I never intended to write this article, until I experienced some major writer’s block on the final Olomouc article. I knew of the Stolpersteine or Stumbling Stones, but had never seen any until our visit to Olomouc.
The Writer’s block was caused by some photos of Stolpersteine, three of them in particular, EVA MAYEROVA, ERICH HIKL, and PETR GOLDBERGER, whose ages respectivly were 14, 16, and 5, and until 2 days ago, I was unaware that Eva Mayerova, Přežila (She Survived) I had a corrupt image file and could not make out the last line, I found a back up and could see the last line, which was “Přežila” or “She Survived”.
Eva’s life in a nutshell, She got married, moved to Israel with her husband, they had 2 children and several grandchildren, and she lived to the age of 78. You can find Eva’s story here. I think the photo of Eva’s stone hit me the hardest, as I have a 13-year-old granddaughter, and I could not envision her going through the torture, that Eva endured.
The Stolpersteine (which translates to “stumbling stones” in English) is a project created by German artist Günter Demnig. These are small, cobblestone-sized memorials for the victims of Nazi oppression, including Jews, Roma, Sinti, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Black people, political dissidents, and others. Each Stolperstein is a concrete cube bearing a brass plate inscribed with the name and life dates of victims of Nazi extermination or persecution.
Stolpersteines are installed in the pavement in front of the last known willingly chosen residence of the victims. The idea behind them is that as you walk down the street, you are likely to “stumble” over them (with your heart and your head, rather than your feet) and be prompted to think about the person they commemorate. The stones start with the words “Zde Bydlel” (Here lived) followed by the person’s name, date of birth, and fate. So they are never forgotten.
The first Stolperstein was placed in Cologne in 1996, and since then, over 70,000 stones have been laid in more than twenty countries across Europe, making it the world’s largest decentralized memorial. The project aims to bring back the names of the millions of Jews and other victims who were murdered by the Nazis or died as a result of persecution, to the places where they once lived and were part of local communities.
The Stolpersteine project was conceived in the 1990s by Gunter Demnig as a way to remember individuals who were persecuted by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945. The stones are meant to be stumbled over with the mind, prompting reflection on the impact of the Holocaust on individual lives.
Each stone bears a brass plate inscribed with information about the victim: their name, birth year, and their fate, which often includes the date of deportation and death. The text usually begins with “Zde Bydlel” (Here lived), creating a personal connection between the victim and the place, and the majority end with the words “Zavražděn v Osvětimi” (murdered in Auschwitz) or “Zavražděn v Dachau” (murdered in Dachau), very few end in “Přežila” (She survived)
Demnig places each stone himself, embedding them into the sidewalk, and intentionally avoids obtaining permission from local authorities in some cases, reinforcing the idea of ‘stumbling upon’ the history. The stones are a form of guerrilla art that has now been sanctioned by the sheer number of stones laid and their acceptance by the public.
The project has grown extensively over the years, with stones laid in numerous countries including Germany, Austria, Hungary, the Netherlands, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Poland, and others. This has created an extensive, sprawling memorial that spans the continent, tracing the former lives of those who suffered under Nazi tyranny.
Each Stolperstein is funded by donations, with local initiatives often supporting the creation and installation of these memorials. They are typically placed in coordination with the descendants of the victims, local history groups, or by individuals or groups who sponsor a stone. The Stolpersteine are researched carefully, often in collaboration with local historical societies or with the help of the relatives of the victims, to ensure the accuracy of the biographical details.
This project has been met with a wide range of reactions, from support and praise for bringing attention to the individual lives lost during the Holocaust to criticism and controversy. Some objections have been raised about the stones being placed on the ground, which means that people might walk over them, potentially disrespecting the memory of the victims. Others have pointed out that the project could lead to the individualization of the Holocaust, detracting from its collective memory and the systemic nature of the crimes.
Despite these concerns, the Stolpersteine project has had a significant impact on Holocaust remembrance culture, providing a tangible way to connect past atrocities with present-day locations and serving as a daily reminder of the individual lives affected by the actions of the Nazi regime. The stones serve as a decentralized, personal memorial, contrasting with the larger, more impersonal monuments that often dominate public spaces.