Here at OM®, we love to learn about inspirational individuals . . .
Those on a mission to make a difference. Those doing good deeds and setting an example to others. Those changing lives and reshaping attitudes. Those being creative and putting their artistic talents to good use.
For us, Gunter Demnig ticks all the boxes. His is a tale that demands to be told.
Not everyone is a fan and the 66-year-old does have his critics. From time to time, Gunter receives death threats from neo-Nazi groups, yet he refuses to be bullied. He is convinced that his is a cause that justifies such things. Here at OM®, we’re inclined to agree.
Since 1996, Gunter has dedicated himself to a project that he calls Stolpersteine. In German, this means stumbling blocks and the translation is quite literal . . .
You see, for almost two decades, Gunter has been fixing brass plaques to sidewalks in German towns, villages and cities to commemorate victims of the Nazis. Each plaque chronicles a person’s life and death in its starkest details, giving an individual’s name, year of birth and death (if known) and brief details as to their fate. The Stolpersteine are attached to sidewalks outside the last-known residence of Jews who were deported and killed during the Holocaust. Before 2014 is over their number is forecast to total 50,000.
‘The [Holocaust] Monument in Berlin is abstract and centrally-located,’ explains Gunter. ‘But if the stone is in front of your house, you’re confronted. People start talking. To think about six million victims is abstract. But to think about a murdered family is concrete’.
Inspiration for Stolpersteine came, Gunter says, after he thought about the anonymous nature of those killed at the concentration camps, where victims were identified by numbers rather than their names.
In creating a unique plaque and placing it on the sidewalk outside a person’s last-known home, he explains, ‘the name is given back’ and the impact increased.
‘When I got the idea, I thought it was a good concept,’ he says. ‘It will always be symbolic, because it will never be possible to lay Stolpersteine for the millions of victims of the Nazis. I thought maybe it will reach a hundred, then maybe a thousand, but now it’s clear [that] it will go on for a long time.
‘There are about 48,000 now, and I’m sure we’ll reach 50,000 this year. [In the future] I’ll set up a foundation to continue the work.’
Some plaques remember well-known victims, such as Anne Frank, but most commemorate those long-forgotten and those whose stories have never before been told. It is this – a determination to underline the unimaginable scale of the Holocaust, to highlight the human cost and to ensure that a terrible past is not allowed to be brushed under history’s carpet – that is at the root of Gunter’s work. Imagine finding out that a Holocaust victim once lived in YOUR house. Talk about food for thought.
Not all those commemorated were Jews, as Gunter explains: ‘[Some were] Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roma and Sinti, homosexuals, dissidents, forced laborers [and] deserters,’ he says. ‘[But] they were all victims of the Nazis. In some places, there were more handicapped people killed than Jews . . .’
This is the bottom line: That all were people, all met a similar fate and, in this, all are forever connected. It is this – the mystical Red Thread, once again – that makes Gunter and his Stolpersteine such a compelling subject here in our studio. It strikes us that, in our own lives, we could all use something to make us stop and think from time to time. In a metaphorical sense, at least, EVERYONE needs stumbling blocks . . .
To make us take stock. To prompt us to remember. To remind us to be tolerant, kinder and more considerate. To underline the fact that – despite all our differences – deep down, we are all connected. Here’s to understanding. Here’s to Gunter. Here’s to Stolpersteine . . .