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(Eric Jaffe)

Memory Blocks

Artist Gunter Demnig builds a Holocaust memorial one stone at a time

Roswitha Keller of Guenzburg, Germany, stumbled upon her Jewish past in 1999, following the death of her 90-year-old aunt. Keller found a document written by her grandfather August Stürzenacker recounting the circumstances under which his sisters-in-law, Gertrude Herrmann and Helene Mainzer were picked up by the Gestapo on October 20, 1940, and deported to the Vichy detention camp Gurs in southwestern France. "We were totally unaware of my father's Jewish background," Keller says. "He had never mentioned it to us." Having seen stolpersteine in Bonn, Keller commissioned two stones honoring her great-aunts which end with the word verschollen—missing.

The installation of the stumbling blocks is very much a German communal event. "These are memorials by and for the Germans," Young says. "These aren't really for the Jewish community but for Germans remembering."

Demnig sees stolpersteine and the ceremonies as a form of performance art. "People learn about people," he says, "and then you have discussions when others see the stone." Miriam Davis, granddaughter of Alfred Grünebaum, traveled to Frankfurt am Main from Silver Spring, Maryland, in October 2004. The family had received an invitation to attend the stone's installation from Gisela Makatsch of Steine Gegen Das Vergessen (Stones Against Being Forgotten), a group that helps Demnig place stolpersteine, who had researched the Davis history. Davis and Makatsch clicked and have stayed close since. "How could I ask for a richer way to comprehend the changes that have happened in Germany?" Davis says.

Not everyone approves of the stolpersteine. Charlotte Knobloch, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, has objected to people walking on the names of the dead. Some homeowners worry that the value of their property might decrease. In some towns in eastern Germany, stolpersteine have been ripped out of the pavement.

Yet more and more stolpersteine are appearing, even beyond Germany's borders. Demnig has installed them in sidewalks in Austria and Hungary. Later this year he's heading for the Netherlands, and next year he's off to Italy.

"I will be making stolpersteine until I die," Demnig says. "So many people in Germany are involved and now in the whole of Europe. I have to continue. This is not a project for the past but for the future."

Lois Gilman is a freelance writer whose grandparents lived in Frankfurt am Main and escaped the Nazis in 1939.

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