A stolperstein (from German, literally "stumbling block") is a type of monument created by artist Gunter Demnig to commemorate victims of Nazi oppression, including the Holocaust.
Stolpersteins are small, cobblestone-sized memorials for individual victims of Nazism. They commemorate individuals – both those who died and survivors – who were consigned by the Nazis to prisons, euthanasia facilities, sterilization clinics, concentration camps, and extermination camps, as well as those who responded to persecution by emigrating or committing suicide.
While the vast majority of stolpersteins commemorate Jewish victims of the Holocaust, others have been placed for Sinti and Romani people (also called gypsies), homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, black people, Christians (both Protestants and Catholics) opposed to the Nazis, members of the Communist Party and the anti-Nazi Resistance, military deserters, and the physically and mentally disabled.
The list of places that have stolpersteins now extends to several countries and hundreds of cities and towns. As of 20 August 2014, over 48,000 stolpersteins have been laid in 18 countries in Europe, making the project the world's largest memorial.
Information for stolpersteins comes from schools, relatives, and various organizations and especially the database of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. The residential street addresses of Shoah victims in Germany are also available on the database version of the 1939 Germany Minority Census published online.
Once the research is done, Demnig manufactures a concrete cube of 10 centimetres (3.9 in), which he covers with a sheet of brass. Then he stamps the details of the individual: the name, year of birth and the fate, as well as the dates of deportation and death, if known. The words Hier wohnte ("here lived") grace most of the memorials, though others are installed at the individual's place of employment and refer instead to the work. The stolperstein is then laid flush with the pavement or sidewalk in front of the last residence of the victim.
The cost of the stolpersteins is covered by donations, collections, individual citizens, contemporary witnesses, school classes, or communities. Until 2012, one stolperstein cost €95, a price that had remained the same since the project's inception. In 2012, the price increased to €120.
16 December 1992 marked 50 years since Heinrich Himmler signed a decree to deport Sinti and Roma to extermination camps. Gunter Demnig used the occasion to commemorate the prelude to the deportations by engraving the decree’s first sentence onto a stone. This first stolperstein was laid in front of Cologne’s Historic Town Hall. It was Demnig’s intention to thus engage in the debate currently underway about granting Roma from former Yugoslavia the right of residence in Germany. Gunter Demnig has explained that the next stolpersteins were triggered by an encounter with a Cologne inhabitant who had lived through the war and was firmly convinced that no Sinti or Roma had ever lived in her neighbourhood.
Thus was born his idea to commemorate all victims of Nazi persecution in front of their last chosen place of residence. A stolperstein would symbolically return them to their neighbourhood so many years after being torn away from their daily lives. In 1993, Gunter Demnig formulated the laying of commemorative stones for the victims of National Socialism as a theoretical concept in the publication “Größenwahn – Kunstprojekte für Europa” (“Megalomania: Art Projects for Europe“). A year later, he made a first step in this direction at the behest of Kurt Pick, a priest at St Anthony’s Church in Cologne – he exhibited 250 stolpersteins for murdered Sinti and Roma in the church. In January 1995, these concrete blocks measuring 10 by 10 centimetres (3.9 by 3.9 in) were laid into the pavements of the city of Cologne, followed by installations in the Kreuzberg neighborhood of Berlin.
In 1996, he set out 55 stolpersteins in Berlin within the scope of the project “Artists Research Auschwitz”. In 1997, he mounted the first two stolpersteins for the Jehovah's Witnesses Matthias and Johann Nobis in St. Georgen, Austria on the suggestion of Andreas Maislinger, founder of Arts Initiative KNIE and the Austrian Holocaust Memorial Service. Friedrich Amerhauser was the first mayor, who gave Gunter Demnig, the permission to install stolpersteins. Four years later, he received permission to install 600 more stolpersteins in Cologne.
As of October 2007, Gunter Demnig had mounted more than 13,000 stolpersteins in more than 280 cities. He expanded his project beyond the borders of Germany to Austria,Italy, the Netherlands and Hungary. Some stolpersteins were scheduled to be laid in Poland on September 1, 2006, but permission was withdrawn and the installation was cancelled.
On July 24, 2009, the 20,000th stolperstein was unveiled in the Rotherbaum district of Hamburg, Germany. In attendance were Gunter Demnig, representatives of the Hamburg government and its Jewish community, and a descendant of the victims memorialized.
As of May 15, 2010, there were over 22,000 stolpersteins in 530 European cities and towns in eight countries formerly under Nazi control or occupied by Nazi Germany. By July 8, 2010, there were over 25,000 stolpersteins in 569 cities and towns. As of June 24, 2011, Demnig had installed 30,000 stolpersteins.
From the artist's own website: There are already over 32,000 STOLPERSTEINE ("Stumbling Stones") in over 700 locations. Many cities and villages across Europe, not only in Germany, have expressed an interest in the project. Stones have already been laid in many places in Austria, Hungary, the Netherlands, Belgium, in the Czech Republic, in Poland (one in Wroclaw, one in Slubice), in Ukraine (Pereiaslav), in Italy (Rome) and Norway (Oslo).
Stolperstein No. 40,000: During his TEDxKOELN talk on May 14, 2013 Gunter Demnig announced the installation of the 40,000th stolperstein on July 3, 2013 in Oldambt(Drieborg), Netherlands. It was one of the 10 stolpersteins in memory of Dutch communists who were executed by the German occupation forces after they were betrayed by countrymen for hiding Jews and Roma.
The city of Villingen-Schwenningen hotly debated the idea of allowing stolpersteins in 2004 and voted against them. There is a memorial at the railway station and there are plans for a second memorial.
Munich has rejected stolpersteins, following objections raised by Munich's Jewish Community and particularly its chairwoman, Charlotte Knobloch, then also President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany. In other cities, permission for the project was preceded by long, sometimes emotional discussions. In Krefeld, the vice-chairman of the Jewish community, Michael Gilad, said that Demnig's memorials reminded him of how the Nazis had used Jewish grave stones as slabs for sidewalks. A compromise was reached that a stolperstein could be installed if a prospective site was approved by both the house's owner and (if applicable) the victim's relatives.
The city of Pulheim was still debating the issue in 2010.
People’s attention is drawn towards the stolpersteins by reports in newspapers and their personal experience. Their thoughts are directed towards the victims. Cambridge historian Joseph Pearson argues that "It is not what is written [on the stolpersteine] which intrigues, because the inscription is insufficient to conjure a person. 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."
A documentary, Stolperstein was made by Dörte Franke in 2008