Windows and Mirrors - Stolpersteine - Florence Sprague - January 2023
Big injuries require big responses, right? Perhaps not always. The Holocaust engineered by Nazi Germany murdered millions, mostly Jewish, men, women, and children, but also the Romany, homosexuals, persons with disabilities, and political enemies of the regime. Such an immense crime must not be forgotten, but that very immensity makes it particularly difficult to grapple with. Some communities in Germany and across Europe have chosen a way of recognizing the lives lost which is more personal, both for the lives destroyed and the living. They place stolpersteine, or stumbling stones, into the sidewalk.
These small brass plaques mounted on ten-centimeter concrete cubes are engraved with the name, date of birth, and data about the death or internment of an individual. They are then embedded into the cobblestone sidewalk in front of the final home of the murdered individual. If you lived there today you would be reminded of those who lived on your street and in your community in another era, and why they did not live out their lives there peacefully. This makes the lost lives real. They walked the same streets that you walk. They had families. They had homes. They vanished, but that home may still stand, home to others.
The name, stolpersteine, is so evocative. One may both literally and figuratively stumble upon them. They are underfoot and they remind us of something we might rather forget and struggle to talk about. The physicality of the plaque tangibly awakens us to the visceral nature of the injury.
There is a fascinating discussion of these stones in an article by Clint Black in the December 2022 issue of The Atlantic, “Monuments to the Unthinkable” (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2022/12/holocaust-remembrance-lessons-america/671893/). Black has been thinking for a long time about how societies memorialize their sins and has written an entire book on the attempts in the US to reckon with the sins of slavery, How the Word is Passed.
Could stolpersteine be used here? It seems unlikely—plantations were rural, the sites of slave markets could never hold stones for the multitudes that passed through, the names of too many are lost or artificial. But isn’t it powerful to think about the personalization of the harm? If we could find a way to help us see the individuals, not the millions harmed, it could help make connections to the real individuals who were so brutally harmed.
I touched upon the challenge of honoring ancestors while not honoring the evil they committed back in April 2011, as we entered the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. Some small progress has been made in the removal of statuary and monuments to Confederate generals and soldiers. More cities are grappling with whether to remove, destroy, reposition, or add historical context to them so as to offer accurate history and not dishonor the enslaved. They have often met with significant blowback and resistance. Another time we pondered the interesting times we live in, times where reparations, return of stolen artwork, acknowledgement of so many types of harm are being contemplated and acted upon. It can never be enough, yet it is truly remarkable.
Travelling? Look into a visit to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture: A People’s Journey, A Nation’s Story, in Washington, D.C., (https://nmaahc.si.edu) and The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration and National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama (https://museumandmemorial.eji.org/memorial). We finally have some places with greater in-depth recognition and memorialization of the lives of the millions of enslaved persons and of mistreated Black citizens during Reconstruction, the Jim Crow era, and up to the present.