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The stumbling blocks to Munich’s Holocaust memory

Birthplace of Nazism the only city in the world banning the installation of stones bearing the victims’ names

People walking down the street in German cities have gotten used to the sight of small brass cobblestones bearing the names of Holocaust victims. Not so in Munich. The birthplace of National Socialism is the only city in the world to ban the installation of the commemorative “stumbling blocks”, “Stolpersteine” in German.

The controversy began in 2004, when the city council, with the support of the local Orthodox Jewish community, vetoed Munich's participation in the project. At the time, the project was not as extensive as it is today, but now that 53,000 Stolpersteine have been installed in 1,300 cities in 19 European countries – the ban is once again being put up for a vote next month, and Stolpersteine supporters are doubling their efforts to warn the authorities of the negative consequences of extending the ban.

“Munich is a popular city, but it can cause real harm to itself”, cautioned Terry Swartzberg (61), an American Jew living in Germany for 35 years, who has headed the Initiative Stolpersteine für München since 2011. “The authorities don't find it embarrassing that Munich is the only major city to ban this and they don't believe us when we say that not reversing it would have repercussions. How will they be able to explain the continuing ban to the media?”

In 2004, opponents of the commemoration project feared the blocks would became a target for neo-Nazi who would step or even urinate on them. Others simply felt the cobblestones were inappropriate. The loudest critic was the President of the Jewish Community (IKG) Munich and Upper Bavaria, Charlotte Knobloch, who stated at a hearing of the Munich City Council that “the people murdered in the Holocaust deserve more than an inscription surrounded by dust and dirt.”

Swartzberg offered a different explanation for the opposition: “There are a lot of forces in Munich that do not want it to face its Nazi past”, he suggested. “The municipal government made a mistake in 2004 when banning the Stolpersteine, but even now no one would admit this. The mayor (Dieter Reiter of the SPD) isn't even willing to accept our petition to lift the ban, despite the fact that most of its signers belong to his constituency”.

Some 96,000 people signed the petition on change.org since it was introduced in February – the biggest petition in Munich's history. Two weeks ago, when the number of supporters reached 80,000, Swartzberg and other advocates decided to turn the online encouragement into hard evidence of support: On June 9 they spread across Königsplatz, the famous square where Nazi rallies were frequently held, a 480-meters-long list of all the signatories.

“These were 80,000 people saying, 'we want commemoration of the Shoa in Munich,' and that was very impressive. Within a week 15,000 more people signed the petition”, said Swartzberg. “The support in Munich is immense, especially from survivors. Josef Schuster, the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, also sent a letter to the city council in favor of the Stolpersteine. By any standard, we won the battle a long time ago but the administration is still not doing anything”.

The city council will have to vote on four motions: three for the approval of Stolpersteine and one, a compromise offered by representatives of the conservative party CSU and the Social Democrats (SPD), for the installation of plaques on buildings where murdered Jews once lived. “This idea will never work”, insisted Swartzberg. “They know that five years from now, no more than 50 plaques will be installed. They are just trying to show they are doing something”.

Under the compromise proposal, only descendants of the victims will be allowed to request a plaque, meaning that the memory of entire families or of persecuted homosexuals and other single victims will not be commemorated, he says. “Also, the survivors or their relatives living abroad would be forced to apply in German to an office in Munich, probably spending hundreds of euros in the process, with no guarantee the house's owner will agree to this. Why do something so complicated when the Stolpersteine are already available?“

Since 2004, numerous editorial articles in major newspapers have called for the lifting of the ban, and the topic resurfaces every time another Stolperstein is placed on private property in Munich. Twenty seven stones were installed in such a way, and nearly 270 more are ready and waiting. “This fight isn't going away”, emphasized Swartzberg. “We won't give up, and if they won't approve it this time, we will push for a referendum. Munich is going to see another ten years of controversy”.

Polina Garaev is i24news' correspondent in Germany.



Munich is not alone in not allowing Stolpersteine: http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/191167/vanished-stumbling-stones

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