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Street museums help nations face past injustices

Stolperstein once were about accidentally stumbling over something to be forgotten. Now they have been reused to mean to remembered something important.  Photo Courtesy of Gen Heywood


Gen Heywood, pastor of Veradale United Church of Christ and convener of Faith Leaders and Leaders of Conscience, set out on a sabbatical last fall to learn about how other countries own the crimes of their past.

In Iceland, Germany and New Zealand, she found outdoor markers or museums, panels with photographic images that were exciting and surprising.

She shares reflections on stumbling stones and outdoor museums that remind people what happened on a spot in history.

"We are a visual culture. People read pictures before we read words," Gen said.

Outdoor museums are simply saying, "This is what happened here."

These "museums" are photographic or artistic panels that are as much as four- or five-foot tall by two-foot-wide.

For example, in Reykjavik there are photos on signs across the street from a church by the ice cream parlor. They are signs about the origin of the name of Reykjavik for the city and how streets were named.

A building that used to salt fish was painted white with black line drawings of fish that included a photographic display of several panels telling the history of its importance to the community. Photos are embedded in weather-protecting material. They show how people lived. Five plaques describe the fish salting industry that is no longer there.

"I am interested in the idea of outdoor museums in contrast to the metal plaques on posts beside U.S. roads, identifying a battle site or home of a historic leader," Gen commented.

In Iceland and Germany, the plaques are public art, telling a piece of the history of a town. They are public art with a message about what happened at the spot, why and how it happened.

In addition to varied outdoor museums in Germany and Europe, there are stumbling stones or Stolpersteine.

One can take a pilgrimage through a city to find the stumbling stones, which commemorate victims of National Socialism before and during World War II.

More than 70,000 stumbling stones are scattered in streets and sidewalks of 1,200 cities in Europe. They honor all victims of the Nazi regime—Jews, Sinti, Roma, the disabled, dissidents, blacks, gays and others.

The stones, which are about four inches square and made of polished brass, were the idea of Gunter Demnig of Cologne, originally as part of a 1992 art project to remember Roma and Sinti victims of the Holocaust. He installed the first one in 1996 in Berlin and has personally worded and installed each one.

Organizers started small, but the stumbling stones movement is now in 20 languages in 24 countries. People apply to install a stumbling stone and local groups research biographies of local victims, usually contacting relatives.

The words read, "Here lived" followed by the person's name and birth year, and the place and date the person was arrested, Gen explained. Then it says what happened to the person: deported, died, murdered, escaped, fled, caught, liberated, sent to a mental hospital, Theresienstadt, Auschwitz or other concentration camp. Then it has the date the person was killed or died.

Everyone knows about the stumbling stones. People step over them every day or may stop, look, read and reflect.

The idea behind them is: "Don't forget! Remember what happened."

Germany also has many outdoor museums, Gen said.

"Near the Berlin Wall, half a block of panels in German and English describe what happened at the wall. There is also a museum on the Berlin Wall. One exhibit's  description of pre-Nazi Germany tells a story that sounds very much like what is happening in the U.S. today," she noted.

"While Gen was photographing a stumbling stone in Wurzburg, a woman in her 70s asked if I knew what I was taking pictures of, if I knew Wurzburg's role in deporting people. She looked over her shoulder and whispered, saying many in Wurzburg today do not want to hear, think or talk about what the National Socialists did there because it hurts," Gen said. "She added that we need to talk about these things because some things need to hurt. This is meaningful for us in the U.S. to remember. To be fully human, we need to name the crimes of our national past precisely because these hurt and help us maintain that this shall never happen again."

Some plaques are multimedia. Eight panels near the Berlin Wall are like a graphic novel, telling of a family who escaped from an office building tethered to a zipline. Another tells of people who died trying to escape and plunged to their deaths or were shot by guards.

"The presentations are factual. There is no shame or blame. This happened" Gen described.

"Even if it hurts, it is important to remember, reflect and find reconciliation. For example, people in the U.S. need to think about what happened during the enslavement of African Americans or the genocide of Indigenous people," she said, repeating for emphasis, "Some things need to hurt.

"The outdoor museums are a community's expression of repentance, owning the crimes of their past," Gen pointed out.

In Berlin, city leaders dedicated one block for a Jewish memorial. It consists of large pillars of many sizes. A person walking through the display can disappear among the pillars. The ground is rough, creating a tactile experience. Below this is an underground museum that continues the factual accounting for the truth of the crimes that happened, she said.

In Leipzig, people had burned down a synagogue. In the open space left, the town has set up chairs where the sanctuary previously was, each chair waiting for someone who is missing.

Words in Hebrew, German and English tell how the townspeople, not just the Nazi officials, were compliant and drawn into the crimes, Gen said.

"In Karlsruhe, I heard that there was a four-foot-high, two-foot-wide panel at the railroad station, saying it was a place of deportation," she continued. "I couldn't find it. The mayor assured me it was there, and with more searching, I found it off to one side."

Gen wondered why it was more hidden than other sites she had visited.

"The stumbling stones and outdoor museums are means for Germans to call people to remember the names of victims and commit to never again engage in such an atrocity," said Gen. "We can learn to own the national crimes of our past. That requires touching our humanity and the anger and hurt it provokes so we can truly assert that we will never allow such an atrocity to happen again."

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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, January 2023