Rabbi David Ellenson, Ph.D., President of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), and Ruth O. Freedlander, Co-Trustee of the Dr. Bernard Heller Foundation, presentedthe 2012 Dr. Bernard Heller Prize to Stumbling Stones and Gunter Demnig and Peter Hess, for their meaningful achievements in memorializing the Jewish victims of the Holocaust and sustaining awareness of the consequences of Nazism’s genocide among present-day and future generations throughout Germany and Europe. The award was presented at the HUC-JIR/New York Graduation Ceremony on Thursday, May 3 at Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York, 10 East 66 Street, New York City.
Rabbi Ellenson noted, “Stumbling Stones and its founders Gunter Demnig and Peter Hess, demonstrate the inspiring example of men governed by conscience and a devotion to honesty in history. Their memorial cobblestones in over 600 cities across Germany and Europe, ensure remembrance of the Jewish neighbors who unmercifully perished in the Holocaust and exert an ongoing warning against the dangers of racism and xenophobia.”
As a child growing up in Berlin, Gunter Demnig read historical accounts about the Jews who had once lived there, but when he asked his parents where those Jews were, they evaded the question. Years later, as an artist living in Cologne, he met sculptor Peter Hess, who was similarly haunted by guilt feelings about the German people’s responsibility for the Holocaust.
Demnig began to research the fates of thousands of Cologne’s Jews at the Nazi Documentation Center and sought a meaningful way to memorialize them. He and Hess seized on the idea of tracking down the names, dates of birth, and dates and places of deportation of Jews who had lived in that city, and engraving those names and their fates on small brass squares that would be embedded in the pavement in front of the buildings where they once lived. These Stolpersteine or Stumbling Blocks, upon which present day Germans would stumble without choosing to find them, would serve as individual, eternal memorials.
Stumbling Stones has situated over 25,000 memorial cobblestones on the sidewalks of 600 cities in Germany and across Europe to date. This project has engaged the participation of volunteers, who assist in historical research in municipal archives, deportation documents, and police files, help raise the funds to install these markers, and maintain them. In doing so, they seek to make amends for their country’s Nazi past and to educate current and future generations. By humanizing and personalizing the individuals who were dragged from their homes to their deaths during the Holocaust, this project has triggered a new intergenerational dialogue among Germans about the Nazis’ war crimes.
Stumbling Stones restores the identity of the victims of the Shoah who were reduced to anonymity in their deaths. Jewish descendants of Holocaust victims seek out these memorials for their loved ones who lie buried in mass graves or were reduced to smoke and ash in the crematoria of the death camps. Each individual stone – each single life – becomes a symbol of the magnitude of the Final Solution and exerts a warning about the ultimate consequences of intolerance, injustice, and indifference.
The Dr. Bernard Heller Prize in Arts, Letters, the Humanities, and Religion is an international award presented to an organization or individual whose work, writing, or research reflects significant contributions in these areas. Previous recipients include Dennis B. Ross, Special Middle East Coordinator in the U.S. Department of State; Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke, chief negotiator of the Dayton Peace Accords; Ambassador Stuart E. Eizenstat, Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Treasury and advocate for Holocaust restitution; Count Folke Bernadotte, posthumously, for rescuing thousands in the concentration camps during the Holocaust; and Shimon Peres, President of the State of Israel, for his exemplary leadership, wise statecraft, and moral leadership for over sixty years.
The Dr. Bernard Heller Prize was established by the Co-Trustees of the Dr. Bernard Heller Foundation to honor Dr. Bernard Heller's memory, life, and belief in the Jewish tradition. Dr. Bernard Heller was ordained at Hebrew Union College in 1949, served on the faculty as Visiting Professor of Jewish Ethics and the Philosophy of Religion at HUC-JIR/New York, was the Director of Restitution of Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, Inc., the agency charged with the restitution of cultural property seized by the Nazis from European Jewry and Jewish institutions, and served the only liberal Jewish congregation in India, the Progressive Union of Bombay. Dr. Heller pursued his interests in business as one of the founders of the predecessor to the United Brands Corporation and the West Indies Investment Company in the U.S. Virgin Islands.