“Art does not reproduce what is visible; it makes things visible” said Paul Klee. He meant making the unseen seen, bringing it into perspective, changing people’s perceptions – which is exactly what Gunter Demnig’s Stolpersteine are all about.
I cannot easily discover where the term “stumbling block” comes from. I suspect it has something to do with training horses, but that is a wild guess. Meanwhile, the term is found in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament to mean a behaviour or attitude that leads to sin. If Wikipedia is to be believed, in the Hebrew Bible the term for “stumbling block” is mikshowl rendered in the Greek Septuagint as skandalon. The English term “scandal” derives from skandalon, which has an associated verb, skandalizo, meaning literally “to trip somebody up” or, idiomatically, “to cause someone to sin”.
It would be neat if all this is true. For many years the artist Gunter Demnig has been laying Stolpersteine in German cities to commemorate people who died in the Holocaust. The verb stolpern means to stumble and Stein means a stone. Demnig replaces ordinary cobblestones with ones bearing a simple inscription – a person’s name, date of birth, and the date and place of death, if known. The stones are placed outside the houses of people persecuted, deported, and murdered by the Nazi regime. Stumbling over the stones is intended to raise awareness and to prompt questions.
There are now almost 40,000 Stolpersteine or stumbling blocks in different European countries. Germany and especially Berlin now has many memorials and monuments to the Holocaust, but it is these small brass plaques set in the pavement that provoke curiosity.
Demnig thinks of the stones as “social sculptures” that surprise and cajole the passerby and, in the original biblical sense, cause someone to sin if they ignore the reason why the stones are there. He began his artistic quest by laying Spuren – “traces” or “spoor” – of the past. In 1981 he drove from Kassel to London, leaving on the road a 4cm wide and 680km long line of animal blood (procured from butchers). In 1990, on the 50th anniversary of the Nazis’ first mass deportation of gypsies, he walked with a printing-wheel contraption through Cologne, chalking the words “May 1940 – 1,000 Roma and Sinti” on the pavements. When the chalk began to wash off, he tried to make it more permanent using brass and that’s where he got the idea for the Stolpersteine.
Not everyone likes the project. Charlotte Knobloch, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany (2006-10), feels that the Stolpersteine are undignified because pedestrians trample on a victim’s name. But Demnig argues that most people step around the plaques, although most stop to read them. In this way the name of a lost person is recalled in precisely the place where she or he used to live and may have been last seen.
In Poetry After Auschwitz (2003) the Jewish American writer Susan Gubar says that to legitimize her portrait of poetry as a survivor of Auschwitz – rather than it having been destroyed by Auschwitz – she “would trace its license back to an ancient mandate in the prophetic book of Joel (1:2-3): ‘Has such a thing happened in your days or in the days of your ancestors? Tell your children of it, and let your children tell their children, and their children another generation’” (p.263).
And that, surely, is the point. Stolpersteine tell us about the past and trip us up just when we are complacently strolling through history as if nothing were amiss. Better to be scandalized, especially when there is clear evidence in Europe and elsewhere that the dark spectre of racial hatred is stalking those very same streets.