In European cities, it is not uncommon to see groups kneeling on sidewalks cleaning Stolpersteine. Using brass cleaner, rags, sponges, and water, they restore the dirty and dull “stumbling stones” commemorating Holocaust victims and survivors to their original bright and shiny state.
These university students and young professionals are volunteers with Make Their Memory Shine (MTMS), a grassroots volunteer organization founded in April 2021 to combine Holocaust commemoration and education with bringing together people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds to meet and learn from one another.
Thus far, MTMS has held Stolpersteine cleaning events in more than 45 cities in 16 countries across Europe — from Sweden in the north to Italy in the south, and from Spain in the west to Moldova in the east.
“Our goal is to clean all 90,000 Stolpersteine,” MTMS founder Ethan Gabriel Bergman, 23, told The Times of Israel.
German artist Gunter Demnig began designing and installing Stolpersteine in the 1990s. The stumbling stones are 10-centimeter (4-inch) concrete cubes covered by a brass plate inscribed with the name and details of a Holocaust victim or survivor. The stones are placed in front of the individual’s last known residence or workplace. There are Stolpersteine in more than 1,200 localities in Europe.
Bergman, a political science graduate student at Leiden University in the Netherlands, was born to Israeli parents in Antwerp and went to Jewish schools in the Belgian city. He is the former EU youth affairs officer for the European Jewish Association and is active with Stand With Us Netherlands.
“I grew up in this Jewish bubble in Antwerp, but when I got to Maastricht here in the Netherlands for my undergraduate studies, I began to encounter people my age who had never met a Jew before. Some didn’t know anything about the Holocaust, or the history behind the stumbling stones,” Bergman said.
“My idea was to combine education about the Holocaust with tackling ignorance about Jews and other minority communities proactively through the cleaning of Stolpersteine,” he explained.
Bergman noted that MTMS is not about getting only Jews to clean Stolpersteine. Rather, it aims to facilitate interaction between Jews and other groups by networking and partnering with various organizations in planning and executing events. These partners include local governments, schools, youth groups, universities, student political groups, and organizations for Middle Eastern refugees, Muslims, and Roma.
“Our main goal is to reach Millennials and Gen Z, but we sometimes get older volunteers when events are open to the general public,” he said.
The Stolpersteine cleaning events — whether they draw dozens of participants or just a handful — always involve Holocaust commemoration and education, and opportunities for non-structured interpersonal dialogue to learn about one another’s cultures and shatter stereotypes. It’s about recognizing common values and building bridges while respecting differences.
“By interacting and participating in MTMS activities, we combat ignorance and avoid antisemitism, homophobia, Islamophobia, etc.,” the organization’s website states.
Bergman noted that some of these encounters have led to ongoing friendships and collaborations.
Bergman’s lean volunteer staff consists of five regional or country coordinators and a couple of researchers. As a bottom-up organization, regional coordinators and their teams are free to adapt the MTMS model to their settings.
Gabriela Tultschin, 19, the national coordinator for Germany since April 2022, is a native of Munich and a law student there. Her parents are immigrants from Kyiv, Ukraine. She told The Times of Israel that she is unable to organize MTMS events in her city and Bavaria in general because the local Jewish leadership is against the placing of Stolpersteine.
Tultschin and two other German volunteers instead organized an MTMS event in Berlin on November 9, 2022, to mark the anniversary of Kristallnacht. Some 45 people of all ages attended. Future events are being organized for Stuttgart and Cologne.
The German volunteer team’s approach is to combine the Stolpersteine cleaning with a testimony from a survivor or a lively, interactive presentation by a scholar.
“We are trying to do something different from what Holocaust education usually is in Germany, which is dry and top-down. It’s stiff and doesn’t evoke emotion from people,” Tultschin said.
“When students are reading a book about the Holocaust, they just learn it and write exams. As a Jewish student, I read those books and can’t stop crying,” she said.
Rebranded in Italy
David Fiorentini, the regional coordinator for Italy, agreed that the Stolpersteine cleaning events are a great way to engage young people of different backgrounds. A 23-year-old medical student in Milan and president of the Italian Union of Jewish Students and Young Professionals, he was already thinking about how to do Holocaust education differently.
