My foot scuffed something.
I was walking down the Kloveniersburgwal in Amsterdam in 2018 when something slightly tripped me over.
I looked down and saw something shiny embedded into the pavement. There were small plaques, which stood slightly proud from the brickwork. They resembled brass beer coasters, so I knelt down for a closer look. As I did so, I saw names, dates, and then…a place name. A place name that had me exhale sharply as soon as I re-read it to myself.
There were three other plaques that bore that word. A family, I assumed: Rosalie, Willy, Elsbeth and Betty: deported to Westerbork, a transit camp operated by the Dutch government in 1939 to transport German and Austrian refugees who were fleeing Nazi persecution to camps such as Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen. By Nazi standards, it was considered humane. Schools, entertainment facilities and cultural activities were provided to those who had been transported there: hatefully imbuing the people taken there with a false sense of hope that a better life was within reach. That their bid for freedom had bought them closer to just that – freedom. Anne Frank too was also transported to Westerbork, prior to being sent to Auschwitz.
This was my first encounter with a stoplerstein – a stumbling stone: which is designed to make you stumble both physically and mentally – to remember the predominately Jewish communities who were forcibly removed from their homes and taken to their deaths during World War Two. Stoplersteins are a grassroots history project and these brass plaques can be found across Europe that returns the names back to where these people once lived.
The project was created by artist Gunter Demnig in Cologne in 1992. A continuation of work he undertook in recreating the route forcibly taken by Roma and Sinti travellers in Germany where he used paint to mark their journey. Paint, like memories, fades and when a woman approached him saying how, although admiring his work, doubted that such travellers ever lived locally, he realised that whole communities of people had been forgotten. He then sought to create something that would address this erasure and confirm the existence and histories of these people.
Gunter Demnig with two brass plaques before installation. Photo: Stefan Puchner
The plaques are placed into the pavements outside the former homes of those etched into the metal. The plaques also encompass LGBTQ+, black, disabled and otherwise asocial communities deemed degenerate by the Nazis before they were taken away to be murdered. By 2019 over seventy-thousand stones have been placed across Europe, although the pandemic has hindered progress in installing more. Demnig now heads up a team of eight to oversee, create and manage this ongoing project of remembrance. The stumbling stones, thanks to his and the efforts of volunteers and local people, now exist in twenty four countries in twenty languages.
Each stone is made by hand by craftsman Michael Friedrichs-Friedländer with Demnig overseeing the large majority of the installations himself, to ensure their placement is respectful. Local groups work together to research the dead and fundraise the €120 it costs to install each one, as well as being responsible for tracing living relatives to ensure descendants are happy with the commemoration. The arrival and installation is often cathartic to the groups as the research regularly unearths some incredibly upsetting and profoundly moving lives and social histories.
Their placement on the pavement also navigates the issue of getting permission from homeowners were they to be attached to the homes of the taken: by placing them on the floor the only permission to be obtained is that of the local authority and therefore they become an unassuming and discreet part of the landscape.
The stumbling stone to Margarete Bernstein in Charlottenburg, Berlin. Bernstein was a member of Association of female artists in Berlin, the Women’s Art Association and the Free Association of Graphic Designers in Berlin. One of her paintings survive.
That’s not to say that the initiative is welcomed universally. The city of Munich banned them in 2004 as authorities found their positioning on the floor to be incredibly disrespectful and so instead earmarked $175,000 for an alternative remembrance project: biographical plaques affixed to former residences. Demnig does not object to this as the outcome remains the same: honouring and reclaiming communities and social history from the grip of persecution and murder.
The U.K. is actively working on its own commemoration of the Holocaust. Although centres in Huddersfield and Nottingham exist and a planned renovation of galleries in the Imperial War Museum highlight the atrocities, a report in 2015 headed by David Cameron highlighted there was still much to be done in terms of public history with the publication of the Holocaust Commission Report.
In June 2021 the controversial National Holocaust Memorial by the Palace of Westminster was given the green-light. Created in response to the dissatisfaction of the memorial in Hyde Park and a lack of adequate education on the subject amongst pupils today. From the description of the memorial that has been published, it will emulate aspects of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin – one of the most emotional and heart-wrenching pieces of public commemoration I have ever seen.
But the intimacy of the stumbling stones will not be seen here: our relationship is different to that what was suffered, seen and endured in Europe. As I walked around Berlin in 2020 I encountered more stolpersteins of the exact same layout and design, reminding me what happened in Amsterdam happened here and in other countries of Europe too. Their design unifying the disturbing narrative to those who were seen as abhorrent to Nazi ideals.
This gentle, but harsh, arresting and deeply upsetting reminder, beautiful and horrible in its simplicity, jarred me into thinking how dreadfully life was upended for some people over seventy five years ago because of their faith, skin colour, orientation or physical ability.
It’s a hard-hitting project that I think masterfully gives back a little of the humanity that was so cruelly destroyed all those years ago.