Bits of the Benelux: Stumbling upon Holocaust history

By Libby Weiler, USAG Benelux Public AffairsApril 4, 2023

Stumbling Stones
Stopersteine lay in sidewalks in the town of Dülmen, Germany on March 23, 2023. Some stumbling stones are in front of shops and others are in front of homes where victims were taken from their familiar surroundings during the Holocaust. (Photo by Sandra Wilson, USAG Benelux Public Affairs) (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

[Editor’s Note: The following story is the tenth in the series Bits of the Benelux. This series takes a deep dive into the stories, cultures and traditions found throughout Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany.]

CHIEVRES AIR BASE, Belgium – When was the last time you stumbled upon something ten centimeters (3.9 in) in diameter, connecting both the past and present together in the most ubiquitous of ways? German artist, Gunter Demnig, is doing just that by providing a glimpse into the past through the Stolpersteine project.

"Stolpersteine” in German, translates to “stumbling stones” and is a global art project meant to make you stumble upon an individual’s last place of residency before they fell victim to the Nazi party’s extermination and persecution.

Usually installed outside a home, they can also be found where victims spent much of their lives such as schools, universities, synagogues and places of work.

First conceived in the early 1990s, the Stolpersteine project has placed over 90,000 stumbling stones throughout Europe, making it the largest decentralized Holocaust memorial in the world.

Each brass plate has an inscription on it with the name and life dates, if known, of one victim of Nazi persecution. Usually starting with “Here lived…” the plates may also have their place of birth and death listed.

Demnig wanted to reverse what happened during the Holocaust and return individuals to where they once were discarded, giving them a place again in history.

“A person is only forgotten when his name is forgotten,” he said in a 2007 interview with the Dülmener Zeitung.

The artist understood that many stories had disappeared and the people inhabiting buildings today often times were unaware of the history that had taken place in their own neighborhoods. The Stolpersteine project was designed to not only bring commemoration to cities across Europe, but also mark a new place in history where victims can live again.

Throughout the project, Demnig has insisted each Stolperstein be made by hand. Sculptor Michael Friedrichs-Friedlaender now makes each stone in his Berlin studio.

While Demnig works with a team, he has personally installed almost every Stolperstein himself.

He also set up the foundation Stiftung – Spuren – Gunter Demnig to make sure the project continues into the future.

The Stolpersteine are not meant to be tombstones, but memorials. They are placed into the ground, on sidewalks or in front of buildings, with the intent to make you stop and reflect.

“If you want to read such a stone, you have to automatically bow,” said Demnig.

“They are supposed to provoke people into thinking about what happened to individuals and families during the Nazi era. Families were torn apart and Stolpersteine can at least bring them back together symbolically.”

With that idea in mind, Stolpersteine are also created and placed for survivors of the Holocaust.

“For example, in front of a house in Amsterdam, a Stolperstein might be placed for a woman who survived Auschwitz alongside two Stolpersteine for her parents who did not. This “reunites” families.

For Demnig, the name of the project can best be described by a schoolchild who once said, “you don’t trip on Stolperstein, you stumble with your head and your heart.”

Almost 30 years in existence, this living art project is a continuous work in progress.

The Stolpersteine Project functions much like a grassroots movement, and anyone can get involved in it and make a request for a new stone.

If you would like to learn more about Stolpersteine and the foundation behind them visit the Stolpersteine project website.

Stolpersteine are currently installed in Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Russia, Servia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom.

Visit the Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) website for an interactive experience of Stolpersteine in North Rhein-Westphalia (NRW) Germany.

View a map of Stolpersteine in Belgium, The Netherlands, and Luxembourg.

For a list of Stolpersteine in Europe, visit the Stolpersteine project website.

Days of Remembrance and Holocaust Remembrance Day is a yearly celebration established to honor and remember the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust – as well as the millions of non-Jewish victims of Nazi persecution – during World War II.

In Hebrew, Holocaust Remembrance Day is called Yom Hashoah. This date varies based off the Hebrew calendar, and falls on Tuesday, April 18, for 2023.

Days of Remembrance, in the United States, runs from the Sunday before Yom Hashoah through the following Sunday.

Learn more about Yom Hashoah from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website.

This series, Bits of the Benelux, will continue to explore the many cultural traditions in and around the Benelux. Further stories like this on the local traditions, festivals, and events are scheduled to be published monthly, as they occur.