Nazi Victims and Stumbling Blocks to Memory
So explains Gunter Demnig, the Berliner artist behind the Stolpersteine, the world‘s largest monument (in pieces) to the victims of National Socialism.
But is it really enough to know someone‘s name to conjure their memory? For someone who met the deceased, or has read something about that person, I understand how a name unlocks memory. But a stranger who stumbles across a name in the street… what does that person understand?
“Stolpern” means to trip over, to “stumble“, not just physically, but intellectually and emotionally. And so Stolpersteine are “stumbling-stones” or “stumbling blocks“. There are now almost 25 000 of them in over 500 localities, mostly in Germany but also in neighbouring countries. They measure ten centimetres by ten centimetres, which makes for a 25 square kilometre monument which is ever growing. And this scale represents only a fraction of the Nazi’s millions of victims –Jewish, Roma, Homosexual and others.
Inserted into the pavement with a hammer drill, fixed with cement matched to the surrounding pavement, slightly raised so that one can indeed stumble on them before seeing them, Stolpersteine are placed directly before the last residence of the victim. They are engraved: “Here Lived…”, followed by a name, a birth year, a year of deportation and place of death. The stones do not mince words. The victims have been “ermordet”, or “murdered“.
The Jewish community has had its doubts, as the names are trampled underfoot, but criticisms are in a minority and Demnig has been lauded with many prizes and been the subject of a documentary film. Still, not everyone wants the name of a liquidated person on their doorstep. The project had some trouble in Munich where the Stolpersteine were banned in 2004. I would think this would be a public relations disaster for a city so important to the rise of National Socialism.
Conversely, it has had much success in Berlin, where the project began in 1997: first illegally in Kreuzberg, and authorised from 2000. In some streets of the Rosenthaler Vorstadt, the old Jewish quarter in Mitte, the pavement fronting every other house is specked with brass.
But Stolpersteine are not exactly stones. They are made from metal, and look like polished heads of stakes driven into the ground. I wonder sometimes whether the name refers instead to the unmarked stones in the pavement which surround them, or those in the facades of the houses behind. It is not what is written which intrigues me, because the inscription is insufficient to conjure a person. It is the emptiness, void, lack of information, the maw of the forgotten, which gives the monuments their power and lifts them from the banality of a statistic.
And yet from the inscription, the stumbler can infer the horror.
“Here lived…” Ida and Manja Buntmann-Weinstein. Are they both women‘s names? I think so. A mother and a daughter? In 1942, one was fifty and the other was 17. They had the good sense to flee Germany to France, but were captured and interned, but held in different detention centres. Were they separated by the police? Or did one escape capture for a time? I do not think they could have travelled East together, although they were murdered in the same place. Did they see each other there, in Auschwitz, among all those millions? And did anyone in their family survive? The stones only record the victims.
And then there is the Marcuse family.
On which floor did they live? What did their neighbours do? Did they watch the Gestapo come and take them away? In the year of their deportation, 1943, Erich was 38, and (his wife?) Hannah was 32. Peter must have been their five-year old son.
Erich was separated from Hannah and Peter, and sent to Dachau where he died. The authorities kept immaculate records, so we know the exact date of his passing: 21.2.1945. Only two months later, on 29 April, Dachau was liberated by Allied troops. Hannah and Peter were sent South then East, first to Czechoslovakia, to the camp of Theresienstadt, known as Auschwitz’s “waiting room“. What happened to them in Auschwitz is unknown.
They both disappeared, like so many of the others. We do not know their fate. But that only suggests what we have lost.