The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How a small stone could help America reckon with its worst history

Recalling our history of bigotry, as Germany has, could help eliminate prejudice that is ripping America apart.

View of 14 “Stolpersteine” (“Stumbling blocks”) created by German artist Gunter Demnig, commemorating Holocaust victims of the Laubinger and Petermann families in Leipzig. The stumbling stones, topped with small brass plaques, are installed in front of houses where Jews who were deported to death camps during Germany’s Nazi regime, lived. Demnig, who started the project in 1993, has already installed thousands of Stolpersteine in cities where Jews lived in Germany and abroad. (John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images)

Berlin is haunted by ghosts of its horrific past.

Thousands of small, commemorative stones, or Stolpersteine, have been embedded into the city’s sidewalks to reveal the names of those murdered by their neighbors. This public art project has become a way for Berliners to honor the dead and force the living to remember the lives of more than 10 million Holocaust victims. Artist Gunter Demnig began installing small brass plaques, guerrilla-style, into sidewalks outside of buildings where the Nazis seized Jews and other targets of Adolf Hitler’s regime. Since he began installing them in 1996, first in Berlin and then across Europe, the number of plaques has grown to 60,000.

Over the past 70 years, Germans have tried to come to terms with the Holocaust, engaging in intense public efforts to understand and atone for their nation’s troubled history. Americans, by contrast, suffer from what Czech writer Milan Kundera calls “the struggle of memory against forgetting,” a condition on display in recent years in the pitched battles over Confederate statues. Projects like Stolpersteine could help Americans confront their racist and violent past, forcing Americans to carry the lessons of this divisive past as they build a better future. And unlike a statue, which those who are ignorant or in denial can ignore, Stolpersteine are intentionally placed where people will cross them, with a message that cannot be misunderstood.

Stolpersteine are simple. A brass plaque lists, in German, the name of a person, their dates of birth and (usually) death, a brief description of what happened to them, perhaps the location to where they were deported or died. Plaques are small, about 4 by 4 inches, and the same size as the cut stones that make up the sidewalks of German cities. Not every Stolperstein memorializes a Jewish victim. Roma, homosexuals, homeless, communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other persecuted groups also have plaques, an acknowledgment of the Nazis’ many casualties.

Imagine walking down a street in a German city, looking down and seeing blocks embedded outside a random building. Sometimes one sees a single stone, but more commonly, one would see three, four, six (say, a family). Occasionally, one comes across a cluster of 20 or more.

These tiny monuments — literally dug into footpaths — might be simple, but they are quite powerful. They confront pedestrians at random times, perhaps when they least expect it. Walking, thinking about anything else, then BOOM. A victim of the Holocaust lived here. Yet if you’re not paying attention, you’ll step right over them without even noticing. That these plaques are not sought out but, rather, that they appear at random times and places, reminds us that victims (and perpetrators) were everywhere. Suddenly, the past and present become linked, if only momentarily.

America has nothing like Stolpersteine, but it could use them.

It would require a different process than in Germany, because of the countries’ different approaches to reckoning with their history. Crucially, many — but by no means all — Germans have spent decades grappling with the Holocaust. By contrast, the United States tore itself apart over slavery and race but has never fully reconciled with this past.

After the Civil War and Reconstruction, most white Americans sought national unity, in no small part by ignoring the horrors and legacies of slavery. For instance, in 1915 President Woodrow Wilson heaped praise on “The Birth of a Nation,” the film that celebrated the Ku Klux Klan’s role in preventing racial equality and inspired millions to join a reformed KKK. Similarly, many white Americans embrace, or at least are comfortable with, the long-lasting, pernicious effects of Jim Crow segregation.

Despite these differences, this project could be replicated in the United States. Although Americans continue arguing over the nation’s contested racial history, there is a sincere desire among many to confront rather than deny that legacy. The incredible popularity of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture is one example. The recent creation of several databases and a museum dedicated to the history of lynching is another.

Cities and towns could install plaques to mark some of the 5,000 lynchings which occurred in the United States since the late 19th century, the great majority of which claimed African Americans as victims. Though most occurred in the South, such killings happened in every state. Similarly, plaques could memorialize the victims of hundreds of “race riots,” in which mobs of white Americans killed African Americans in cities like Chicago and Tulsa.

Only a few of these crimes been commemorated in any meaningful way. Imagine walking to the store or to taking a child to school and stumbling upon a tiny monument commemorating a lynching victim?

Stumbling stones also could honor other victims of hate crimes. White mobs murdered about thirty Chinese people in the Rock Springs massacre of 1885 in Wyoming. Hundreds of Mexicans and Mexican Americans were killed by white vigilantes and the Texas Rangers during the 1910s. Leo Frank, a Jewish American, was lynched in Atlanta in 1915. Nearly 125,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans were wrongly imprisoned for most of World War II.

The list goes on, but few communities honor these victims in any meaningful way, let alone on their streets. Though a cliche, history in fact has been written by the winners. Those with power or in the majority are able to ignore injustices instead of acknowledging them and honoring the memories of the victims.

Indeed, for far too long, the (still) white majority has chosen to suppress examples of racial violence rather than acknowledge painful parts of American history. Because of that, there would be some resistance to introducing stumbling stones to American communities. The modest memorials to the brutal murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till, for instance, have been defaced repeatedly.

America’s blindness to its most shameful chapters has come at a cost. A few years ago, a young white man, Dylann Roof, went out of his way to embrace Confederate symbols before murdering nine black people at a Charleston church. In other words, ignoring America’s history of racial violence has perpetuated the hateful, murderous ideology of white supremacy.

Americans cannot afford to continue ignoring our history of racist violence. Otherwise, racial tensions will continue to boil over again and again, as they have in Charlottesville, Baltimore or Ferguson, Mo.

The Stolpersteine project offers a powerful example of how America could chronicle its racial suffering, commemorate its victims and begin the healing. But the country cannot heal from what it does not acknowledge. Stumbling stones can help white Americans in particular see the pervasiveness of racism and treat its nefarious effects.