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The Right Questions

German conceptual artists find provocative ways to confront the Holocaust

Stacy Perman
July 25, 2007

The Bavarian Quarter of Berlin’s Schöneberg district—once home to Hannah Arendt and Albert Einstein—is a pleasant, middle-class neighborhood, its tree-lined streets populated by manicured matrons and frolicking schoolchildren. But though the neighborhood’s 19th-century buildings largely survived the Allied bombings, little evidence remained after the war that the Bavarian Quarter was once home to 16,000 Jews. Then, one day, in 1993, signs began to appear on lampposts. On one side they bore simple, silk-screened images of basic items: a loaf of bread, a pair of swimming trunks, a newspaper. On other: Nazi-era decrees pertaining to Jews. “Jews are allowed to buy bread only between the hours of four and five o’clock,” reads one. Another, illustrated with musical notes, proclaims “Jews are not allowed to join singing clubs.” A sign in front of a church reads: “Jewish conversions to Christianity are invalid.” Through the quarter, the orders and prohibitions grow increasingly irrational: “Jews are forbidden to buy newspapers and magazines”; “Jews may only use those benches at the Bavarian Plaza which are marked in yellow.”

Renata Stih and Frieder Schnock, the artists behind this installation—called Places of Remembering in the Bavarian Quarter—are redefining the concept and function of the traditional memorial. Like much of the two Berlin conceptualists’ work, the Schöneberg installation imposes art on the quotidian, involving the viewer and provoking thought. “The whole point of the project was to make a memorial that was not some sculpture but something that would interfere with everyday life,” explains Schnock. The residents of the neighborhood, he shrugs, “have to live with these signs. It’s in public. It’s a memorial, not a temporary exhibition. It is to be seen every day.”

History casts a tremendous shadow over Berlin. It is inescapable. Here everyone wrestles with the past; they even have a word for doing so: Vergangenheitsbewältigung. How exactly do you remember those once targeted for annihilation? And how do the descendants of perpetrators do so without seeming to sanitize the experience while extricating themselves from the sins of the past? How to create monuments that aren’t what the Germans call Kranzabwufstelle, or wreath-throwing places—clinical, safe sculptures or museums to which you can simply pay a visit and walk away. Schnock and Stih represent a new wave of German artists concerned with the intersection of public art, politics, culture, history, and memory. “Memory is a political issue,” Schnock explains. “We live with history all the time. You can’t be neutral. It’s a burden.”

Schnock says that he and Stih, who are married, design “active memorials where people participate and get involved,” forcing viewers to consider uncomfortable questions—in the case of Places of Remembering, how were millions marginalized, dehumanized, and ultimately destroyed in plain sight? The couple created the installation after they won a Holocaust memorial competition for the neighborhood, sponsored by the Berlin state senate in 1992. Three years later, they submitted a proposal for Germany’s national Holocaust memorial. Their proposed installation, Bus Stop, consisted of a contemporary German bus shelter, a timetable, and red buses that left regularly for stops throughout Nazi Germany: concentration camps such as Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald, and the house at Wannsee where the Final Solution was hatched. Ultimately, the jury chose architect Peter Eisenman’s gargantuan and controversial monument, whose 2,700 sunken granite slabs now cover five acres of central Berlin. But Bus Stop was the most popular with the public. “We consider most of our works public outreach,” explains Schnock, who is also an art historian and curator.

When they began work on Places of Remembering, the couple spent three weeks talking to residents of Schöneberg, primarily elderly people who had lived there during the War. “We asked them if they knew of any Jews,” Schnock explains. “[M]ost of them avoided using the word ‘Jew.’ They said they don’t live here anymore. Or they went to Israel. One woman became excited and said, ‘yes, my doctor came back. He was such a good doctor.’”

When workers began installing the signs, one resident shouted, “Go away Jew Pigs!” through an open window. The workers, says Schnock, “were really shocked at the reaction. They saw that it was necessary to do this memorial.” Other people called the central Jewish council to complain that anti-Semitic signs were going up in the neighborhood. The police came and took down half of the signs before the issue was resolved. The artists added a small disclaimer underneath the signs saying they were part of a memorial. For the most part, the installation has stood without incident for 13 years.

