Unto every person there is a name. If you think about it, our names are the only possessions that we retain throughout our lives and many of us worry if they will be remembered long after we pass. In Jewish tradition, names are symbolic of divine energy.
Memory can be also regarded as the lifeblood of Jewish tradition. We remember our dead every year with special dates in the Hebrew calendar that mark the anniversary of their death and by lighting a yahrtzheit (memorial) candle. But what of the millions who perished in the Holocaust? Whole families and communities who were murdered? How do we remember them?
One poignant way is through a project called Stolpersteine(stumbling stones).
If you walk through the streets of Prague or Berlin or any number of European cities, you will come across brass plates, no bigger than 10cm x 10cm, dotted all over the cities. These are Stolpersteine.
Stolpersteine or “stumbling stones’ was founded by artist, Gunter Demnig. The project was started as a way to commemorate the victims of the Nazis. These plates are painstakingly and respectfully placed into the pavement in front of the last voluntarily chosen places of residence of the victims of the Nazis. Their names and fate are engraved into a brass plate on the top of each Stolpersteine.
These modest memorials keep memory alive; they bear testament to the tenet that here too, lived a person. This person had a life, a family and a future. The person that lived at this address ceased to exist because of hatred and intolerance.
It is not just Jews that are honoured by the Stolpersteine project. Famed Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, once commented that not all the victims were Jewish, but all the Jews were victims. The Nazis with their racist ideology, also deemed the Sinti and Roma, people from the political or religious resistance, people who had physical or mental disability and were “euthanized”, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses and anyone who they felt was “sub-human” and not a perfect Aryan.
For some families, participating in the Stolpersteine project, it is not just a way to eternally memorialise their lost loved ones, but a way to learn family history. It is also important for the descendants of those who perished, to have the opportunity to restore dignity to the victims that were so cruelly robbed and to give their loved ones the funerals they never had.
Yair Chelouche has a Stolpersteine dedicated to his family members in Berlin and Halle, Germany shared some thoughts:
“When I visited Berlin a couple of years ago and participated in a guided tour, I became curious where these Stolpersteine came from. I wrote to the project founders; and was told that my application was referred to the relevant region where my family came from and that it could take a few years to process. One day, I was contacted by one of the volunteers who dealt with the Stolpersteine in Pankow, where my family lived. Finding information on my grandmother was easy because all the documentation was there, where she lived and where she died later in Theresienstadt. My grandfather was more of an enigma; but after a lot of intense research, we found out that he was a PhD from Heidelberg University and one of the founders of one of the first Jewish student fraternities of that university. He was a great Zionist who knew Herzl, Bodenheimer and others who were giants of the Jewish world,” continues Yair, a great-grandchild who searched for his family roots and history.
“Finally, we were able to tie up all the loose ends and close the painful chapters of our family history that we did not know. Through learning about our family during this process, we were able to give them their name, their dignity, make sense of the places they lived in. We were able to follow in their footsteps until the cruel end of their lives”, he says.
Stolpersteine exist in many countries across Europe but not everyone embraced the memorials. The German city council of Munich rejected the Stolpersteine following objections from Munich’s Jewish community (and particularly its chairwoman, Charlotte Knobloch, then also President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, and herself a former victim of Nazi persecution). Knobloch objected to the idea that the names of murdered Jews be inserted in the pavement, where people might accidentally step on them. It would be seen as “walking on the graves of dead Jews”.
Founder of the Stolpersteine project, Demnig, participated in the discussions, stating that “he intends to create a memorial at the very place where the deportation started: at the homes where people had lived last”. A compromise was reached where plaques were put up on the walls of homes of individuals and not the pavement.
In other cities, permission for the project was preceded by long, sometimes emotional discussions. In Krefeld, the vice-chairman of the Jewish community, Michael Gilad, said that Demnig’s memorials reminded him of how the Nazis had used Jewish gravestones as slabs for sidewalks. A compromise was reached that a stolpersteine could be installed if a prospective site was approved by both the house’s owner and (if applicable) the victim’s relatives. Since 2009, 23 Stolpersteine for the Belgian city of Antwerp have been produced but have not be placed due to local resistance against the project. They have been stored in Brussels where they are regularly exhibited.
Most cities across Europe welcome this initiative. They recognize that as time passes and the numbers of survivors dwindle, projects like Stolpersteine play an important part in saying, I too existed. I too lived and loved.
I too had a name.
*Feature picture: A view of some “stolpersteine” in Berlin, August 2012. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images via JTA)