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German Artist and Sculptor Work Together to Create a Holocaust Memorial that Transcends Borders

Close up of golden Holocaust memorial "stumbling stones"

Across Germany, there are museums, monuments and memorials dedicated to the millions of victims of the Holocaust.

In northeast Berlin, sculptor Michael Friedrichs-Friedländer has dedicated the last 15 years to creating the tens of thousands of memorial plaques that make up the world’s largest decentralized monument to the Holocaust.

From his garage, Friedrichs-Friedländer hand engraves the square brass plaques. Each one has an inscription that begins with the words “Here lived,” followed by the name, date of birth and fate of each person—in most cases, deportation and murder. The individual plaques are then affixed to a concrete block that’s placed directly into the pavement outside a Holocaust victim’s last known home of choice.

Unlike memorials that focus on certain persecuted groups, the plaques honor all victims of the Nazi regime.

More than 75,000 of these Stolpersteine or “stumbling stones” have been laid in some 2,000 cities and towns across 24 countries.

The project began in 1992 when Cologne-based artist Gunter Demnig laid plaques for Sinti and Roma victims of the Holocaust. Four years later, the first Stolpersteine were placed in Berlin. Demnig installs almost every stone himself.

In some cases, groups of Stolpersteine in front of a building pay tribute to whole families who were persecuted and killed by the Nazis. Their placement symbolically brings these families back together in front of the home they once shared.

In an interview with CNN in 2018, Demnig said he chose the name “stumbling stones” because they are discovered by chance, and “if you stumble and look, you must bow down with your head and your heart.”

One unique aspect of the Stolpersteine is that most are the result of local neighborhood initiatives. Residents come together to research the biographies of Holocaust victims who once lived on their street and raise the approximately $150 it costs to install each stone. They are required to locate the victim’s relatives to ask for approval and invite them to the installation—expanding the community-building well beyond the boundaries of each neighborhood. The installation ceremonies also often bring together a Holocaust victim’s surviving family members from many different countries.

The Stolpersteine memorial is based on a teaching in the book of Jewish law known as the Talmud that “a person is only forgotten when his or her name is forgotten.”

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