Stepping Stones, Stumbling Blocks

In Human Interest, Non-fiction on October 31, 2012 at 11:06 pm

Written by Alex Ashley

“Memory is the treasury and guardian of all things.”—Marcus Tullius Cicero.

Carefully encapsulated within the confines of man’s collective memory is a beautiful, compelling story of humanity, of a human race that has fought its way—tooth and claw—through the morass of antiquity and recent past, to become what it is today.  From moments of heartbreak and tragedy, to periods of peace and pleasure, the history of man carries great value: It is a teacher of truths; its lessons are lined with gold and heavy with meaning.

Such is a tragedy, when man forgets to learn from his past.

“Stumbling Blocks”

        As an example of someone who understands this, consider 65 year-old German artist Gunter Demnig.  After graduating from secondary school in 1967, he went on to study creative education at the Berlin University of Arts as a pupil of Professor Herbert Kaufmann.  From 1969 to 1970, he studied industrial design.  In 1974, having transferred to the Kunsthochschule Kassel (“Art University Kassel”) in Kassel, Germany, he finally reached the conclusion of his formal studies on creative education.

He went on to serve as an artistic-scientific colleague on the art faculty in Kassel.

He opened his own art studio in Cologne.

He went on to do great things as an artist.

But the greatest of his accomplishments as an artist—and perhaps the one that deserves our attention most—has been his latest project, a fascinating monument honoring the flogged and fallen of World War II’s Nazi persecution.  They are called the Stolpersteine (“stumbling blocks”).  Demnig’s Stolpersteine are simple and discreet: cobblestone-sized brass memorials, each honoring an individual victim of the holocaust.

The idea was first conceived while Demnig was in Cologne in the year 1993.  A year later, the first exhibition took place, showcasing the concept.  In 1997, at the suggestion of Andreas Maislinger, founder of Arts Initiative KNIE and the Austrian Holocaust Memorial Service, he mounted the first two stolpersteine for victims Matthias and Johann Nobis of St. Georgen, Austria, who were Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Just four years later, Demnig received the green light to install 600 more of these shiny, brass memorials throughout Cologne.

Currently, there are over 32,000 stolpersteine in about 700 locations.



Czech Republic.




The Netherlands.




A stamped square of brass installed into a cobblestone street in Eastern Europe may not seem like much.  But if you view the monument collectively, it is the largest in the world.

“Here lived”

          “Heir wohnte.”

          Words such as these adorn most of Demnig’s memorials.  They mean “here lived,” which is fitting, since they are normally installed in front of the last place the victim lived.  A few are at their last place of work, practice, or study.  Either way, it is the memory of their name, not their death, that is on display.  Really, are there any two words more that drip with greater meaning? “Here lived…” who? What was he or she like? How did he or she live their life? What made them smile and laugh? What made them cringe? “Here lived…” a real person, with a life and a family.  “Here lived…” a real person with hopes, dreams, and nightmares.

        “This way you can never forget,” says Demnig.  “And besides, every time someone walks on the brass plates, it only makes them shine more.”

“Here lived…”

“It is not what is written which intrigues, because the inscription is insufficient to conjure a person,” commented Cambridge Historian Joseph Pearson.  “It is the emptiness, void, lack of information, the maw of the forgotten, which gives the monuments their power and lifts them from the banality of a statistic.”

Davisco Asriel lived here.

Born 1882. Deported 25. 1. 1942.

Murdered in Riga.

          A stolperstein bearing these words sits in a cobblestone sidewalk on the corner of Friedrichstrasse and Jägerstrasse in downtown Berlin, serving as a quiet testimony to the life of a man who, 80 years ago was breathing, smiling, laughing.  Now he’s gone.

“Here lived…”

“I don’t see my stones as tombstones,” said Demnig.  “But since most holocaust victims don’t have graves, the stumbling stones are often the first actual place for family members or friends of the victims to pray or put down flowers.” Millions of lives were stolen away and ended during the Nazi genocide.  But one stone at a time, Gunter Demnig is reviving their name and memory.

“A person is only forgotten when his name is forgotten.”

  1. This is amazing in it’s simplicity and broad usage of art meeting remembrance,tribute and honor. In Hollywood, there is a Walk of Fame, where moviestars have there stars in the pavement and to get one is an honor many aspire to having as a symbol of their accomplishments. Here, this artist is showing that it’s the life that is important, our God given life, in those simple yet profound words, Here Lived. Brilliant. Thought provoking, heart effecting, lest we never forget. They were here.

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