Gunter Demnig’s Speech at the Dr. Bernard Heller Prize Ceremony at HUC-JIR/NY Graduation, May 3, 2012
Dear President Ellenson,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Everyone of us here in this room will be aware that the background of the "Stolperstein" project (German for "stumbling stone") is not a cause to bring us joy.
I am, however, delighted to be here today and appreciate the honor bestowed on my project. Let me also extend my appreciation on behalf of Peter Hess who regrets not being able to be with us today.
Peter Hess started the initiative of "Stolpersteine" in Hamburg and with loving care has made this his Hamburg project. Moreover, he has cooperated in the dissemination of the "Stolpersteine" all over Germany and Europe, as well as assisting me in difficult situations.
He wants to apologize for his absence, extends his cordial greetings to you all, and wishes to thank President David Ellenson and the Committee on Honors for this event.
I can speak for both of us when I say that we will continue the work with all our strength.
When my idea for the "Stolpersteine" was born in 1993, this project for me - as an artist - was a CONCEPTUAL WORK OF ART - an idea I initially filed away in my archive. For faced with the incredible, and yet real numbers of victims during the Nazi dictatorship and the Shoa, - I did not think my idea could actually be realized. In the end, it was Kurt Pick - a protestant priest in Cologne - who said to me at one point during our conversation: "Gunter, you will never be able to lay those millions of stones, but you can get started in a small way."
Up until today, almost 34.000 "Stolpersteine" have been laid in Europe. From Oslo in the North to Rome in the South, from Rotterdam in the West to the Ukrainian Pereslav in the East. In Germany alone, the stones are in more than 700 villages and cities. This is just a fraction of what could be achieved), but the symbolic power prevails.
Over the years, the interest in the "Stolpersteine" has grown so much that I'm now unable to manage the necessary work by myself and have begun to concentrate mainly on the laying of the "Stolpersteine." For the manufacturing, as well as the planning and coordination of schedules, venues and itineraries, I'm now supported by a team of five others committed to the project.
I can say that while driving my van with its small built-in workshop to different laying sites in Germany and in several other European countries - two hundred thirty one days last year - my work never got to be routine. I owe this to the numerous diverse people among the relatives of the victims I encounter through my work, to their sympathy and gratitude as well as to the volunteer assistants in villages and cities. While Peter Hess still manages the Hamburg organization group all by himself, there are already in Berlin 32 two groups of helpers. Nearly all the layings for this year have been scheduled and additional ones are being planned two years ahead.
One powerful reason for my joy is the interest that many young people are taking in the "Stolpersteine", including pupils and students in different grades and various areas of study. Most of all they want to know how such events could have possibly happened in the "land of poets and thinkers", that is, in Germany.
At first, since I had been forewarned by teachers that the subject of Nazi dictatorship would bore the students and even be dismissed by some, I hadn't counted on their interest . I experienced the contrary: maybe because to open a book and read of six million who were herded together by the Nazis in Europe and murdered, this number remains an abstract entity. This is something which I myself still experience, despite being confronted with these destinies on a daily basis and having visited several concentration camps. How much more of an effect this unimaginable number of destroyed human beings must then have on these students and pupils? When all of a sudden they are faced with the personal destiny of a family that might have lived in their immediate vicinity? If they read the files about how the people were humiliated, disenfranchised, arbitrarily arrested and mistreated, robbed of their possessions, disowned and finally herded together, deported and murdered?! Or, euphemistically speaking, they had to emigrate, which meant indeed that they had to flee only to save themselves to a country where they were not wanted and where they sometimes fell into poverty. In this context, then, the young people get more and more interested in these dramatic events and find themselves even more engaged.
A student once said to a reporter who had asked him if he didn't think the "Stolpersteine" could be dangerous: "You don't fall down, you stumble with your head and with your heart."
Children, as well, are especially interested in the "Stolpersteine." If they read the inscriptions, they have to realize that the victims at that time, for instance, were of the same young age as they themselves now are - or as old as their grandparents.
There have been times when I had to lay three rows of "Stolpersteine" – for three generations.
I'm also pleased that more and more family members are traveling to attend the layings. Even from faraway countries such as New Zealand and Australia, South Africa and - of course - North and South America, from Europe, and predominantly from the Netherlands and Great Britain. The majority, however, come from Israel. This just shows how widely – "gone with the wind" – their families were spread throughout the world. And I have also seen families - after decades - meet for the first time.
Once a man from England came to a laying whose parents had been murdered in Auschwitz. He had only survived because they had entrusted him to a children's transport. "For me as a twelve year old at the time, it was an adventure, a journey which I was permitted to take. My mother's and grandmother's crying at the farewell, I only understood much later." And he continued: "These two 'Stolpersteine' of course are no gravestones, they cannot be. Mother and grandmother have gone up in smoke in Auschwitz and their ashes been strewn into the river. But for me they are 'marking stones'. I can go home to England, but I can come back to Germany as well."
There are also opponents against the "Stolpersteine" who say for instance: "They are trampling on people just like the Nazis did in their time." To this, I reply: "The Nazis did not contend themselves with trampling on people – they had a planned murder program, a perfect extermination machine."
The rabbi of Cologne welcomes and supports my "Stolperstein" project. He says: "Stepping on the 'Stolpersteine' is not a problem, according to the content of the Talmud. – You guys just have to do it."
In St. Peter Cathedral in Rome, I had quite naturally walked across tomb plates, like everybody else. In my research at the Museum of Sepulchral Culture in Kassel, I came to learn that honoring the ones lying under a tomb plate is ever increased by the more people walking over them.
There are also house owners who want to prevent the laying of "Stolpersteine" in front of their houses. Their arguments are: "They have never lived here." – "It was out of their own free will that they moved to the Jew house." – "They had always wanted to go to America." – "What is the point of this after over sixty years?!"
As it is, the Neonazis deny everything and stir up hatred against the "Stolpersteine" on the Internet. But I can live with the three murder threats I've had in 15 years. In dangerous regions, I occasionally obtain police protection.
A Cologne property owner's lawsuit charging a depreciation of his house's value in front of which a "Stolperstein" had been laid eventually failed before the district court. Shaking his head, the judge rejected the suit with the following admonition: "I don't know what you want here. This project has been unanimously accepted by the Cologne city council. It is a citizens' gift to the city of Cologne, and the sidewalk is public property!"
A survivor from Leipzig told me that 80 to 90 % of house owners refuse commemorative plaques on their private house walls unless Albert Einstein had once spent the night in their house. In this case, the plaque is allowed and may well measure a whole square meter.
However, the majority in Germany increasingly want and support my "Stolperstein" project.
In Italy and Norway, I was told: "It is good that a German artist comes to us with these 'Stolpersteine'." I see this not just as a confirmation of my work but also as a call to continue.
The "Stolpersteine" are a decentralized social sculpture in the public urban space. Whoever "stumbles" over them and wants to decipher the inscriptions has to "bow down" in order to read – make a "bow" before the victim.
Thank you for your attention,
Translation into English: Cornelia C. Walter and Joel Bienstock, Berlin (March 2012)
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