“Italy is a country that has a very rich past and loves to live in the past — with its pros and cons — but sometimes we feel that the way that the memory that is preserved and is passed on is too academic and doesn’t really involve the new generations,” Fiorentini said.
“When we heard about [MTMS], we were like, yeah, this could be a really brilliant idea and we remodeled it to make it fit the Italian context,” he said.
The initiative was rebranded in Italy as “Restore the Remembrance” and involves combining Stolpersteine cleaning with reading aloud write-ups on the histories of the individuals commemorated by the stones.
“Through the reading, we relive their lives and try to understand how the Holocaust wasn’t something that happened far away in Poland, but rather that these stories happened around the corner. People were denounced by neighbors or arrested while purchasing groceries,” Fiorentini said.
Fiorentini was born and grew up in Siena. His father is from Rome and his mother is from Tel Aviv. He noted that some of the events in Italy are just for Jewish volunteers, and others are for Jews and non-Jews.
“For example, last year for Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Youth to Youth branches of two political parties reached out to us separately. We decided to do a cleaning with both of them together to send out a signal of unity. It’s important that this kind of initiative won’t be a partisan issue and that we’ll always have widespread support,” he said.
Since the Italian MTMS operation launched on the European Jewish Day of Culture in September 2021, there have been events in 14 cities. Those with the largest Jewish communities — Rome, Milan, Florence, and Turin — have had more than one event. Now the emphasis is on reaching smaller communities like Trieste and Genoa.
“We brought around 30 Jewish students from around Italy to Genoa, which has a tiny Jewish community — like 200 or 200 — and that was invigorating for the locals,” Fiorentini said.
“Sometimes our volunteers just get out of their cars and clean Stolpersteine when passing through a town. They keep the cleaning supplies with them in their trunk,” he added.
Fiorentini said that he and his team are now thinking about increasing their work with high schools through curriculum packs that would provide teachers with everything they need to conduct a cleaning of nearby Stolpersteine and a related educational project with their class.
As part of this innovation and branching out, the Italian volunteers worked with the Union of Roma Communities in Italy to arrange for the placement in Trieste in January 2023, of the first stumbling stone commemorating a Roma person deported from Italy.
So far, the cost of MTMS operations has been shouldered by founder Bergman and budget allocations from partnering Jewish student organizations. Bergman also received a modest grant from the World Jewish Congress.
According to Bergman, the main expenses arise from the educational and social aspects. By contrast, it only costs about 70 or 80 cents to clean a stumbling stone if supplies are purchased in bulk. He considers this cost to be negligible, especially in light of the result and its significance.
“[A stumbling stone] can be completely brown and after cleaning be transformed to the point where if there’s a bit of sunshine, it can look like a beacon shining up,” he said.
Every stone is a story
The MTMS volunteers reported encountering a variety of reactions from people observing them hunched over the stumbling stones.
Tultschin told The Times of Israel that some Jews had expressed discomfort with co-religionists cleaning something on the pavement. It reminded them too much of how the Nazis forced Jews to get down on their knees and scrub the streets in an act of humiliation.
Fiorentini reported that in Italy, volunteers have gotten reactions ranging from genuine curiosity and compliments to accusations that they were trying to steal the “gold bricks” from the sidewalk. Some passersby thought the volunteers could be neo-Nazis intending to vandalize the Stolpersteine.
“There were a lot of different reactions. Fortunately, no one used an antisemitic slur against us,” Fiorentini said.
After every MTMS event, Bergman creates a 10-page document that gets uploaded to the organization’s Instagram account. The local organizer sends him all the information and photos from the event, and Bergman puts this together with additional research on the community.
As much as MTMS aims to find the commonalities among people, it is also about honoring differences. Its approach to Holocaust remembrance is similar in that it focuses on the individuals represented by the Stolpersteine and the specific communities they lived in.
“There is a tendency to universalize or globalize the Holocaust story — the Nazis came somewhere, they put everyone on the train and then they all died,” Bergman said.
“But every single person and every community deserves their own story. They are all unique in their own way,” he said.
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