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Every Victim Has A Name

Aharon Granevich-Granot, Hamburg, Germany

Artist Gunter Demnig’s parents weren’t very forthcoming when he prodded them for information about the Jews in his German city and their role in the deportations. But it was the very mystery of that secrecy that eventually led him to create the largest Holocaust monument in the world: thousands of tiny brass squares embedded in sidewalks around Europe, memorializing victims in front of the very homes from which they were snatched.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A German old-timer emerges from his well-kept home with a rag and pail of water, bends down and scours the copper stones in front of his house. It’s an eerie contrast to the streets of Hamburg seventy years ago, when the Jews were forced to scrub the streets, sometimes with a toothbrush.

As we strode along the well-tended lanes, we kept running into these shiny copper squares — stones embedded in the sidewalk engraved with the names of Jews who were dragged away and murdered. For the elderly residents, caring for these mini-monuments is a way to pay tribute to their old neighbors and assuage their own — or their parents’ — guilt.

The man behind the tens of thousands of squares that now grace the concrete of dozens of cities is Gunter Demnig, a German artist in his sixties who for the last decade has been driven to memorialize as many names as he can gather of the millions led to their deaths by the Nazis.


Embedded in Stone

As a child growing up in Berlin, young Gunter read historical accounts about the Jews who had lived there. “I asked my parents where those Jews were today,” he said, “but they always evaded the question.”

Demnig persisted, and slowly became exposed to the unflattering past that his parents had tried to conceal from him, for they, too, had been accomplices — his father had been a Nazi officer. “I understood that my parents were lying to me regarding their past and what they knew. They were very uncomfortable with it.”

The older Gunter Demnig became, the more he felt obligated to do something to immortalize the Jews whom his parents had collaborated in destroying. After his marriage, he met Peter Haas, a stone and metal sculptor who was similarly haunted by guilt feelings over what the German people had done in the Holocaust.

At the time, Demnig was an artist living in Cologne, and several of his projects brought him in contact with the Nazi Documentation Center. Together with the center, he began to piece together the fates of thousands of residents, taken away and never heard from again. Would there be a way to memorialize them?

Demnig and his friend Hass seized on a daring idea: They would track down the names and destinies of the Jews who had lived in the various homes of the city, and would engrave those names upon small brass squares. The squares would be embedded in the pavement in front of those buildings as individual, eternal memorials.

“We called them ‘Stolpersteine’ or ‘Stumbling Blocks’ because people accidentally stumble over them on their walks around town. You don’t choose to visit it — you stumble upon it, ‘stumbling’ over this dark aspect of German history,” Gunter explains.

It was no simple idea to execute. In order to learn the identities of former Jewish owners of the various properties in the city, they would have to pore over dusty municipal archives and burrow through population listings from before World War II — and acquire the proper authorization to do so.

Demnig set his first Stumbling Block on a sidewalk in Cologne as an independent art project — which raised eyebrows and went against city ordinance — but soon other cities followed, and today those brass squares have become somewhat of a social movement.

Fifteen years later, Gunter Demnig has installed over 25,000 of these shiny memorial cobblestones on the sidewalks of 600 cities in Germany and across Europe.

In Hamburg, for example, the residents felt the project was a way of atoning for the abandonment of their former neighbors.

“I suggested that the citizens of Hamburg finance the project themselves, rather than making it a ‘Jewish’ project. Each citizen would be given the opportunity to pay for these stones, thereby atoning in small measure for the sins of his fathers,” said Demnig.

Demnig publicized a notice in the local press, which prompted the newspaper to write up the project. “The response was staggering. Many people approached us and wanted to be partners in the venture. Apartment tenants still contact us today, asking us to check if their building had been occupied by Jews before the war, and if so, they are eager to pay for such a pavement memorial.

“We make it a point for non-Jewish citizens to care for the upkeep of these memorial stones. We feel it very important to remember what our own people did to the Jews. To date, there are already 3,200 such memorial stones embedded in the streets of Hamburg alone.”

As we stroll down the streets of Hamburg, we see three Germans — Thomas Becker, Wolf Gradenhaltz, and Mr. Goldschmidt from the jewelry shop — crouching on all fours, reverently polishing the Stolpersteine outside their shops.

“We have been living here for many years,” they tell us. “The old people among us remember the Jews who used to reside here. People pass by, see the stones and remember the families inscribed on them. This is very significant to us because we want to make sure our youth understand that this travesty must never happen again, that Germany is ashamed of its ugly past and determined that it will never repeat itself in the future.”

Not all communities were willing to have their sidewalks turned into monuments. In the city of Krefeld, for one, citizens have been opposed to the memorial stones, arguing that names of the deceased should not be trampled on. But it’s precisely this sentiment that Demnig tries to counter: “It is important for people to stumble over this dark stain on German history. It’s the only way the names will not be forgotten.”

Berlin itself is home to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, constructed of thousands of undulating gray slabs that resemble a huge cemetery. But while these impressive monuments are certainly not to be minimized, Demning has managed to humanize and personalize the individuals who were dragged from their homes.

“A person is only forgotten when his name is forgotten,” says Demning, invoking a Talmudic adage.


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