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'Stolpersteine': Commemorating victims of Nazi persecution

Stefan Dege
May 30, 2023

A plaque commemorating a victim of Nazi persecution in Nuremberg became the 100,000th "Stolperstein" on May 26. The art project by Gunter Demnig is the largest decentralized Holocaust memorial in the world.

A picture of a little brass plaque set into a pavement in Berlin containing the details of a person's date of birth and death, surrounded by colorful dahlias.
Berlin, August 2021: Stolperstein of Ferdinand James Allen, who was born in 1898 and died in 1941, surrounded by colorful dahliasImage: Harrison Mwilima/DW

"Stolperstein" is a German word meaning, literally, "stumbling stone," or, metaphorically, "stumbling block." 

Each of the brass plaques embedded in pavements recalls the fate of a person who was persecuted by the Nazis, deported, murdered or driven to suicide.

Gunter Demnig and his team place the plaques on sidewalks in front of the last address where victims of Nazi persecution lived voluntarily. So far, 100,000 Stolpersteine have been installed in 27 European countries.

The latest Stolperstein, installed on May 26, honors Johann Wild, a firefighter from Nuremberg. He was executed for writing letters in which he denounced the Nazi regime.

Gunter Demnig in a photo from October 2022: He is wearing a brown hat and a gray vest, and holding two engraved square brass plaques in his hands.
100,000 of artist Gunter Demnig's 'Stolpersteine' have now been laid in memory of victims of Nazi persecutionImage: Nadine Weigel/dpa/picture alliance

An art project's illegal roots

Demnig launched his project in Cologne in 1996, illegally, without official permission.

The first plaque was placed on the anniversary of the so-called Auschwitz Decree issued by Heinrich Himmler, one of the main people responsible for the Holocaust.

With the decree, the former Reichsführer SS ordered the deportation of all Sinti and Roma living in the German Reich. Demnig's Stolpersteine are a private form of remembrance, separate from the state culture of remembrance in Germany.  

"The Stolpersteine are my life's work," says the 75-year-old sculptor. He lives with his wife Katja in central Hesse, western Germany. His trademark is a wide-brimmed brown cowboy hat. In the beginning, he laid the 10-by-10-centimeter (4-by-4 inch) cubes himself, but now other people are getting involved. The names and fates of the victims are engraved on the brass plaques.

In a photo taken in Augsburg in May 2017, a gloved hand is seen reaching for a a stone cube with a brass plaque on it.
Brick by brick: The project is now the world's largest decentralized Holocaust memorialImage: Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/Photoshot/picture alliance

More effective than a history book

The artist remembers many of the stories behind the plaques. "At one laying ceremony, two sisters came," he says. "One came from Colombia, the other from Scotland. Both had been saved by the Kindertransport [an organized rescue effort for children from Nazi-controlled territory], but their parents were murdered. They hadn't seen each other in 60 years and said, 'Now we're reunited with our parents.'" Demnig says, covering his eyes with his hand and fighting back tears. Such encounters have made him realize the meaning of his initiative, he adds.

These days, the new Stolpersteine are initiated by historical societies, citizens' initiatives, or school projects. A plaque costs €132 ($142), inclusing having it laid.

The idea behind the Stolpersteine is that people walking along will see the bronze plaque and stop, curious to know whom it commemorates and what happened to them. That's the effect Demnig hopes to achieve. The artist is convinced that "there's a difference between a teenager opening a book and reading about 6 million murdered Jews, and them learning about the fate of a family while standing where they lived."

In a photo from November 2021, Gunter Demnig kneels while finishing laying several brass plaques in the pavement in front of the Foreign Ministry in Berlin.
Artist Gunter Demnig has also laid his Stolpersteine in front of Germany's Foreign MinistryImage: Benjamin Alvarez/DW

Objections to the project

But some people, including representatives of Jewish organizations, are critical of the project. Charlotte Knobloch, a leader of the Jewish community in Munich, says that by putting the plaques in the pavement, Demnig is allowing the victims' fates to literally be stepped all over.

The artist rejects that criticism out of hand, calling it an "unspeakable counterargument." He says that statements of that kind trivialize Nazi atrocities and mock the victims: "The Nazis weren't content to simply trample their victims. They had a targeted extermination program," says Demnig.

Penzberg, Germany, April 2022: Two white roses lie next to two brass plaques commemorating Franz Xaver Fleissner and Agathe Fleissner.
Gunter Demnig's mission is to give back Holocaust victims their names and dignityImage: Peter Kneffel/dpa/picture alliance

The originator of the Stolpersteine won't let the objections to his project — which even go as far as death threats — deter him from continuing his mission.

Gunter Demnig says he wants to call attention to Nazi crimes, wherever they were committed. And he wants to give the victims of the Holocaust back their names and their dignity, and make sure they will not be forgotten.

This article was originally written in German.