By Adele R
They lie embedded on many of the sidewalks we hurry along each day, laid in front of the houses where victims of the Nazi Holocaust lived before deportation to concentration camps and death. These are the shiny gold plaques which catch the eye, stop the mind, take the breath away – the Stolpersteine, or Stumbling Blocks – and the work of a Cologne artist, Gunter Demnig.
Mr. Demnig began this project in 1993 with an exhibition of 200 plaques for Sinti and Roma (gypsy) victims in the Atoniter Church in Cologne. “The immensity of my idea,” said Demnig, “to lay these stones for the victims of the Holocaust all over Europe, nearly defeated me. But the Pastor said, ‘Just start small’.” By 2000, 400 more plaques were laid in Berlin-Kreuzberg and Cologne.
Each plaque, the size of a cobblestone – 10 x 10 x 10 centimeters in brass, is set in a concrete base and then embedded in the sidewalk, engraved with the name of a victim: a Jew, a gypsy, a homosexual, a euthanasia victim – anyone the Nazis felt did not deserve to live. Each plaque begins with the same words: “here lived…” followed by the name, date of birth, year of deportation, the camp, and the fate of the victim, if known. “Deported 1941, Riga, ???” say two. Perhaps the victims never reached a camp but died in the inhuman conditions of the transport trains. The Nazis kept meticulous records, so it is not difficult to find most of the information.
There are now over 3,000 such memorials in 27 German cities, and Demnig has orders on file for many more. Since an article appeared in The New York Times in November 2003, there have been over 100 inquiries from America.
“I will place these plaques as long as my body allows,” says Demnig, now 56. ”My work is that of an artist and I cannot delegate it, and frankly, making them is lonely and often sad work. I just finished three plaques for a mother and her two children – the last words Auschwitz, ermordet (murdered). That is very hard. I need the interaction with the people who gather when stones are laid. Often something wonderful happens, like the two childhood friends in Hamburg who found each other again after 66 years. Plates for the parents of a man who had escaped to Israel were being laid when a neighbor came out of the house next door. The neighbor, once his best friend, had been a soldier, of course.”
Demnig’s first problem was convincing the city fathers to let him lay the plates. Not every city was willing and sidewalks are municipal property. (Munich still refuses to allow any of the memorials on its pristine streets.) The arguments are varied and specious. “Vandalism will destroy the good intentions of the plates,” said one city father in Munich, and from the Jewish Association there: “Once again, the Jews are to be trampled on.” But this argument was countered early by none other than the German Council for the Jews, based in Cologne, which said essentially, “The souls of these people are with God, the plates are just names.” Demnig feels that it is just a matter of time before plaques will be laid in Munich, too.
In Hamburg, Mayor Ole von Beust, by contrast, was an immediate and engaged supporter of the project. And Hamburg has more plaques than any city except Cologne – over 650, with at least 400 more on order, says Demnig.
The plaques are sponsored by private individuals or groups at 95 euros each. (The cost also defrays the artist’s living expenses; he has no other income.) But as they are set in the sidewalks, which belong to the cities, they become city property. Vandals will be prosecuted. Damaged plates will be replaced at city cost. And individuals cannot refuse to have a plate placed on the sidewalk in front of their house. One doctor in Hamburg tried valiantly to keep a plaque from being laid. The imposing house, in a wealthy section of the city where he and his family live and where he has his flourishing practice, had been “bought” by his grandfather from a Jewish family at the time of their deportation. The good doctor didn’t want any reminders in front of his door.
Demnig has volunteers to help him with the project. A Hamburg art collector, Peter Hess, is devoting most of his days and many of his nights to the Stolpersteine. He says evenly that his parents were members of the Nazi Party. “Not criminals, and they swore they knew nothing until the end of the war, but they went along with the Nazis. It was necessary for my father’s business. They were not alone,” he says. The activities for Mr. Demnig, says Hess, give him a peace he cannot describe.
When I close my curtains at night I look across the street at the house where Anna Hess once lived – Rothenbaumchaussee 207, first floor left. I know that from a letter her great-granddaughter sent from Stuttgart. Sometimes the window in the apartment is lighted, and I think about Anna Hess and her life. Had I lived here then, might I have known her? Would I have been a witness on that black night when the Nazis took her away – safe across the street in my Aryan skin? Would I have even dared to watch?
“Here lived Anna Hess,” it says on the small brass plaque, “born Daniel, 27 May 1855, deported 1943 Theresienstadt, died September 1943.”