A unique memorial to Holocaust victims found in a thousand European cities in 16 countries may finally come to Munich, a decade after the city forbade the installation of what are known as the stolpersteine (“stumbling blocks”).
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Stolpersteine are small, cobblestone-sized memorials for an individual victim of Nazism, each manufactured by hand and installed in the sidewalk by Gunter Demnig, a Cologne-based artist who launched the initiative in 1994. Each stolperstein is a concrete 10 cm cube covered in brass, on which are stamped the person’s details: his or her name, year of birth and fate, as well as the dates of deportation and death, if known. Most are inserted flush with the sidewalk of the person’s last known residence, though in some cases the stone is placed near the person’s place of work. Information for the stolpersteine comes from schools, relatives, and various organizations, including the database of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. More than 43,000 stolpersteine have been installed all over Europe.
Some 880 cities in Germany are participating in the project, with cities like Berlin and Hamburg each installing over 4,000 stolpersteine on their streets. But Munich has only a handful and even those are installed on private property, since the city banned them from public areas in 2004. Because passersby often step on the stolerpsteine, some city officials believed that this form of memorializing was offensive to the memory of the victims. Two of the most prominent proponents of this opinion are Munich Mayor Christian Ude and the head of Munich’s Jewish community, Charlotte Knobloch.
But they represent a minority opinion in Germany that runs counter to the position of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who supports the project. “You come again and again to a certain address on a street, and you have to remember,” Merkel said recently of the stones.
Now Munich resident Terry Swartzberg, who heads an initiative to get Munich to participate in the project, has succeeded in persuading the municipality to hold a hearing to reconsider its policy. From a survey Swartzberg conducted among 453 Munich residents, 93 percent supported the idea.
The hearing, to take place in around three months, will be attended by the mayors of neighboring cities where stolpersteine are installed, Holocaust survivors, and officials of the Jewish community. Swartzberg is encouraged by the attitude of Munich residents, saying he believes the stolpersteine restore the lost dignity of those murdered, many of whom have no grave.
“The terror didn’t start in Auschwitz, Sobibor or Theresienstadt; it began in our homes and among our neighbors,” wrote one Munich resident who was surveyed.
“I’m a lesbian, and if I had been living then, this probably would have been my fate as well,” wrote another survey participant.
“I’m not prepared to accept the fact that the Munich municipality will decide for me how I’m meant to remember or mourn. No one has a monopoly on memory, pain, and shame,” wrote another participant.