On Monday night I attended a presentation by Leora Auslander at the American Academy in Berlin. She is Professor of European Studies at the University of Chicago, but is a Fellow at the Academy this semester. She gave a great talk about the effectiveness of memorials. Her focus was on monuments, memorials, and museums focusing on the Shoa in Germany, but it served as an interesting think-piece on what makes a successful memorial.
She mentioned one of my favorites, the Stolper Steine by artist Gunter Demnig. His work is quite subtle. Most German sidewalks are still made up of cobblestone. Demnig will go to the listed address of Jews that were murdered during the Holocaust, and replace a cobblestone in front of the door with a brass block that gives the name, date of birth, date of arrest or deportation, date of death, and the concentration camp in which the person was killed. You can find these all over Berlin now, and apparently he’s also placing them in many other European cities.
Like any memorial, most people walk past them once they’ve embedded them into their mental map of their environment, but these “stumbling blocks” are more effective because looking at them will force you to focus on them. It can’t be done while in motion, or simply passing by.
Some houses had many Jews in them. One of the most depressing things is to see that families were arrested on the same day, but killed in different places at disparate times. I cannot even begin to imagine what it must have been like when children were taken from their parents…
I will try to contact Demnig. My father was born here in Berlin, and he lost his grandfather, his uncle and aunt, and his cousins in the Shoah. I would love to put some stones down for them in front of their house… especially now that my third son carries one of their names.