GUNTER DEMNIG
Cologne, Northrhine–Westfalia
Nominated by Johanna Neumann, Silver Spring, MD
2013

Gunter Demnig first catches your eye, then your thoughts. Although the Cologne artist’s stolpersteine (stumbling blocks) are neatly paved into the sidewalk, they force passers-by to stop and read them. “Here lived” begins the inscriptions engraved in brass on the concrete squares measuring about four inches—on each one, just the name, date, and place of death of an individual killed by the Nazis. But this basic information about the fate of one person among 6 million has the power to create questions in the minds of pedestrians.

“The stumbling blocks become reminders and voices; they call out, ‘Every human being has a name,’” says Miriam Gillis-Carlebach, daughter of Hamburg’s last rabbi, who had stones paved for family members deported from that city. Demnig has placed stumbling blocks in about 60 cities, towns, and villages throughout Germany; there are more than 4,500 so far. What he began in 1993 is becoming the largest monument to the victims of National Socialism; it is a constantly expanding mosaic. “It is for all the victims,” says Demnig, “Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and resistance fighters.”

The monument is being built with the help of numerous local initiatives. Not only do relatives and descendants of victims contact Demnig; schools, associations, and other groups apply for official permission to add blocks, as well. At Max-Planck Elementary School in Berlin, a class started one of many projects inspired by Deming. To prepare for the installation of the stumbling blocks, students researched archives, talked with historians, and interviewed survivors and their families to learn about that time. “Behind the facts, there are numerous fates and tragedies that can touch you and make history come alive,” explains teacher Christoph Hummel.

Sometimes, however, Demnig’s idea provokes oppostion. Cities such as Munich and Leipzig don’t allow the stones, and there are homeowners who try to avoid them in front of their doors. But that can’t stop the project. “It has become an avalache: Every day we have requests for stumbling blocks”, says Uta Franke, Demnig’s partner who has meanwhile taken over the project’s organization and documentation. “In many cities, towns and even villages, just the idea to set a stone starts a new wave of discussion and research about the Nazi past.”

Demnig, who was born in Berlin, has always provoked public interest as a political artist. In 1990, he marked in chalk the route taken by Cologne’s gypsies when they were deported in 1940. When he retraced the signs three years later, the reaction of an older woman gave him the idea for the stumbling stone project. “There were no gypsies in our neighborhood,” Demnig says she told him. “She just didn’t know that they had been her neighbors, and I wanted to change that.”

He designed his stolpersteine to bring back the names of Holocaust victims to where they had lived; in his opinion, existing memorials have failed to do that. “Once a year, some official lays a wreath, but the average citizen can avoid the site very easily,” he explains. For the first six years of his project, Demnig had to be unrelenting because officials and bureaucracies put their own stumbling blocks in his way, but his persistent attitude kept him going. “You just have to do it, and then you can achieve more than you imagined,” he says.

Today, the artist is seldom in his Cologne studio, where he both lives and works among his art and stumbling blocks waiting to be finished. He spends much of his time on the road, installing stones and lecturing about them. “He is a tireless worker; he stretches the limits with this project,” says Uta Franke. American Johanna J. Neuman had a stumbling block paved for her step-grandmother, who was deported. “Until the stolperstein for her was embedded in Berlin, there was no place that reminded anyone of her,” she says. “Now when I go to Berlin, I have a place to ... see her name.”

There is a waiting list until winter 2005 to install stumbling blocks, and an effort is under way to bring the stones to other European cities. Demnig is thinking about getting help with the installations, but he wants to continue producing them himself. “It must not become a factory,” says Demnig, who still tears up when he talks about his experiences with Holocaust survivors. “I know I can’t do six million stones, but if I can inspire a discussion with just one, something very important has been achieved.”