As David Adjaye and his team set about building their Holocaust Memorial in London, Catherine Slessor looks at a simpler but more effective way of remembering the victims of Nazi terror
In December 1992 a small concrete cube topped with a brass plate was embedded in the pavement outside Cologne’s City Hall. It marked the 50th anniversary of the Nazi regime’s so-called ‘Auschwitz decree’ and the start of mass deportations of Jews and other ‘undesirables’ from Germany. This modest cube was the first ‘Stolperstein’ – literally, a stumbling block or stone. Since then, some 56,000 Stolpersteine have been laid in pavements all over Europe. Inscribed with the name and dates of victims of Nazi extermination or persecution, each indicates that person’s home or place of work in an unobtrusive yet highly charged act of remembrance. There are individuals and couples. Entire families are often clustered together.
Initiated by German artist Gunter Demnig, the Stolpersteine project has grown into a Europe-wide programme to commemorate victims of Nazi terror, both Jewish and non-Jewish. It is not state-funded. Instead, costs are covered by individual donations, along with public fundraising. Today, Stolpersteine can be stumbled upon in over 1,000 cities, from Brussels to Budapest. Crucially, unlike more explicitly choreographed expressions of loss and memory, such as Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe or David Adjaye’s winning proposal for a national Holocaust Memorial, such a simple and enduring initiative did not require the involvement of a superstar architect.
And it’s the better for it. According to Demnig, formal memorial sites can be easily avoided or bypassed, but a Stolperstein represents a much deeper intrusion of memory into everyday life. As fugitive glints in the pavement, you discover Stolpersteine largely by chance. They bring you up short as you casually stroll around. And, of course, that’s their point. Ordinary people, just like you, once trod these same streets. Now long dead in unimaginable circumstances, this was once their home or place of work. A Stolperstein resituates them, reconnecting people with neighbourhoods, restoring the umbilicus of memory. Historian Joseph Pearson argues that ‘it is not what is written on the Stolperstein which intrigues, because the inscription is insufficient to conjure a person. It is the emptiness, void, lack of information, the maw of the forgotten, which gives the monuments their power and lifts them from the banality of a statistic’.
Crucially, such a simple and enduring initiative did not require the involvement of a superstar architect
At the heart of all memorial culture is the notion of absence, which architecture can rarely truly grasp or interpret. So the fact that it so often lapses into a kind of comforting banality should not surprise anyone. Lutyens aside, most British war memorials are generally excruciating exercises in sentiment or bombast.
Whether Adjaye can mine a more compelling seam of expression for his Holocaust Memorial remains to be seen. His proposal to fracture the site with a series of blade-like elements implies viscerality and rupture, but the location, next to the Palace of Westminster, is a challenging nexus of national significance, freighted with symbolism, proscription and expectation.
Compared with most memorials, Stolpersteine have an intimacy and immediacy, but also connote a more disturbing resonance, as Jewish gravestones from destroyed cemeteries were often reused by the Nazis as paving stones. Provocatively hinting at this historic desecration, Stolpersteine are placed unfenced and unprotected in the public realm. Inevitably, some have been vandalised – shameful proof that poisonous bigotry is still endemic across Europe.
Adjaye has had direct experience of this as his Stephen Lawrence Centre in Deptford was systematically attacked by racists. And his Holocaust Memorial now comes at a time when a recent 29 per cent increase in recorded hate crime suggests a nation far from at ease with itself. The Brexit vote and terrorist attacks were identified as exacerbating factors. Britain might smugly congratulate itself on being one of the few voids on the Stolpersteine map of Europe, but there is still an acute imperative to remember the past and learn from it.