Walking along some cobbled street in Germany, Hungary or Italy, travelers might notice a small bronze plaque, interred into the ground or wall of some unassuming building.
The plaques, written in the language of whatever country the item has been installed in, may say any number of things, from names to dates and addresses. The message on each of these plaques, however, is the same—a victim of the Holocaust once lived here.
The initiative is called the Stolpersteine Project, and it’s the brainchild of German artist Gunter Demnig. In 1994 he began producing the plaques, which are placed at the last known address of the individual the memorial is meant to represent. With the help of an ever-expanding team the project has grown to cover more than 500 cities across 10 European nations.
An estimated 30,000 stolpersteine have been placed, making it the largest memorial in the world.
The word stolpersteine literally means “stumbling blocks” in German. Before the outbreak of the Shoah, Germans would allegedly claim a Jew must have been buried in the ground upon tripping over a stone.
Demnig has told reporters in the past that he was inspired to create his project by words in the Talmud: “A man is not forgotten until his name is forgotten.”
The mission started small. Demnig made a name for himself installing small memorial plaques across Cologne, typically symbolizing spots where thousands had been deported. The artist told a local pastor he wanted to create something more powerful, to show individual personalities affected by Nazism.
The pastor encouraged Demnig to begin his plight, starting with 250 stolpersteine displayed at the pastor’s church. Slowly, Demnig began installing more plaques without official permission, until the program drew attention and support on an international level.
Today, volunteers work to shape, press and engrave the plaques—schoolboys, seniors, individuals who lost relatives in the Holocaust. Brick by brick, plaque by plaque, Demnig is creating a lasting memorial to the deceased.
It’s a stark departure from the customary way in which Holocaust victims are often remembered. Instead of museum exhibits and documents profiling how these men, women and children died, the Stolpersteine Project provides a window into how these souls lived.
Below, view photos of Stolpersteine plaques being created and installed across Europe: