2:51am

Thu May 31, 2012
Europe

Stumbling Upon Miniature Memorials To Nazi Victims

Originally published on Thu May 31, 2012 8:59 am

Brick by brick, Guenther Demnig is working to change how the Holocaust is publicly remembered in Germany.

On a recent afternoon, the 62-year-old Berlin-born artist is on his knees on a sidewalk in a prosperous section of Berlin's Charlottenburg district, working a hammer and small trowel. He is installing dozens of small, square brass bricks, each one inscribed with the name — and details about the death of — people who once lived in apartment houses on Pestalozzi Strasse.

"Today we are laying 45 stones for Jewish victims that lived in these houses," Demnig says as he secures the brass brick for Martin Lwowski, a former resident deported in 1943 and murdered at Auschwitz.

Wearing a cowboy hat and denim from head to toe, Demnig is watched by a quiet throng, many dressed in their Sunday, or Sabbath, best, out of respect for the dead. He first got the idea for the Stolperstein, or "stumbling stones," as part of an art project back in the mid-1990s when he installed 55 such commemorative stones in Berlin sidewalks.

In the ensuing years, the project has mushroomed. Now, there are more than 30,000 commemorative bricks in dozens of cities and towns across Germany.

A More Personal Memorial

Demnig relies on local residents and schools, as well as religious and secular groups, to research the victims, their last address and where they were killed. He then makes and installs the bricks with help from two apprentices.

This kind of memorial is more personal, he says, because it commemorates where the terror began, likely with a Gestapo or SS raid on a victim's apartment.

Germans have long anguished over and debated how to best memorialize victims of the Nazi regime: millions of European Jews murdered in the Holocaust as well as political opponents, homosexuals, Roma and disabled people. There are museums and some big memorials, but to Demnig and many others, those are hardly adequate.

"I think the large Holocaust memorial here [in Berlin] will always remain abstract. You have to make the decision to visit it," Demnig says. "But not with the stumbling blocks. Suddenly they are there, right outside your front door, at your feet, in front of you."

'Everyone' Responsible For Remembering

These latest bricks, which are always privately funded, were organized by 52-year-old Hendrik Czeczatka, who spent part of his childhood in an apartment building on Pestalozzi Strasse where his grandmother lived.

"I grew up right here. I played football in this courtyard. I broke that window right there," Czeczatka says, pointing, "much to the dismay of my grandmother."

Just off the street in the courtyard of a 19th century tenement housing block is a synagogue, built in 1918. It survived the Kristallnacht attacks in November 1938, during which Germans torched and ransacked Jewish homes, stores and synagogues.

Czeczatka remembers his grandmother telling him how she instructed the Nazis not to burn the synagogue because Aryans lived in the surrounding apartments. After Czeczatka moved into the family apartment about 15 years ago, he began to research just who lived in his building. He found names of more than 40 Jewish residents who were rounded up and deported to death camps, mostly Theresienstadt.

Before 1933, Charlottenburg had the largest Jewish population in Berlin. Yet Czeczatka was alarmed that so few households in the area had bothered to request Demnig's bricks. So he started raising money and awareness.

"Everybody in the first place is responsible, individually, for remembering. One can't pass off everything to the state. And we are the state anyway," Czeczatka says. "All of us must continue to insist that Nazis are not welcome, that we must keep the memory alive and learn from our history so that it does not happen again."

Critics: Blocks Victimize Anew

One of the onlookers at the informal, yet emotionally charged and police-protected bricklaying ceremony is Lala Suesskind, former chairman of the synagogue's committee. Suesskind has come to meet Czeczatka and shake his hand.

"That this is the initiative of a non-Jewish resident and his wife really moves me," Suesskind says.

The brick project has its critics. Some homeowners elsewhere have complained quietly that having quasi-tombstones in the sidewalk outside is bad for property values and business.

But the main complaints are that the bricks only highlight victimhood, and that when people, dogs and bikes trample over the names of the dead, some argue, they are victimized a second time.

In Munich, city officials and a large influential Jewish group rejected the project. In fact, they banned the bricks after arguing that they desecrated the memory of the victims.

But Helmut Loelhoeffel, coordinator of the Charlottenburg Stumbling Block Initiative, believes those criticisms are misplaced.

"Six million Jews were killed, murdered. The stumbling blocks make clear that it was one plus one plus one plus one," Loelhoeffel says. "It makes clear that they were all individuals."

