Stumbling Stones

An image of a Berlin stumbling stone which I found particularly powerful.

The stumbling stones, small memorials found throughout Amsterdam and many other cities in which Jews were persecuted and deported to concentration camps by the Nazis, are a very different form of memorialization from what we typically see. In contrast to large monuments, museums, statues, obituaries, or lists of names, it provides a quiet reminder that a victim of the Holocaust once stood where it now sits. In theory, I believe that they are far more powerful than any of the aforementioned memorials. It is one thing to stare at a memorial built in a town square or museum, and quite another entirely to stand in a spot where, some seventy years ago, Nazi soldiers pulled someone from their home out onto the street to be sent to their death.

The problem of these stones is a logistical one. While there have been tens of thousands of these memorials created, this number simply pales in comparison to the millions who died. As seen in the map from the Feddes text, there were far more Jews in Amsterdam at the beginning of the Holocaust than there are stumbling stones today. It is a beautiful effort, but one which may never be able to adequately represent those who died. One only needs to look at the prevalence of antisemitism in Dutch soccer chants, as explained by Kuper, to see that this type of language is still alive and well. Every “Jew joke” made by Dutch soccer fans (or anyone else, for that matter) is an insult to those who died, making light of one of history’s most horrific atrocities.

The question then becomes, Is there any way to truly represent the deaths of millions through memorialization? Is there a monument big enough or emotionally striking enough or could there ever be enough stumbling stones laid to truly express the reality of the Holocaust? I believe that the aim of successfully memorializing someone who has died is simply impossible. There is just no replacing a human life, with all its individuality and complexity and connections. However, our society must always strive to provide even a tiny fraction of the memorialization that those who were slain deserve. A stumbling stone won’t bring someone back. It won’t preserve their memory to an adequate degree. But it provides one of the most intimate connections a person can form with someone who has died. It serves as a headstone, placed not in a cemetery with no body recovered, but in the last known location where the person lived by choice. I believe many would want to commemorated at the last place they experienced joy and freedom, rather than as a name on a list or written on a tombstone.

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