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Munich Decides Against "Stumbling Stone" Holocaust Memorials

Kyle JamesJune 18, 2004

A project to memorialize individuals killed by the Nazis by embedding small name plaques on sidewalks has been rejected by the city of Munich, even though the memorials are present in 34 other cities and towns.

Remembering victims of the Holocaust, one person at a timeImage: dpa

The original idea to create the "stumbling stones" came to Gunter Demnig, an artist from Cologne, when an elderly woman approached him as while he was working on another project -- one which traced the path the city's Sinti and Roma, also known as gypsies, were forced to march on their way to deportation trains.

"The woman told me, well, it's pretty good what you're doing here," he said. "But gypsy people never lived here. I thought, maybe she never knew that her neighbors were gypsies."

So Deming set out on what has become a quest of sorts, to remember those individuals -- Jews, homosexuals, Jehova's Witnesses, dissenters -- who were persecuted and often killed by the Nazis.

Gunter Demnig Stolpersteine gegen das Vergessen
Artist Gunter Demnig engraving the plaquesImage: dpa

He began collecting the names of victims of National Socialism and then creating small four-by-four-inch brass-topped plaques with names and dates, which he then embedded into the sidewalk at the address where that person used to live.

He called them "stumbling stones" because his idea was that they would make people who came across them pause from their everyday lives and remember that an individual killed by the Nazis once lived at that address.

The idea has found wide resonance in Germany and more then 3,500 of the plaques have been installed in 34 German cities.

Munich, however, will not be one of them.

Jewish opposition

The city council decided this week, following a proposal from three political parties -- the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Free Democrats (FDP) -- to withhold permission to install any of the memorials on public grounds, sidewalks included. In a sometimes explosive public debate, opponents of the project said a broad societal consensus had to be found first.

City council members from the Green Party and the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) voted to allow the project to go ahead.

Those against the stumbling stones project, or Stolpersteine in German, said they based their opposition on the opinion of the Jewish Cultural Center of Munich and Upper Bavaria, whose board had strongly disapproved of this form of memorial. For them, the fact that people would be walking over the names of those killed was unacceptable.

"Should neo-Nazis be able to wipe their dirt from their combat boots on the stones?" asked Marian Offman, member of the CSU and the board of the Jewish group, during the debate.

Grundsteinlegung für das Neue Jüdische Zentrum am Sonntag, 9. November 2003
German President Johannes Rau, Munich Mayor Christian Ude and Charlotte Knobloch, president of the Munich Jewish Cultural CenterImage: AP

Charlotte Knobloch (photo, right), president of the Jewish Cultural Center, said she found it "unbearable" that people would be "stepping all over" the names of murdered Jews, although she said the project was "well meant" and she could understand those who were of a different opinion.

Munich's mayor, Christian Ude, said he feared a "surfeit of memorials" and pointed to the planned Jewish Museum and the annual memorials for the victims of the brutal 1938 anti-Jewish pogrom called the "Night of Broken Glass" or at the former Dachau concentration camp.

One at a time

But for Demnig and the supporters of his project, the effectiveness of the "stumbling stones" lies in their focus on the individual, something impossible to achieve with large monuments or memorial services.

"My idea was to bring the names of people who were deported back to their homes, the houses where they had lived," Demnig said. "It's personal. Big monuments are abstract."

The plaques have only a few words on them: the name of the person, a birth date and location followed by a date and place or of death, if known. Many of the plaques end with the word Auschwitz.

Barbara Becker-Jákli is a historian at the El-De-Haus in Cologne, the city's former Gestapo headquarters that is now a museum and research center on the Third Reich. She helps artist Demnig find the names and addresses of Cologne Jews who were deported and killed by Hitler's regime.

"People come upon the stones for the first time and want to find out more about the people who are mentioned on them," she said. "It puts a human face on the Nazi terror. We're seeing a growing interest in this part of our history."

Project an expansion course

Demnig said he often receives calls from individuals and communities -- from Europe to the U.S. to Israel -- interested in sponsoring a plaque for €95 ($113). Demnig will create it and then travel to the city to install it. Since demand has gotten so high, he has had to enlist the aid of volunteers in various cities.

Bildgalerie Holocaust Gedenkstätte Stolpersteine gegen das Vergessen
Image: dpa

There are some 1,300 plaques in Cologne, 655 in Hamburg, around 400 in Berlin and others scattered throughout smaller towns and villages. Demnig said plaques are planned for Vienna and Paris and several other European cities have expressed interest.

For now, at least, Munich will not join this growing roster of cities. According to the Munich City Council's decision, Demnig will now have to remove the stones he has already embedded in that city's sidewalks.

Although the City Council said it was following the wishes of the Jewish community in rejecting the memorials, Jewish opinion is far from unanimous on the matter. Michael Rado, head of Cologne's Jewish community, said he does not agree that the stones in the ground are disrespectful of the memory of those killed. On the contrary, according to him, many Jews feel it is very important to have a marked burial place. The millions who were gassed and then cremated were denied that.

"Now they have gravestones," he said. "Whenever I pass a one of the plaques I see the name. If I see Löwenthal, I say, 'yep, now everybody can remember Mr. Löwenthal.' I'm satisfied."