacle or something in the way.

The Prenskis were probably just a normal family. They must have been pleased to have made it through the depression but Martin and Margot only just made it in to their teens before they were murdered. As a reminder of those who were deported and killed by the Nazis in the concentration and extermination camps, the fact that they are so subtly placed may produce as much food for thought as more traditional memorials. The Jewish people of Europe were the primary victims and targets of the Nazi regime but Demnig’s stumbling blocks also remember the smaller minorities whose lives were cut short by the misplaced politics of the time.

The human foot next to the block that remembers Dr Ernst Jacobson, who perhaps entered the medical profession to help people, shows us the size of the stolpersteine, small, discreet but so very poignant. The Romani, the Sinti, the resistance fighters, disabled people, gays and Jehovah’s Witnesses – all targeted by the Nazis in their pursuit of the eugenic Aryan ideals and the hand-in-hand denial of the right to exist of those who by their very being were diametrically in opposition to those ideals – are all remembered in his work.

What started as a relatively small project has grown organically but insistently since the first small exhibition in 1994. The incumbent priest of the Antoniter church in Cologne was one of the first to encourage the project and Demnig began to place the stumbling blocks – such as the ones above - around the city, with a further set in Berlin – all without permission. By 1996 he was able to set out fifty five in the German capital with the permission of the authorities within the scope of a project known as ‘artists investigate after Auschwitz’. The following year he placed the first two in memory of the Jehovah’s Witnesses who were persecuted in Salzburg, Austria. The project had, as it were, grown feet.

Gertrud and Helmut Marchand were here, once upon a nightmare, in Berlin. The stolpersteine usually record the victim near their place of abode and typically start with the words “Hier wohnte” which mean in English – here lived. This is a little reminiscent of the blue plaque projects in the United Kingdom but those commemorate the rich and famous whose individual fates were as myriad as the stars. Each stumbling block records the year of birth and that of the deportation and death of the individual it commemorates. It is placed at an even flush with the pavement in front of their last known residence. Although tiny, many feel the urge to leave something to show that they have remembered and people like Else Liebermann von Wahlendorf will not be forgotten.

Many of the people commemorated met their fate between four ruthlessly hard and thick concrete walls. It is without irony that each stumbling block is made of a concrete and each slab has a surface area of sixteen square inches on each of its six sides. A brass sheet covers the top with the inscriptions. Each stolpersteine cost around a hundred Euros so the travelling artist relies on donations by people. They come mostly from individual citizens but whole classes and communities have also raised money so they can help with the project.

The artist, Gunter Demnig, can be seen here preparing a Berlin sidewalk for a new stumbling block – it will eventually serve as a memorial for Dr. Robert Remak. It took the dawn of a new century for the project to take off fully and in the early years of the first decade of this century many cities joined in the act of remembrance and commemoration. Apolda, Bad Kissingen, Bonn, Düren, Frankfurt – the list of towns and cities grows each year. In Berlin alone there are more than a thousand stolpersteine, Hamburg has outdone them all with a total of eighteen hundred stumbling blocks – which may seem a lot but out of the Jewish population alone, the victims of Hamburg numbered over ten thousand.

Solms Heymann (1858-1944) and Adele Heymann (1866-1943) were forgotten. Now, where they once lived in Bad Kissingen, they will always be together, as it is hoped, they were in life. Demnig has put immense amounts of time and work in to this project.

This particular Lazarus may never wake from his sleep. However, his life and times will be remembered by those who come across the small cube embedded in to the sidewalk.

The idea has spread. Braunau am Inn, the place where Adolf Hitler was brought in to this world, has placed eleven stolpersteine around the residences of those whose fates were bound up with this birth. Moedling, near Vienna, placed it own blocks down in 2006, swiftly followed by Salzburg. Vienna is taking the idea even further with a path of commemoration planned over its second district. Hungary (where six hundred thousand Jews were deported and murdered) had its first blocks in 2007 – mostly around the center of Budapest (see first picture above). Makó (second picture) has also followed. The Dutch city of Borne laid its first Struikelstenen in May 2009 (see below).

24 July 2009 marked the placement of the 20,000th stumbling block, which was unveiled in the German city of Hamburg. Present were Demnig, the originator of the project as well as representatives of the Jewish community, local government and descendents of some of the victims. All in all, almost three hundred European cities now have stolpersteine – a permanent underfoot reminder of those who could have made Europe a more enlightened place but who were never given the chance.