Sculptor’s ‘remembrance stones’ a big hit in Germany

April 8th, 2008 - 9:20 am ICT by admin  

By Clive Freeman
Berlin, April 8 (DPA) Sculptor Gunter Demnig faced a wall of silence whenever he asked his father about his experiences as a soldier fighting for the German army in World War II. Born in Berlin in 1947, the first time he ever heard about the Holocaust was from his grandmother.

His father’s refusal to discuss the war troubled his son, who grew up resentful and rebellious. During the Vietnam War, he caused a scandal for exhibiting an American flag painted with a skull and crossbones - a prank which got him arrested.

It was difficult for Demnig to comprehend the scale of Nazi terror. Even today, he still gets emotional when the conversation turns to Hitler’s persecution of Germany’s Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and resistance fighters.

He sought a way to remember the innocent victims who were dragged from buildings during the war, herded into trucks - often in full view of silent neighbours - and sent to their deaths in concentration camps.

“These people were taken from the homes where they had lived, had children, and a normal life until Hitler’s arrival. My idea was to give them back their names at those houses,” he is on record as saying.

The best way to do this, he decided, was to make small brass plaques inscribed with victims’ names, dates of birth and deportation, and the date when they were murdered.

Demnig designs the 10 x 10-centimetre plaques with an odd-looking hand-manipulated machine, and then inserts them in pavements and footpaths, in front of houses where Jewish families lived 70 or more years ago.

He calls them “Stolpersteine” - or stumbling blocks in English, and says the first one was set in a Cologne pavement in 1995. Now there are more than 1,400 of the mini-memorials in the cathedral city where he works out of a garage workshop.

Demnig is also kept busy in Berlin where close to 1,700 of his memorial plaques adorn city sidewalks.

Back in the 1920s, some 375,000 Jews lived in Berlin, playing a powerful role in the city’s economic and cultural life. Later, many were to be murdered in concentration camps.

After the war less than 5,000 survivors returned to Berlin. Today, 12,000 Jews live and work in the German capital.

The sculptor works 14-hour days, rarely taking time off. “It’s my life,” he says. We can’t allow this part of history to pass into oblivion.”

Among the Berlin districts where the Stolpersteine have been installed is Friedrichshain, an old working class area that attracted migrants in the early part of the 20th century from Germany’s eastern territories, now incorporated into Poland and Russia.

“They were humble people struggling to make a living in a tough period,” says Dorothee Reinhold, who with Professor Martin Wiebel, a local historian, conducts a cluster of visitors on a recent “Stolpersteine tour” of the district.

“These Jews had very few possessions,” she says, pointing to the names inscribed on the brass pavement plates.

Names like Benno Lowenberg, 73, Dagobert Ziegel, 48, Erna Ziegel, 43 and Lieselotte Ackermann, 25, who were just four of the millions deported and murdered at Auschwitz, Theresienstadt (now Terezin in the Czech Republic) and other camps.

One stone recalls the name of Karl Holzfaeller, a pre-war Berlin communist party deputy hanged by the Nazis in January 1945. “He was denounced by a soldier and arrested in 1943,” explains Reinhold, pointing to the plaque bearing his name.

What Demnig began as a humble remembrance project has today spread beyond Germany to neighbouring countries such as Austria, Hungary and the Netherlands.

Whereas four years ago, there were 3,300 Stolpersteine in Germany. Today the figure is 12,700 in 277 cities, towns and villages. “The more Stolpersteine appear, the greater the interest,” says Demnig.

Jewish leaders in Berlin and most other German cities have generally welcomed Demnig’s “Remembrance” project.

Not so in Munich where the authorities in 2004 vetoed it on the grounds that it stirred too much controversy and provoked protests from some members of the city’s Jewish community who felt it was not the way to remember Jewish victims.

Since then a citizens’ action group has presented several plaques dedicated to Jewish wartime victims in order to bring the idea of Stolpersteine to public attention in the city.

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