These small brass cobblestones are found all over Europe. Placed into the pavement, you can’t see them until you’re right on top of them. They are called Stolpersteine, or ‘stumbling stones,’ and they commemorate victims of the Holocaust. This group includes Jews, but also homosexuals, Sinti and Roma, Poles, the physically or mentally disabled, Communists, the Christian opposition, conscientious objectors, and many other groups. The inscription on each stone begins “Here lived,” followed by the victim’s name, date of birth, and fate: internment, suicide, exile or, in the vast majority of cases, deportation and murder. Each one is installed into the pavement in front of the person’s last known chosen residence.

Focus on Individual Tragedies

Stumbling stones for family Costa da Fonceca in Amsterdam
Stumbling stones for the family Da Costa da Fonceca in Amsterdam

The stumbling stones above are on Niewe Kerkstraat in Amsterdam, just down the street from where we are currently staying. What caught my eye about these, other than being a family of eight, is the Portuguese name Costa da Fonceca. During the brutal four centuries of the Spanish Inquisition, many Jews left the Iberian Peninsula for the Dutch Republic, known even then for its high degree of religious tolerance. The Portuguese Synagogue is just around the corner, as is the Jewish Quarter. Hopefully this family was able to enjoy a few centuries of peace before the Nazis came for them.

The mother and two children were taken on the same January day and ultimately perished at Auschwitz. Three more died at Sobibór. Arnold was sent to Dorohucza, a labor camp in eastern Poland, where he was literally worked to death at the age of 19. But look at Abraham: he died May 4, just four days before the end of the war in Europe.

These small heartbreaking monuments provide incredibly personal insights into the victims. This is deliberate and contrasts with massive Holocaust memorials which are often nameless and faceless. Ironically, stumbling stones are possible in part because the Nazis kept incredibly detailed records of their operations.

Stumbling stones for Louis and Ruth Lamm

Like Anne Frank and her family, the Lamms fled Berlin in 1933 upon the rise of national socialism, but were ultimately deported and murdered at Auschwitz.

Stumbling stones for the Querido family

The Querido family were likely Jews from Spain. Although Jacob was deported and murdered, his wife Klara and their two children were “in hiding” and ultimately survived.

Origins of the Stumbling Stone Project

The Stolpersteine Project started in 1992 in Cologne, Germany. It was originally conceived as an initiative to commemorate Roma and Sinti victims of the Holocaust, but was expanded to include all victims. There are now over 75,000 of these tiles in more than 1,200 cities and towns across Europe and Russia. Together they comprise the world’s largest decentralized memorial. Each tile was created by hand by a single person, German artist Gunter Demnig. He makes as many as 440 per month. It is obviously a labor of love. “A person is only forgotten when his or her name is forgotten,” he often says, citing the Talmud.

As vast as the project is, it is a grass roots initiative. Local groups – typically residents of a particular street, religious groups, or students working on a project – come together to research the biographies of local victims. They then raise the €120 it costs to install each stumbling stone. Before the tiles can be installed, they must track down as many of the victim’s relatives as they can in order to ask for their approval, and to invite them to the installation ceremony. 

Symbolism of Stumbling Stones

The word ‘Stolperstein’ connotes multiple nuances of meaning, such as ‘stumbling block’ or ‘potential problem.’ The phrase “to stumble across something” in both German and English signifies a serendipitous discovery. Hence, the Stolpersteine art form presents the historical anti-Semitic “Jewish problem” in a manner that provokes contemplation and dialogue about contemporary issues.

As stated by the artist, by integrating stumbling stones into the fabric of ordinary daily life, encountering them becomes inevitable and impossible to ignore. Additionally, a stumbling stone serves as a symbolic means of returning the victims to their rightful neighborhoods by bringing them back to the very places where they belonged, long after they were deported.

Not everyone agrees with the project. Munich city officials, for example, refuse to allow the project to be implemented there. Additionally, some Jewish groups object to the victims’ memorials being placed on the ground to be stepped upon. Demnig disagrees. “One aspect has become very important for me,” he said. “When you come upon a stone and stop to read it, you automatically have to bow down to the victim.”

A documentary, Stolperstein, was made by Dörte Franke in 2008 and tells the story of this project. Applications continue to be accepted but requests are currently backlogged until 2024. Stumbling stones can be found in Germany, as well as in Austria, Belarus, Belgium, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Hungary, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Moldova, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK and Ukraine.

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