The Lessons of the Stumbling Stones

stumbling stones

In Isabel Wilkerson’s acclaimed new book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, she shares the story of the stumbling stones.

In 1992, German artist Gunter Demnig, began commemorating the lives of Sinti and Roma people who were murdered by the Nazi regime. The project soon expanded to include all who were killed by Nazis: Jews, primarily, but also homosexuals, the disabled, Communists, members of the Christian opposition and those in the anti-Nazi Resistance.

Demnig’s concept is stunning in its simplicity. For each victim, the artist hand-fashions a 4-inch concrete cube covered by a brass plate, which has inscribed on it the words: “Here lived” and then the name, date of birth, date of deportation and date of death, if known. The stones are placed in the sidewalks in front of the homes where these men and women last lived before they were rounded up for ghettoes or death camps. 

As of December 2019, 75,000 stumbling stones (or Stolpersteine, in German) have been placed in more than 24 countries, making the Stolpersteine the largest decentralized monument in the world.

The decision to place the memorials in the midst of everyday life and the name “stumbling stones” are rich with symbolism. A stumbling stone or stumbling block means a problem, an obstacle. To “stumble across something” is to happen upon it by chance. Further, when Jewish cemeteries were destroyed in Nazi-conquered Europe, the gravestones were often repurposed as sidewalks; the Jews would be desecrated as the thoughtless walked atop their monuments. So, to happen upon a memorial imbedded in the sidewalk is both an allusion to an atrocity and the reminder of a life stopped short.

Some have complained that the memorials cause further denigration by being placed underfoot. The artist explains his intentions this way: “if you stumble and look, you must bow down with your head and your heart.”

When I learned of this project, I immediately wondered: Could the beauty and intimacy of this work be replicated in some way where I live? Are there innocent victims in my community whose forgotten lives could be remembered and memorialized? 

There are, I know. Black people who have been unjustly killed or incarcerated. Women who’ve lost their lives to domestic violence. Young people who’ve died by suicide. There are so many tragedies in every community. So much loss.

When I reeled in my heart a little, though, I admitted to myself that I was not an artist. I had not been awarded a grant to commemorate these losses. I did not have the time or resources or talent to create a series of memorials across my city.

I truly hope someone better suited to this project does take it on.

But where does that leave me?

The genius of the stumbling stones is that they are surprising (you never know when you might encounter one), they are personal (their few facts tell a flash story of a life) and they are woven into the every day.

As I pondered further, I realized how much the stumbling stones have in common with The Kindness Rocks Project or the general concept of Random Acts of Kindness.

I am by no means belittling the brilliance of the stumbling stones or the tragedy of the Holocaust. What I am suggesting is that, in small ways, all of us can bring light into the world.

What if we offer a smile to a stranger? Give a flower to an acquaintance, just because? Leave prettily painted rocks along our day-to-day pathways? Drop dinner or a baked good by a neighbor’s house on a whim?

To paraphrase of one of Mother Teresa’s teachings: “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”

And to quote South African Bishop Desmond Tutu: “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”

So, I’m taking the story of the stumbling stones as a reminder to go out of my way to be patient, kind, generous, open-minded.

Perhaps — like the stumbling stones — my gestures won’t be noticed at all. But perhaps they will make someone stop and smile and vow to spread their own kindnesses throughout their own lives.

In that way my “little bit” might “overwhelm the world.”

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