Unearthing the Meaning of Berlin’s “Stolpersteines”

Ever stumble across these shiny plates on the streets of Berlin? We explore the significance of Gunter Demnig's memorial stolpersteines, or "stumbling blocks."


Artist Gunter Demnig poses with some of his stolpersteines, or “stumbling blocks.” Photo courtesy of Herman J. Knippertz. 

Many travelers to Berlin pay homage to the victims of the Holocaust by touring concentration camps and visiting other memorials of the event. But they might be missing out on a different, more immediate kind of memorial. German artist Gunter Demnig has created a new way to remember victims of the Holocaust in Berlin. He plants brass cubes in the streets of various German neighborhoods where victims once lived.

These cubes are known as stolpersteines, which is German for “stumbling blocks,” though once embedded into the street they lay flat. Demnig makes each brass plate individually. Carved into the Stolpersteine is the victim’s last address after they were deported, along with their birthdate, name and date of death.

Demnig deliberately designed the memorials so that people would not only ‘stumble over’ the plate itself but also the memory of the victim. He insists this brings honor to the victim. However, the general population tends to avoid stepping on the memorials, because they feel that the plates resemble gravestones or epigraphs and therefore that to step on them would be disrespectful. Consequently, no one steps on the stolpersteines, and the brass oxidizes and fades to brown, essentially tarnishing each victim’s memory, instead of honoring them.


Demnig shines a collection of embedded stolpersteines on the streets of Berlin. Photo courtesy of Gesche M. Cordes.

Despite this waltz of perceived honor or dishonor, families of the deceased still hold the project dear, and many people volunteer to carry on Demnig’s project. In an effort to increase awareness of the stolpersteine project, Jewish American director Howard Shattner filmed a documentary called Stumbling Stones for My Family about the process of installing the stolpersteines and how the project as a whole affects and informs German communities.

This is not a new project. Demnig started this project in 1996, illegally. Authorities demanded the removal of the already placed plates. Construction refused and bureaucrats came to inspect these stones. The stones got legalized in 2000. And yet, the German community and visitors to the city are constantly rediscovering the stolpersteines. Perhaps the reason this project is so affecting is that it gives present generations a way to engage with the past.
If you want a stolpersteine made for a victim, anyone can contact Demnig on his website.

Get in touch with the author at @mariauntapped. 

 Berlin, culture, europe, history, Street Art

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