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Germany's Nazi Past Is Just a Stumbling Stone Away

Thousands of so-called “Stolpersteine,” or "stumbling stones," remind passersby of the victims of Nazi terror.
Image: Solpersteine project
The "stumbling stones" paying tribute to Charlotte and Laura Waldeck, who died at the hands of the Nazis.Carlo Angerer / NBC News
/ Source: NBC News

ZIERENBERG, Germany — Gunter Demnig kneeled on a rain-drenched sidewalk in front of a timber-framed house and replaced some cobblestones with two brass-plate-covered slabs. Each was engraved with a name.

“Involuntarily moved 1938,” each inscription reads. These stones mark the night when plainclothes Nazi SS troops and local henchmen ousted Charlotte and Laura Waldeck from the dwelling, destroyed the Jewish family’s furniture and threw their other belongings onto the street.

Humiliated and ostracized, Charlotte Waldeck died three years later, aged in her early 70s. Her daughter Laura was sent to the Warsaw Ghetto in 1939. She was later murdered.

These so-called “Stolpersteine,” or "stumbling stones," remind passersby of the Waldeck family and other victims of Nazi terror.

Image: Solpersteine project
Gunter Demnig replaces cobblestones with "stumbling stones" in Zierenberg, Germany.Carlo Angerer / NBC News

Many hope such displays will not only highlight past horrors but may help to choke the growth of right-wing extremism. On Sunday, the far-right and anti-immigration AfD became the third-strongest force in Germany's parliament — earning 13 percent of the vote. The result gives the populist party 94 of the Bundestag's 709 seats. One leading AfD candidate celebrated by vowing to “take back our country and our people.”

The World Jewish Congress called the party "a disgraceful reactionary movement which recalls the worst of Germany's past."

Demnig launched his art project in 1996, long before the AfD was established. His installations are now widely recognized as individual and personalized Holocaust memorials.

To date, Demnig has placed over 61,000 stones in 21 countries as reminders of the atrocities committed against Jews, the disabled, homosexuals, Sinti and Roma minority groups, and dissidents.

“These stones are symbols, considering the impossibly large number of victims,” said Demnig, 69. He spent 270 days on the road last year installing them.

Germany has embraced so-called "remembrance culture" such as Demnig's works during the past decade.

Image: Solpersteine project
Some of the other "stumbling stones."Carlo Angerer / NBC News

In Zierenberg, a small town north of Frankfurt, Demnig lays 12 stones in one afternoon.

“This brings back the names of Jewish citizens for whom Zierenberg was once their home,” says Wilfried Wicke, a retired local pastor who was among the locals watching them be installed.

The group is reminded that there were not only victims but also Nazis among the local community.

Recent events such as deadly violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the rise of populist parties across Europe, show that education and awareness should be a priority, according to Josef Schuster, head of the German Jewish Council.

“I think it’s more important than ever to make clear what such developments can lead to,” Schuster said.

He said the rise of Hitler's Nazi party beginning in the 1930s "is a cautionary example that should be a signal far beyond Germany’s borders."

Schuster thinks the growth of remembrance culture might be linked to the fact that most of the Nazi perpetrators have died.

“Now people are open to discuss in their own the families the failures of the past,” he says.

Germany struggles with small, but regular neo-Nazi gatherings as well as the surge in popularity of the far-right AfD party which resulted in Sunday's electoral breakthrough.

However, the display of Nazi flags and slogans, as witnessed at Charlottesville, are unthinkable in post-war Germany.

The country's legal system considers Holocaust denial a crime. Public display of swastikas and other Nazi symbols are forbidden and can result in a jail sentence of up to three years.

So the sight of white nationalists marching in Charlottesville unsettled many observers in Germany.

“I could not imagine that in a country like the United States such a large right-wing demonstration could take place, apparently without the government being able to counter this."

Demnig, the artist, says his goal is to steer the next generation away from extremism.

Image: Stolpersteine project
Cobblestones are removed before being replaced as part of the "stumbling stones" project.Carlo Angerer / NBC News

“I have the hope that through engaging the youth something can be achieved,” he added.

Germany's education system is also playing its part.

History lessons dealing with Hitler’s Third Reich and the Holocaust are mandatory in the country's schools. Excursions to former Nazi death camps are also often on the curriculum.

Demnig says the stumbling stones hit home with many young people.

“Large numbers such as 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust are abstract, but now this was someone in their neighborhood,” he added. “It is something concrete, they start to think and might say, 'This victim was as old as I am now.'”