By James Marten
A few weeks ago I literally stumbled across some of the most moving historical monuments I’ve ever seen. I was attending a conference on the experiences of military veterans through the ages and around the world in Hamburg, Germany, where I stayed in a lovely late nineteenth century neighborhood unscarred by the massive bombing of this northern German port during the Second World War. As I walked the streets lined with trees just coming into full autumn color, I occasionally came across little bronze plates hammered into the concrete or nestled into the cobblestones; in fact, two were right outside my hotel. The simple inscriptions consisted of names, dates, and a few German words; their meaning became clear after I recognized a few words that have been seared into the world’s historical consciousness seventy years ago: Theresienstadt, Lodz. They were concentration camps, and the information etched into the brass were the names of victims who died there, with their dates of birth, dates of “deportation,” and, if known, dates of death (some simply had question marks rather than death dates). The first words on each were “Here lived . . . ,” and, indeed, the memorials have been placed outside buildings or at least addresses where the victims had actually lived when they were taken away.
A little on-line research revealed that the stones were the idea of a Cologne artist named Gunter Demnig, who installed the first fifty-five plagues as an art project in Berlin in the 1990s. Since then tens of thousands have been placed in dozens of cities across Germany and in some cities occupied by Nazis during the war. Individuals, religious congregations, schools, and others have come up with the €120 (about $150) and have done much of the work of documenting the homes, names, and fates of the people remembered on the markers. Several websites can locate stolpersteine in various cities by the victims’ names or addresses (click here for Berlin’s searchable website).
Some Jewish groups have complained that the constant traffic of humans and dogs and other urban pedestrians over the brass plates (in fact, all of the ones I saw were more or less scuffed) demean the memories of the victims. However, Demnig claims that the markers highlight the personal, individual experience of the holocaust. And they are, indeed, memorable, even riveting. They provide a specificity to our mind-numbing knowledge the millions of victims of Nazi genocide that I found extraordinarily moving.
Most of us have seen movies, documentaries, or other images of the genocides of the Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies and other ethnic groups, the disabled, Communists, and other enemies of the Nazi state. They offer appropriately horrifying images that most of us probably can’t get out of our heads (the skeletal corpses stacked like cordwood, the little girl in the red coat from Schindler’s List, the weeping, confused men, women, and children waiting to be chosen for death camps or work camps beside waiting box cars.
But these tiny 4” x 4” brass markers, despite their subtlety, are equally haunting to me. They’re nearly invisible, but they mark a spot where a real person on a specific day was dragged to his or her doom across this little square of space. They don’t say much, of course, and it’s a tragic statement on how little we know about the people whose names are etched in brass. But maybe, in a small way, it’s all we really need to know about them.
For more on the “stumbling stones,” see:
James Marten is professor of history and has been chair of the history department at Marquette since 2004.