Stolpersteine in Düsseldorf

These small brass plaques, lodged in the pavement, are a reminder of the countless individual lives that make up the clinical statistics that confound our ability to assimilate the horror of the millions who died under Nazi ‘re-settlement’.

My initial introduction to the Stolpersteine project was during a visit to Berlin in the summer of 2006. Two ‘stumble stones’ in the pavement at Naunynstrasse in Kreuzberg struck me as a far more compelling reflection on the impact of the Shoah than memorials to the factories of death. The idea is simple – each ‘stone’ includes the name, year of birth, date of deportation, eventual destination and fate of individual residents who once lived in the building – ‘Hier Wohnte’. The project is the work of a Köln based artist, Gunter Demnig.

The project began in Köln in 1994, later spread to Berlin-Kreuzberg, and has since expanded to other German, Austrian and European cities. At last count more than 40,000 Stolpersteine have become part of the pavement – a persistent reminder of those who were displaced. Funding comes from a variety of sources, which includes donations and sometimes requests from surviving family members. Each stone costs €120.

As the project has evolved it has come to encompass the often forgotten Gypsies, Poles, Political Dissidents, Catholics and other ‘undesirables’ who disappeared in the Nazi camps.

Much of my  exploration of the work of Gunter Demnig has focussed on the city of Düsseldorf, which I visit frequently. I wanted to present the Stolpersteine but also the surrounding streetscape – the environment in which the departed lived. As I’ve walked across the city, from the Altstadt by the Rhine to the old working class district of Eller, I’ve often literally ‘stumbled’ across a new stone set in the pavement. More recently I’ve also explored other cities – you can see my visit to Aachen here

As we stumble across the ‘stones’ we can see that some have been in place for several years – becoming part of the pavement with their softened corners and the marks of the revolving cycles of the seasons. With the more recent ‘stones’ one can still see the evidence of the hand of Gunter Demnig in the disturbed pavement and the new clear brass.

The inscriptions on the stolpersteine suggest a variety of subtle readings. Among the early dates of those removed is the word, ausgewiesen, indicating that the individuals were ‘evicted’, rather than deported – later, deportiert is used exclusively, reflecting the evolution of Nazi policy toward a final solution for its ‘undesirable’ citizens. Then there is the use of either ermordet, ‘murdered’ or tot, ‘died’ – a bureaucratic distinction between those who died of disease, overwork or lack of food in the camps and ghettos and those who were gassed or killed through some other active means.

Other inscriptions reveal those who left or escaped ‘flucht’ and were later deported from elsewhere; those who were hidden ‘versteckt’ and later deported, as well as those arrested and executed – presumably for political crimes. On my most recent visit to Düsseldorf in the summer of 2013 I stumbled across one Johann Adloff, one of the 200,000 or so we believe were killed under Aktion T4 – a euthanasia project to rid Germany of the physically disabled and mentally ill.