'Stumbling Blocks' Cobblestone Memorials to Murdered Jews Spread in Berlin

Street-Level Tributes to Holocaust Victims Multiply

Step in Stone: German artist Gunter Demnig works on his ‘Stumbling Blocks’ Holocaust memorial.
getty images
Step in Stone: German artist Gunter Demnig works on his ‘Stumbling Blocks’ Holocaust memorial.

By Christopher Alessi

Published April 30, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share

(Reuters) — Veronika Houboi watched as a man in a cowboy hat and clogs wielded a sledge hammer to smash up and remove a dozen small cobblestones from a Berlin pavement.

He quickly filled the resulting hole with two identical blocks of concrete capped with inscribed square brass plates.

The blocks, called “Stolpersteine” or “stumbling blocks,” read: “Here lived Dr. Erich Blumenthal, born 1883, deported 29.11.1942, murdered in Auschwitz. Here lived Helene Blumenthal, born 1888, deported 29.11.1942, murdered in Auschwitz.”

In Berlin, the blocks have become part of the fabric of the city, their plates glinting amid the grey paving on residential streets and stopping both locals and tourists in their tracks.

Houboi and her husband sponsored the Blumenthals’ blocks, travelling across Germany to see them laid in the northeast Berlin neighbourhood where Houboi, now 71, grew up in the 1940s.

As a child, she had been moved by a story about the family’s local doctor, who had defied Nazi laws banning Jewish medics from treating non-Jews to care for her critically ill brother.

Unable to find the name of that doctor, Houboi decided to symbolically honour him by commissioning blocks for another local Jewish doctor, Dr. Blumenthal, and his wife.

The man behind the stumbling blocks is Cologne-based artist Gunter Demnig, who in 1996 illegally laid the first 41 in the Berlin neighbourhood of Kreuzberg, having found the names in a local history book about the area’s Jewish population.

Three months later, the city granted Demnig permission to legally proceed with the project. Today there are 45,000 “Stolpersteine” in Germany and 16 other European countries. Berlin alone has 5,500 of them.

RISING DEMAND

After working on an art project commemorating the Nazi deportation of Cologne’s Sinti and Roma itinerants, Demnig became determined to show how victims of the Holocaust had been an integral part of German and European society before the war.

“The idea was to bring back the names (of the deported) in front of the houses where they had lived,” Demnig said. He added that Germans today had a greater desire to remember the atrocities of the Holocaust than when he was a child.

“In my school, history stopped with the Weimar Republic, because the teacher wasn’t interested … but now young people really want to know,” said Demnig, who was born in 1947.

Demand for the stones has been steadily rising in recent years, as the project has become better known abroad. Demnig’s team installs on average 5,000 to 6,000 stumbling blocks a year across Europe, the majority of them in Berlin.

The stones are commissioned based on requests by relatives of victims or by neighbours present and past, like Houboi.

At 120 euros ($170) a stumbling block, Demnig’s business is booming. Customers often have to wait up to a year, he said.

Demnig denies accusations he is profiting from the enterprise. “One cannot say it’s a business. It’s a piece of art … Artists have to live from their work,” Demnig said.

The project is largely privately financed. In Berlin, an independent coordinating agency funded by the city works with volunteer groups and museums to field requests and do historical research on victims like the Blumenthals.

Also at the installation with Houboi was Colonel Erez Katz, the Israeli defence attache to Germany and Austria. Katz has been moved by Demnig’s work and planned to spend the day with the artist as he installed stones at 12 different Berlin sites.

Katz said he took every Israeli military delegation that visits Germany to view the stumbling blocks.

“How German people remember the Holocaust surprised and impressed me. Every street has these stones. They take responsibility,” Katz said.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.