You can find them in many German and European cities: stumbling blocks – brass plaques on the floor with the names of Nazi victims. Today the artist Gunter Demnig publishes the 100,000. stumbling block. In Nuremberg.
The artist Gunter Demnig has just laid three stumbling blocks at Stadtgartenstraße 28 in Oberkirch in the Black Forest. The Jewish couple Siegfried and Clara Boss lived there with their daughter Erna Magener.
Fearing persecution by the National Socialists, the man committed suicide in 1938. His wife was deported to Theresienstadt in August 1942, where she died a few months later. The daughter, who was married to a non-Jewish “Aryan” in Nazi terminology, was deported to Theresienstadt shortly before the end of the war, but survived the ordeal there and remained in Germany despite the experiences under Hitler’s regime.
Gunter Demnig in his workshop
Stumbling blocks in many cities
These fates are now commemorated by small brass plaques measuring 96 by 96 millimeters with the names and dates of life of the Nazi victims, embedded in the floor in front of the building that was their home.
In the meantime, Demnig, a native of Berlin, has laid these stumbling blocks in more than 1,265 German cities and communities and in 31 European countries. In this way, today, May 26, the artist will be turning 100,000 in Nuremberg. Commemorate a person who was persecuted, harassed, tortured and murdered by the National Socialists.
Commemorating the deportation of Roma and Sinti
It all began with a campaign to commemorate the deportation of Cologne’s Roma and Sinti in May 1940, Demnig explains in an interview with the BR. He misplaced a trail of writing on the subject: “This deportation was something like a dress rehearsal, because removing a thousand people is a logistical achievement.” In Cologne’s old town, an elderly lady approached him while he was working on the trace of writing – “obviously a contemporary witness”. She said to him: “Yes, good man, what you are doing is quite impressive, but here with us there have never been any gypsies.”
That’s when he realized “that she really didn’t know that. That was actually the trigger to bring the names back to where this horror began,” reports the 75-year-old. In the beginning it was more like “concept art”, i.e. an idea that he didn’t seriously want to turn into reality.
In December 2019, Demnig laid the 75,000 in Memmingen. stumbling block. It commemorates the fate of the Jewish Rosenbaum family.
There is also criticism
Many people are impressed and shocked by the stumbling blocks that often suddenly come into view. However, there is also criticism, most violently from Charlotte Knobloch, who vetoed it in 2004 as President of the Munich Jewish Community and Holocaust survivor. That is why there are no stumbling blocks in public space in the Bavarian state capital, the birthplace of National Socialism.
Knobloch had had to watch personally how SA men harassed Jews and kicked them, she felt a traumatic reminder of that through the brass plaques on the floor.
However, Demnig does not accept this emotional rejection, according to which the victims were once again “trampled underfoot”: “I think that’s an advanced argument, because then you wouldn’t be allowed to enter St. Peter’s Basilica, you really walk over the tombstones. And the more people walk over the tombs in these Catholic churches, the more honored those buried there can feel. Most of them, by the way, do me a favor and don’t even step on the stones. They make a bow, stop and read.”
Research as a form of commemoration
Many later-born Jews, including Josef Schuster, who has been chairman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany since November 2014, praised the stumbling blocks as “a sign of common remembrance and commemoration”. In 2021, when 40 brass plaques were laid in Würzburg, Schuster said: “The Stolpersteine art project includes the research that precedes the laying of each individual stone. Luckily the artist Gunter Demnig doesn’t make that easy for people and does it for them.”
If you want to lay a stumbling block, become a sponsor and now have to do your own research: who lived in this house? Where were these people taken to? How and where were they murdered? Are there still relatives? As a result of this research, an examination of the Nazi era takes place that is hard to imagine, said Schuster. “It’s a form of commemoration that is immediate and very personal.”
In the meantime, Demnig has set up a foundation to ensure the continuation of his work. Eleven employees are currently doing research there.
Commemoration of Johann Wild in Nuremberg
In Nuremberg, the 100,000. Stolperstein should be dedicated to the self-confessed socialist Johann Wild, who had been sentenced to death by a special court for a so-called radio crime – he had been listening to foreign radio programs. He died on May 17, 1941 in the Munich-Stadelheim detention center from the guillotine, as can be read on Gunter Demnig’s website.
Nuremberg, the city in which the main Nazi war criminals were tried, today stands for “respect for and protection of human rights,” it says there. Actually, twelve million stumbling blocks are necessary to commemorate all victims of the Nazi regime appropriately.
Homeowners against blackboards
Demnig recalls that property owners in Villingen-Schwenningen were once against the laying of stumbling blocks because they were afraid that the buildings would become unsaleable or at least drop in price: “It took six years for the tide to turn. I’ve been there three times now.”
It was also the concerns of the homeowners that discouraged him from installing blackboards: a Jew who is a friend of his from Leipzig warned him that “80 to 90 percent of the property owners” would be against it: “That gave rise to the idea of using the avoiding public street space,” says the artist, who wants his works to be understood as “art monuments”. He is convinced: “When students are suddenly confronted with such a family fate around the corner, it’s a different kind of history lesson.”