By Ruth Mandel and Rachel Lehr • Professor in Anthropology, UCL; Researcher, University of Colorado
Stolpersteine in Norway (Source: Ruth Scor)
The German artist Gunter Demnig began his Stolperstein project in the mid-1990s as a guerrilla art installation in Berlin. It has grown enormously, and now it is arguably the world’s largest participatory counter-memorial. Stolpersteine -‘stumbling stones’ – are 10 cm x 10 cm brass plates affixed to cobblestones, bearing the names and dates of birth, deportation, and murder or survival of victims of Nazi Germany; they are installed in the pavement/sidewalk in front of the ‘last residence of choice’ of the person(s) being commemorated. There are now over 70,000 Stolpersteine located in 24 countries. The installations are organized through a combination of individual, state sponsored and grass roots efforts.
The scholars Ruth Mandel and Rachel Lehr are carrying out multi-sited ethnographic research about this and other site-specific artists’ responses to the Holocaust. They describe here what they are finding, starting in Norway where the traveled 5,000 km with Demnig, observing and even taking part in installation ceremonies.
Norway is a country as much at the geographic periphery of Nazi occupation as it was at the demographic fringe of Europe’s Jewish population, and it is here that we began our research. This is a country that never had more than 0.03% of its population Jewish, never more than 2000 members, most of whom lived in Oslo with others were scattered across the countryside. One-third of Norway’s Jews were systematically arrested and deported to Auschwitz in November 1942 where most were murdered upon arrival. Only 35 Norwegian Jews survived this ordeal and few returned to Norway. Those who escaped arrest, hid or fled to Sweden for the duration of the war.
While most Stolpersteine in Norway (snublesteiner in Norwegian) are in Oslo, there are also stones in seemingly random places, such as small towns, like Hønefoss where a single Jewish family, the Sharffs, once lived.
In Hønefoss, a town about one hour from Oslo, we met Anne-Gro Christiansen, a local journalist who was responsible for commissioning snublesteiner for the deported Scharff family. In 2017 we had heard about Anne-Gro from a friend of ours who lives in a nearby town. Our friend had told us a disturbing story about the stones:
I went to the café shortly after the stones had been installed and noticed there was a mat covering them. I told the owner it was a shame that they were covered and asked him why. He apologized and explained that he was protecting the stones because men were coming at night and urinating on them.
This story both horrified us and piqued our interest in the stones. We went the following year to meet Anne-Gro in Hønefoss.
The authors with Gunter Demnig
Having grown up in Hønefoss in the same house where her father had been raised, Anne-Gro had heard many stories from him of the pre-War Scharff family next door. She told us her father felt guilty that he had not been able to protect his friend and neighbour Yakob Scharff, a young composer. Anne-Gro took it upon herself to uncover the Scharff family story over the course of 20 years. She tracked down descendants in Australia, arranged for Yakob’s musical compositions to be performed; she commissioned 7 snublesteiner for all the members of the Scharff family deported and killed. Anne-Gro gives public talks about the family, speaks to schools, and she wrote a book about them.
She also told us the story of the doll. In 1942 after all Jewish property had been seized, much of it was auctioned off locally. After the war, in Hønefoss and throughout Norway, Norwegians were requested to return Jewish property to the authorities. In Hønefoss only a few linens from the Scharff family were returned. Anne-Gro told us there had been a piano, silver, many valuables, and that she personally knew who had what possessions from the Scharff household. ‘It is a small town,’ she said; ‘everyone knew.’ She related a story to us: once she had located the descendants of the Sharff family in Australia she travelled there to visit them. Prior to her trip, she went to the home of an elderly woman who had in her possession a doll that had belonged to one of the murdered Sharff children. She asked for it, in order to ‘return’ it to the family members. Her neighbour refused this request. We heard similar accounts throughout the country. We were impressed by Anne-Gro’s devotion and commitment. She told us she did all this in order to rectify a wrong.
Shortly after meeting Anne-Gro Christiansen, we learned that Demnig would be coming to Norway in June 2018 to install 70 stolpersteine. With the assistance of the Oslo Jewish Museum, we made arrangements to travel with the artist, observing the installations.
We travelled 5000 kilometres from Oslo to Bergen to Trondheim, as well as to numerous small towns, by plane, car, mini-van, and ferries through fjords, observing ceremonies of commemoration with as many as 100 attendees and as few as none. We interviewed attendees at the stone installations, the organizers of the events, the officiating mayors, as well as the artist.
Schoolchildren on a class trip photograph stolpersteine in Venice
As ethnographers, we took our role of participant-observers to heart; we unwittingly found ourselves active participants in the process we had planned chiefly to observe. Initially we travelled from Oslo with Demnig and Dag Kopperud, the historian from the Jewish Museum. While driving north to the small town of Sør Fron for the stone installations commemorating the deported Karpol family, we asked Dag what we could expect at the event. Having noted that Kaddish—the Jewish prayer recited in memory of the dead—had been recited at each of the ceremonies in Oslo over the previous days, we asked him whether there would be anyone to do so that day, in Sør Fron. It had not occurred to him, and he said that he doubted it would be included in the ceremony. He thought about it, and a moment later, asked us if we would be willing to recite it; we agreed. He sent some text messages back and forth to the organisers, and we found ourselves on the program. Suddenly, the observers were participants. This role of kaddish-reciters continued for the next five installations.
The sounds of the Kaddish were unfamiliar to the attendees. We explained that it was meant to be said by descendants of the deceased in their memory. In the absence of descendants, we felt moved to recite it.
We attended many installations–not only in Norway, but Austria, Hungary, and Germany (we hope to attend many more). At all these, people treated the stones with great reverence. The improvised installation rituals we observed took many forms—religious, secular, simple, elaborate; but all seemed to share a sense of the sacred—even if momentary. Flowers, candles, stones, and photos of the deceased, were arranged around the Stolpersteine, and were well-documented. This was a striking contrast with the local landscape directly following an installation. Afterward, the stone simply became a small glint interrupting the grey stones surrounding it, offering passers-by a chance to stumble across it, bend down, read, and reflect—or to pass on by.
Stolpersteine in Budapest
Many questions remain.
For example, why are there so few stones in Poland—despite the artist’s offer to donate and install them gratis? Why have some municipalities banned their installation? Why do some Jewish leaders opposed them? Do they pose threats? How do different generations of descendants respond? How do local people interact with them?
These are some of the questions that will be guiding the next stages of our ongoing research.
(Gunter Demnig’s motto is ‘one victim-one stone.’ According to his web site, the project “commemorates all victims of National Socialism: Jews, Sinti, Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, mentally and/or physically disabled people, those persecuted for their political views, their sexual orientation, forced laborers, people persecuted on the grounds that they were ‘asocial’ such as homeless people or prostitutes—anyone who was persecuted or murdered by the Nazi regime between 1933 and 1945.)
This article was first published on Jewish Heritage Europe