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It is nearly impossible to take a step in Berlin without stumbling onto some memorial. There are the authentic places, those that are always preceded, in reference, by the words “the former”: as in here is the former synagogue, the former Jewish cemetery, or the former Gestapo headquarters. And there are the aesthetic monuments: the sculptural, architectural, and artistic renderings to remind Germany of its darkest impulses. Yet few have been able to humanize the emptiness.

Around the same time Schnock and Stih began installing Places of Remembering, a Cologne sculptor named Gunter Demnig began crafting what he called Stolpersteine (stumbling blocks), small, shiny brass plaques inscribed with the words “here lived” followed by the names of German citizens—Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals—along with their birth dates, deportation dates and the concentration camp at which they were murdered, and installing them in front of the former homes of victims of the Nazi regime. Over the past 13 years Demnig has embedded more than 8,000 Stolpersteine in the pavement of nearly 100 German cities. In the blink of the eye, they remind casual passerby that beyond the doors of the houses in front of them, once lived ordinary people, entire families with whole histories of their own.

“The idea was to bring back the names of the people where they lived and say here is where they lived, from this home they were deported,” says Demnig, who conceived of the Stolpersteine in 1990, while working on another Holocaust-themed installation, a chalk tracing of the Gypsies’ deportation route from Cologne. Nobody, Demnig realized, had asked the simple question: “Where did all of these people go?” The Stolpersteine have eclipsed his other projects. He spends his days making plaques, which he installs himself, traveling around the country in a minivan. “I will be doing this until the end of my life,” he says. “Each stone in a way is like my baby. Each imprint is one person.”

Surviving family members frequently request a stone, and students in different cities help him collect biographical information about victims. In one 10-day period, Demnig received 200 requests; there is a backlog until June 2007. In September, he’ll travel to Zgierz—a village north of Lodz—to install his first stones in Poland. Next year he’ll go to Hungary, Ukraine, and the Netherlands.

As with Places of Remembering, the Stolpersteine weren’t received warmly at first. When Demnig installed the first plaques in Cologne, a homeowner took him to court to stop him. “He said the value of his house would decrease by 100,000 Euro,” Demnig recalls. Charlotte Knobloch, now the head of Germany’s Central Council on Jews, objected to them on metaphorical grounds: “Given the fact that Jewish people have been kicked with boots in the past,” she told the German media, she did not want to see, “their names again kicked with boots and made dirty.”

But while the residents of Schöneberg have grown accustomed to Schnock and Stih’s strange, unsettling signs (one woman gives people directions to her home by saying she lives by the pearl necklace sign), Demnig still encounters opposition, most recently in the former East Germany. In a number of instances, neo-Nazis there have advised community members to have their dogs urinate on the stones, in some cases the plaques have been removed during the night and destroyed. It took Demnig 10 years to arrange to install the stones in Poland; government officials put up one hurdle after another, first saying he could display the stones only in a museum, then refusing to give him biographical information on Polish victims.

“In a way, my Stolpersteine are small,” says Demnig. “But they are bigger, bigger than the big monument in Berlin,” he says, referring to Eisenman’s monument. “That is a memorial in the center of the city. I’m all over Germany. North, south, east and west. The stones are in front of houses where the people lived, where people live. Every time you step you have to look.”

Not long ago, a woman and her five-year-old son could be seen investigating a cluster of plaques, commemorating an entire family in front of the house at 15 Neue Shonhauser Alle in Berlin. “Mama, what is this?” asked the boy. His mother bent down to read the inscriptions. “These are the names of people that once lived in this house,” she told him. “There was a big war and they were taken away.”

“Why mama?” he asked. And then she took his hand and led him away, her answer, if she had one, was lost to bystanders. But perhaps her son’s question—that small interaction—was the point. This is what Shnock and Stih and Demnig are after: Provoking people until they ask the right questions.