Stumbling Blocks: On Remembering the Poor, the Disfavored and Condemned

The entrance to a nondescript apartment building is tucked between a sports betting lounge and a newspaper shop on a busy but unremarkable street. The sidewalk is crowded with scaffolding and construction materials; a neighbouring building is getting a new facade. Just to the right of the front steps is a brass plaque set into the sidewalk and engraved with four names: Karl Stein, Bruno Kleinrock, Cornelia Kleinrock and Susanne Kleinrock. Also included are their birthdays and a brief summary of their fates:

  • deported 1942 to Riga;
  • fate unknown;
  • deported 1943 from Malines [Belgium] to Auschwitz;
  • deported 1943 from Malines to Auschwitz.

Karl, Cornelia and Susanne were murdered in Auschwitz and, although it is not known for sure, it is likely that Bruno was too. They were Jews, and the plaque marks the address of their home in Vienna prior to their forced removal.

This plaque and many others like it have been placed before and on buildings throughout Vienna by a private association founded in 2005 called Steine der Erinnerung (“Stones of Remembrance”), one of several in the city that aim to commemorate the Jewish victims of the Holocaust as well as to keep the memory of Jewish life and culture in the city alive.

The initiative was inspired by the German artist Gunter Demnig, who in 1993 began an art project to commemorate the victims of National Socialism. He did so by placing at a victim’s last freely-chosen address a paving stone capped with a brass plaque engraved by hand with the individual’s name,  name and dates of birth, deportation and death, if known, which marked the beginning of that person’s persecution by the Nazi regime. The paving stones became known as “Stolpersteine” (“stumbling blocks”), but unlike those found in the scriptures, these, I think, have the potential to get us closer to heaven.

The project has been a work in progress. It began as a temporary installation in Cologne, a subversive form of “remembrance art” that challenged Germany’s state-sponsored “monumental memorials,” both in appearance and location. While Germany had gone to great lengths to come to terms with its past in the post-war period, Demnig believed that the typical memorials to the victims of National Socialism did not do enough to raise or preserve awareness of the individuals involved. These memorials may have been placed in prominent locations, but they required you to go to them, were not necessarily located in places of significance to the victims and were often abstract rather than personalized. The monumental form of remembrance maintained and perhaps even fostered a certain distance between the public and those being commemorated. Demnig wanted to return the disembodied memories of the victims to where they came from, to remind those left behind that those who were uprooted by the Nazis were once our neighbors.

Demnig originally contemplated remembering the victims by affixing a brass plaque to the wall of each building where the victims had last chosen to live. However, this would have entailed requesting permission from the owner of each building. Instead he settled on the stumbling block concept, which required “only” the permission of the city to place a memorial in public space. Laid flush with the sidewalk, the paving stones would not dominate the cityscape, but the polished brass would be prominent enough to attract the attention of passersby.

The first stumbling block was laid in Berlin in 1996. Demnig’s project struck a chord within Germany and beyond—today, over 75,000 stumbling blocks have been laid in 26 countries, making this one of the largest decentralized memorials in the world. The idea has even spread to the United States:

the Chicago Race Riot of 1919 Commemoration Project (CRR19) seeks to raise awareness about the worst incident of racial violence in Chicago’s history by installing artistic markers to those killed during the riot at the locations where each was killed.

https://chicagoraceriot.org/about/

The stumbling blocks project is not without its critics, however. A leading concern is that the names of victims are literally being trampled underfoot. Moreover, the positive reception and ensuing proliferation of the stumbling blocks has resulted in two additional concerns: first, the scale of the project means a lot of money is involved—each stumbling block costs about $150—and the prospect of the artist profiting massively from mass murder strikes some as unseemly; second, the project risks becoming a trend and then simply mundane, no longer able to capture the attention or stimulate reflection among those who pass by. And sometimes the debate over how to remember can overshadow the memories of the individuals themselves.

Citing these and other arguments, a number of municipalities have not allowed the stumbling blocks to be placed in public spaces. Innsbruck, for example, decided that it already has enough static memorials and is looking for innovative concepts for a dynamic—yet sustainable and essentially permanent—approach to commemorating the victims of National Socialism.

The critiques highlight the difficulty of doing justice to the memory of the victims of group-targeted violence. Nevertheless, by drawing attention to both the remembered as well as how we remember them, the stumbling blocks have the potential to prick our hearts in productive ways. As suggested above, they offer a deliberate alternative not just to the monumental style of memorials that dot our cities and collective consciousness but also to what it is we set about to memorialize.

In many cases, whether a memorial takes the form of a bust carved into a mountainside, a statute of a saber-rattling general astride a horse, or a university building emblazoned with a donor’s name, we are memorializing not just people but also power and influence:

the basic underlying tendency in any society is to over-celebrate the holders of power, to praise them and memorialize them as if they were better than they truly were, and thereby to pass along distorted lessons about what kind of life is praiseworthy. This distortion commonly takes the form of minimizing faults and flaws more or less unrelated to the valuable public service we wish to honor. But it’s not at all rare to distort the past, and morally miseducate the present, by celebrating pernicious exercises of power themselves. Smith helps us understand why so many people are so ready to care about, say, Robert E. Lee, always recalled for his conflict of loyalties and for his military valor and brilliance, and so quick to ignore the moral importance of the millions of people who were neither famous nor powerful whom he fought to keep in chains. 

Jacob T. Levy, “Honoring the Dishonorable Part 1: The Dishonorable Dead

This is not to say that everyone whose name graces a library or is carved into a pedestal is guilty of oppression or wielding power to the detriment of others. But as Bryan Stevenson says in the film adaptation of Just Mercy in the scene depicting a Senate hearing on the death penalty, “the character of our nation isn’t reflected in how we treat the rich and the privileged, but how we treat the poor, the disfavored and condemned.” In my view, the stumbling blocks project as well as those inspired by it helps shift our focus to the “millions of people who were neither famous nor powerful” who suffered greatly at the hands of those who did wield power. This approach is also true to the spirit of scriptures like Galatians 2:10

Only they would that we should remember the poor; the same which I also was forward to do.

and Hebrews 13:3

Remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them; and them which suffer adversity, as being yourselves also in the body.

As members of the church, we are familiar with such commonplace items as bread and water prompting profound, life-changing remembrance:

The sacrament provides an opportunity for Church members to ponder and remember with gratitude the life, ministry, and Atonement of the Son of God. The broken bread is a reminder of His body and His physical suffering—especially His suffering on the cross. It is also a reminder that through His mercy and grace, all people will be resurrected and given the opportunity for eternal life with God.

The water is a reminder that the Savior shed His blood in intense spiritual suffering and anguish, beginning in the Garden of Gethsemane and concluding on the cross.

Partaking of the sacrament is a witness to God that the remembrance of His Son will extend beyond the short time of that sacred ordinance. […] In return, the Lord renews the promised remission of sin and enables Church members to “always have his Spirit to be with them”. The Spirit’s constant companionship is one of the greatest gifts of mortality.

Gospel Topics

In remembering His sacrifice, the Savior invites us to identify with him and his mission to bless humankind. In remembering Him, we remember others and His call to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, take in the stranger, clothe the naked and visit the sick. Indeed, inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

For a day at least, memory will be at the forefront of our minds. Let’s take a moment to reflect on who and how we remember with a view to restoring the humanity of the marginalized and the already forgotten.

Comments

  1. J. Stapley says:

    I’ve been thinking a lot about the Lord’s Supper recently, and I appreciate your meditation here. Remembering can be a tricky thing.