27th January is the UN-recognised ‘International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust.’
As the tunnel of time between today and the years in which the Holocaust occurred stretches ever longer, remembering such an atrocity can be challenging. How do we keep the memory alive when all those involved, in time, no longer will be? How can we be personal about something which never happened to us? And how do we honour the memory of its victims in a way that has an impact?
Europe’s most extensive art installation has managed to do just this. German artist Gunter Demnig launched his art project Stolperstein (literally meaning “stumbling stone”) back in 1992, and it is a work in progress that continues to this day, and spans the breadth of Europe, reaching as far north as Norway, as far east as Russia, and as far south as Italy.
The concept is simple: Demnig remembers victims of National Socialism by installing small commemorative, brass-plated stones in the pavement in front of their last address of choice; one stone for one victim. Small brass plaques each start with “Here Lived…” in the national language, and detail a few simple facts: name, date of birth, date of deportation, camp they were deported to, and date of death. There are now over 60,000 stones in 21 countries, and it’s growing.
Often, the small cobblestone-sized and -shaped surfaces blend in so well with surroundings that you barely notice them. I didn’t, and likely still wouldn’t had I not been told about them while on a walking tour in Berlin. The subtlety which makes them so easy to miss is also what makes them so powerful. They are part of the fabric that makes up the cities in which they are found. They’re not going anywhere, and they demand to be present… not made a show of, not stifling us; simply ever present.
Since learning about them, I can’t help but see them every time I travel. People I am with are often taken by surprise – having missed them themselves – as I run over to read the name of who lived in the house I’m now standing before, and where they were forced to meet their fate. I have seen these stones in Berlin, Rome, Oslo, Amsterdam, and Luxembourg. Every time I see one, it does something to me. It makes me feel sad, undoubtedly, but it does more than that. It is a quiet but compelling reminder to be grateful for what I have, what was denied to so many.
It may seem as the years go by that the Holocaust is very much a thing of the past, not related to us, even not worth remembering, but remembering has never felt so important. Look around you; the world is slipping backwards, it is putting people in leadership who stand for segregation… for goodness sake, The Orange Man is BUILDING A WALL ALONG THE MEXICO BORDER.
This week in his first interview since taking office, Trump condoned the use of torture. He discussed the methods used by ISIS – a group generally acknowledged as evil incarnate, the Nazis of our day – and expressed concerns that “we’re not on an even playing field.” This is dangerous territory… seriously dangerous. We cannot forget what happens when we let people like this make decisions and take actions on our behalf. We cannot let anything like the Holocaust happen again. It would have sounded unthinkable a few years ago; all of a sudden, it’s not such a far-fetched prospect. Remember the Holocaust, remember its victims.