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The Stolpersteine, remembering the Holocaust

The Stolpersteine are mini memorials the victims of the Holocaust all around Germany. Each of the small monuments is engraved by hand without the use of mechanized processes. (Courtesy photo)

The Stolpersteine are mini memorials the victims of the Holocaust all around Germany. Each of the small monuments is engraved by hand without the use of mechanized processes. (Courtesy photo)

YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan --

In the course of history it has been human nature to forget horrible events, discount their happening, or downplay the severity of them. History should never be forgotten, like valuable life lessons, we learn from them collectively as a people.

Then how do we ensure that these lessons are not forgotten? The answer to this question became very clear for one man. He made it his mission to never let the expulsion and extermination of National Socialism (Nazism) victims be forgotten.

Gunter Demnig, a German artist, took it upon himself to immortalize the names of those victimized by National Socialism. Mr. Demnig first conceived the idea in 1992 as an art project to commemorate Roma and Sinti victims of the Holocaust. Stolpersteine as the project is called literally translates to stumbling stones.

If you take the time to understand what these small bronze scripture represent, they will literally make you stumble. Not because they protrude from the sidewalk but because of the gruesome reality the people whose names are inscribed on them endured.  

The “stumbling stones” have become the largest decentralized memorial in the world. To date, over 75,000 Stolpersteine have been laid in 12 countries throughout Europe from Trondheim, Norway in the north, Thessaloniki, Greece in the south, Orel, Russia to the east, and l'Aiguillon-sur-Mer, France to the west. Stolpersteine can even be found as far away as Brazil.

They are placed in front of the last known willful residence or place of business of those victimized by Germany’s National Socialist party. As you walk down the sidewalks and streets, these Stolpersteine stand out but in order to read the inscription on them you must bow down before the “victim.”

In an effort to keep each stone as personal as possible, only one name is inscribed on each and this engraving is done by hand without the use of mechanized processes. For Michael Friedrichs-Friedländer, the projects engraver since 2005, the use of manual labor over an automated process shows respect for the victims, many of whom were murdered through a more or less mechanized system devised by the National Socialist Party.

The Stolpersteine are mini memorials which hammer home just how widespread and ruthless the policies of the Third Reich were. If you stop and take a moment to read the names and dates inscribed on the stumbling stones, it can move you to tears. During my time in Berlin, I passed many Stolpersteine and though they are all represent an equally horrible history, for me two particular sets of stones really hit me hard.

One set of three stones belonging to the young family of Max Bacharach, his wife Herta, and their five year old son Rolf, all murdered together on 25 November 1941. The reality of it all hits home, that the intent of this campaign was to exterminate whole families, a whole race of people.

It begs the question, what type of person can murder a five-year-old? The other was a pair of stones belonging to a young mother Franziska Schmidt and her fourteen-year-old son, Gerd, both murdered at the hands of a mass firing squad on 30 November 1941.

It really solidifies the brutality, lack of compassion, and indifference felt towards other members of the human race. These memorials touch the people who take the time to read and empathize with the victims, even the artists are not immune to this.

Mr. Friedrichs-Friedländer recalls engraving 34 stones which were to be placed in Hamburg. These Stolpersteine were for 30 orphans age three to five and their four caretakers, he said afterwards he “…couldn’t sleep for weeks.”

Sadly, most Stolpersteine end with “Ermordert” (murdered), “Schicksal Unbekannt” (fate unknown), “Freitod” (suicide), “Erschossen” (shot), “Flucht in den Tod” (killed while escaping), but there are a few which end in a slightly less gruesome fate, such as “Gefreit/Überlebt” (freed/survived), or “Flucht…Überlebt” (fled…survived). Nevertheless, an estimated six million Jews perished during the Holocaust and some 11 million others who were labeled as undesirables by the Nazi Party.

If you stop to think about it, the reasons for persecution are absurd and untenable to us today and likely would have been to a rational person in the 1930’s and 40’s. But in times of crisis, panic and distress, people become irrational and seek to comfort themselves.

Sometimes blaming others who are different than you is an avenue for comfort. This is exactly why the story of the Holocaust and its victims can never be forgotten. If it remains in our memory, we are never so far removed from it that we let it happen again. For once we forget, we turn a blind eye to a harsh reality which once was and should never be again.