Have you ever wondered about the reason behind the brass-plated cubes embedded into the streets of some Dutch cities? Stolpersteine, also known as struikelstenen in Dutch, have been present in the Netherlands since 2007. To mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day, we take a look at the origins of the stumbling stone Holocaust memorial project that has spread across many corners of Europe. 

What are Stolpersteine / struikelstenen (stumbling stones)?Stolpersteine are a unique and ubiquitous memorial, first installed in Germany in 1992 by artist Gunter Demnig. These “stumbling stones” commemorate those targeted by the National Socialist regime around and during the Second World War. Since the first stone was laid in the early 1990s, they have spread across multiple other countries, and there are now over 100.000 brass-plated Stolpersteine throughout Europe.

Each stone is just 10×10 centimetres, a concrete cube with a plaque of golden brass which is most commonly laid before the last voluntary residence of victims of the Nazi regime. The same wording is used on almost every stone, translated into the language of the country where they are placed. In the Netherlands, they read “Hier woonde” (here lived) at the top, followed by the name of the victim and their birth date. This is followed by the date the victim was arrested or deported, sometimes an exact date, sometimes only a year, and where they were held prisoner.

The last line on most Stolpersteine has one of three words: “vermoord” (murdered), “bevrijd” (liberated) or “overleefd” (survived). In many cases, a number of Stolpersteine are laid alongside each other, where a whole family has been memorialised. 

These distinctly condensed biographies are all hand-engraved and while they are absent of personal detail, it is perhaps their banal, precise and repetitive language which makes the project so effective at communicating the magnitude of human suffering caused by the Nazis. Demnig has called his project, “The world’s largest decentralised artwork.”

The history of StolpersteineIn 1992, Demnig laid the first Stolperstein in front of the city hall in Cologne, Germany, without permission from the local council. It did not memorialise an individual but stated the details of Heinrich Himmler’s Auschwitz Decree. The 1942 decree commanded the deportation of Sinti and Roma people living in Germany. In the years that followed, Demnig placed the first stones which remembered specific individuals, some of the earliest being trade unionists and Roma victims of the Nazi regime.

Demnig has now been doing the project for over 20 years, and some moments are particularly moving for him. Once, two sisters who had fled Germany for Scotland and Colombia were reunited at Demnig’s stone laying after 60 years of separation. “There they were,” he said, “standing in front of the former home, saying, “Now we’re reunited with our parents.” At moments like that, I know what I’m doing this for,” Demnig told Deutsche Welle.

Stumbling stones in the NetherlandsIn November 2007, the first Stolpersteine were installed in the Netherlands in the town of Borne. There have since been more stumbling stones placed in other Dutch cities, with the majority being laid in Amsterdam. 

Anyone can request for a Stolperstein to be placed and residents often request them after discovering the history of their buildings and the stories of previous inhabitants. Before a stone is installed, the surviving family of the victims are contacted and asked to give their permission. Only if they agree will the stone be placed. The victims’ families are often invited to attend the placement ceremonies, which are also open to the public. 

With the Anne Frank House being in the Netherlands, you might expect to see Stolpersteine for Anne Frank and her family in Amsterdam as well. However, before the German-Jewish family fled to the Netherlands, they lived in Aachen, Germany. This was their last chosen place of residence and is therefore the location where the Stolpersteine for Anne Frank, her sister Margot, and her mother Edith are placed.

Image credit: Dan Race / Shutterstock.com

The Stolperstein: A stumbling blockWhile Demnig didn’t have permission to lay some of the first memorial stones, he now receives assistance from local authorities when placing Stolpersteine. Despite the support from many organisations, there are still some critics of the project. 

The former president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Charlotte Knobloch, believes Demnig’s Stolpersteine to be disrespectful to Jewish people because they are placed on the ground, meaning passers-by may walk over them or they could potentially be damaged. For this reason, there are no Stolpersteine in Munich.

In contrast, Israeli publicist and former diplomat Avi Primor has said the placement of Stolpersteine on the ground is meaningful: “The Stolpersteine are the opposite of repression,” he said to Deutsche Welle. “They are at our feet, right in front of our eyes, forcing us to look down.” Demnig agrees; responding to the criticism he said to the same outlet, “Whoever wants to read the inscription must bow to the victim first.”

Stolpersteine memorials around the worldSince the first Stolperstein outside of Germany was laid in Austria in 1997, the memorial project has been expanding across Europe. Stolpersteine remember Jewish, Sinti, Roma and LGBTQ+ people, politically persecuted trade unionists and resistance fighters, Jehovah’s Witnesses and euthanasia victims. The stumbling stones have been placed as far north as Norway and as far south as Greece, with the past decade, in particular, having seen the 10×10 brass plaques laid across all corners of the continent. 

The Netherlands, Belgium, France and other countries that were invaded by the Nazis have the most Stolpersteine outside of Germany. Italy, also with its own historically fascist politics, has hundreds of stones, while countries such as Finland and Sweden have just a handful.

A stumbling stone in the United Kingdom was placed as recently as June 2022 and is the only one in the country to date. It lies in Golden Square in London’s Soho and commemorates the life of Ada van Dantzig, a young Dutch painting conservationist. Van Dantzig returned to the Netherlands to help her family flee the Nazis, but after their escape plan failed, most of the family were deported to Auschwitz, where they were murdered.

The summer of 2022 also saw Demnig travel to Ireland to lay the country’s first six stones. The row of stones was laid outside St. Catherine’s School in the Portobello district of Dublin, colloquially known for its large Jewish community as Little Jerusalem.

One of the laid stones remembers Ettie Steinberg, a seamstress who attended the school and is thought to be one of the few Irish Jews to have been killed in the Holocaust. Steinberg moved from Dublin to Antwerp with her Belgian husband in the late 1930s. The couple and their son moved through Europe fleeing Nazi invasions. As the risk of persecution became clearer, they attempted to escape. Their visa applications for Northern Ireland were accepted, but after their documents arrived too late, the family were deported and murdered at Auschwitz.

Maps of StolpersteineA number of websites and apps are available to find Stolpersteine in the Netherlands. There you can also discover more information about the victims of National Socialism that are commemorated by memorial stones and learn about their stories. 

There is a map of Stolpersteine that have already been placed in Amsterdam, Haarlem and Utrecht on the website of Stichting Stolpersteine. A map with the locations of the more than 14.000 stumbling stones in over 300 cities in the Netherlands and Belgium can be found in the Stolpersteine.app database.

Reflecting on the past through StolpersteineOn January 27, the Netherlands and the rest of the world commemorate the victims of the Nazi regime on Holocaust Remembrance Day. There are often events held at monuments across the country and it is even common to see locals cleaning, polishing and laying candles beside the Stolpersteine nearest to their front door in the days surrounding the memorial day. 

Part of the idea behind Demnig’s project was to engage with the Talmud’s statement that “A person is only forgotten when their name is forgotten”, and it is clear that Stolpersteine have ensured that the process of reckoning with Nazi atrocities, both in personal experiences and across society, continues in Germany and Europe. The omnipresence of Stolpersteine reminds us that throughout history, and today, systems of racism, religious, sexual, ableist and political persecution are often woven into the fabric of our everyday lives.

This article originally appeared on IamExpat in Germany

Thumb image credit: Zivko Trikic / Shutterstock.com

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