Stumbling Upon History
While Vienna is one of the most popular travel destinations for lovers of art and culture, its biggest monument is surprisingly small in dimensions.
Vienna is undoubtedly one of the cultural hotspots of Europe. Art lovers can not only feast their eyes on the beautiful architecture, but will encounter some of history’s most spectacular artworks and artifacts in one of the numerous museums Vienna has to offer.
It is thus no surprise that earlier this year, Leiden’s art historical study association, the Leidse Kunsthistorische Vereniging, chose the Austrian capital as the next destination for one of its annual study trips.
Guided by Dr. Laura Bertens, a group of 20 students visited six cultural institutions in the course of four days, including the former residence of the infamous Kaiserin Sissi; the Schloss Schönbrunn, as well as the Kunsthistorisches Museum and the Mumok (Museum of Modern Art).
One of the most remarkable artifacts, however, is hidden in plain sight: in Vienna’s streets and alleys. Once you turn your gaze away from the diverse architectural landscape and historical monuments at every corner, you will quite literally stumble upon one of the biggest international monuments commemorating victims of National Socialism. Yet, the dimensions of the monument itself are surprisingly small, consisting only of 10 by 10 centimeter brass plaques installed in the pavement. These so-called Stolpersteine (literally translating to Stumbling Stones) are a project initiated by German artist Gunter Demnig to commemorate mainly Jewish victims of the Holocaust, but also other ethnic and religious minorities that fell prey to Nazi persecution. Each brass plaque is embossed with the name, date of birth and death, as well as cause of death of the victim and is placed in front of, or nearby, their last known residence. The Stolpersteine reconstitute the individuality of each of the lives taken by the Nazi regime, thus creating a publicly accessible archive with which viewers take are allowed a more active role in commemoration by quite literally stumbling upon them in the street. To amplify this effect, Vienna now offers a Path of Remembrance, as well as a Street of Remembrance in the inner city, which tours the Stolpersteine commemorating Jewish life.
The original project was initiated in 1992 in Germany and has since rapidly expanded, with over 70,000 stumbling stones adorning the streets in several cities across Europe, including Leiden. So the next time you are walking down Breestraat, Van der Waal Straat or Lorentzkade, keep an eye out for the pavement and you may stumble upon history!
[i] "Street of Remembrance," Stones of Remembrance, accessed September 20, 2019, https://steinedererinnerung.net/en/projects/street-of-remembrance.