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Germany has long anguished over how best to memorialize the millions of people murdered during the Holocaust. There are museums and large memorials, but some would prefer something more personal and poignant. NPR's Eric Westervelt has this story of an artist who's found a different way to remember.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: The digitally distracted walk down a posh street in Berlin's Mitte district lost in their smartphones or eyeing the latest absurdly priced shoes and window goods.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Could we get coffee to go? Oh. Nice.

WESTERVELT: But sometimes, tourists and locals alike stumble on the small, brass bricks in the sidewalk. Engraved on each brick is the name of a Holocaust victim, date and place of death - if known - outside the last known place he or she freely chose to live.

Take this, for example, just outside an apartment complex right next to an ice cream parlor. Here's six bricks: Siegfried, Jenny, Martin Leonard and Elsie Schaye - all deported and murdered in Auschwitz in 1942. And here's Alfred Altoona. It just says tod - dead - 1942. All of them lived here.

On a recent spring afternoon across town in Berlin's prosperous Charlottenburg neighborhood, Gunther Demnig is on his knees, working a hammer, chisel and small trowel. Wearing a cowboy hat and denim from head to toe, Demnig is watched by a quiet throng here on Pestalozzi Strasse, many dressed in their Sunday or Sabbath best out of respect for the dead.

The 62-year-old, Berlin-born artist and sculptor is filling the sidewalk with dozens of small, square brass bricks with details of the dead.

GUENTHER DEMNIG: (German spoken)

WESTERVELT: Today, we're laying 45 stones for Jewish victims that lived in these houses, he says, and then secures the brass brick in memory of Martin Lwowski, deported 1943, murdered in Auschwitz, it reads.

Demnig first got the idea for the Stolperstein, or stumbling stones, as part of an art project back in the mid-'90s. At first, he installed 55 such stones in Berlin sidewalks. In the ensuing years, the project has mushroomed: There are now more than 30,000 commemorative bricks in dozens of cities and towns across Germany.

Demnig relies on local residents, schools, as well as religious and secular groups, to research the victims and their last address. He then makes and installs the bricks with help from two apprentices. This kind of memorial is more personal, he says, because it commemorates where the terror began: likely with a Gestapo or SS raid on a victim's apartment.

DEMNIG: (German spoken)

WESTERVELT: I think the large Holocaust memorial will always remain a bit abstract, he says. You have to make the decision to visit it, but not with the stumbling blocks. Suddenly, they're there, right outside your front door, your store, at your feet, he says.

These latest bricks, which are always privately funded, were organized by 52-year-old Hendrik Czeczatka, who spent part of his childhood in this apartment building on Pestalozzi Strasse, where his grandmother lived.

HENDRIK CZECZATKA: (German spoken)

WESTERVELT: I grew up right here. I played football in this courtyard. I broke that window right there, he says, pointing, much to the dismay of my grandmother.

Just off the street in the courtyard of this 19th-century tenement housing block is a synagogue, built in 1918. It survived the Kristallnacht attacks in November 1938, which saw Germans torch and ransack Jewish homes, stores and synagogues.

Czeczatka remembers his grandmother saying she told the Nazis not to burn the synagogue because Aryans lived in the surrounding apartments. After Czeczatka moved into the family apartment about 15 years ago, he began to research just who lived in the building. He found the names of 40 Jewish residents who were rounded up and deported to death camps. Charlottenburg had the largest Jewish population in Berlin before 1933. Yet Czeczatka was alarmed that so few households in the area had bothered to request Demnig's bricks. So he started raising money and awareness.

CZECZATKA: (German spoken)

WESTERVELT: Everybody is responsible, individually, for remembering in the first place. One can't pass off everything to the state. And we are the state, anyway, he says, adding: All of us have to continue to insist Nazis aren't welcome. We must keep the memory alive and learn from our history so that it doesn't happen again, he says.

The brick project has always drawn sharp criticism and controversy. Some owners have complained quietly that having quasi-tombstones in the sidewalk outside is bad for property values and business. But the main complaints are that the bricks highlight victim-hood only, and that people, dogs and bikes trample over the names of the dead, victimizing them a second time.

In Munich, city officials and a large influential Jewish group rejected the project - banning the bricks, in fact - arguing that they desecrated the memory of the victims.

But Helmut Loelhoeffel, coordinator of the Charlottenburg Stumbling Block Initiative, says those criticisms are misplaced.

HELMUT LOELHOEFFEL: (German spoken)

WESTERVELT: Six million Jews were killed, murdered. The stumbling blocks make clear that it was one, plus one, plus one, he says, that they were all individuals.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Berlin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.