I want to talk about stumbling blocks. Things that we come across in our lives that break up our expected path and force us to look up and think for a moment about how we want to move forward. I came across a powerful art installation this summer in Germany. It made me angry and resentful, it made me sad, and then it made me resolute.
Ulrich Rückriem, an internationally renowned German artist, created this art installation with a series of ten stone blocks. They are distributed throughout the town of Düren, Germany in places where “people were exposed to unspeakable suffering during the period of the national socialist reign of violence” (Paul Larue, Mayor of Düren). They are called the Stumbling Stones.
In the mayor’s words, the stones act as memorials, as reminders, as admonitions of the deportation of Jewish citizens of Düren to extermination camps, the killing of people with mental illnesses or handicaps, the persecution of people with dissenting political views, and the inhumane treatment of prisoners of war and forced laborers.
The stele, or stone monument, I visited was on Schützenstraße at the site of a prominent synogogue. In November of 1938, townspeople burned it to the ground. Firefighters aimed their hoses at the garden next door. By this point, within the span of only a few years, the jews had been completely isolated and banned from the social and cultural life of Düren. The site of the synagogue was sold for pennies and paved over as a parking lot. It remains a parking lot to this day, with no evidence that it was ever a place of holy worship, so important to generations of families.
The artistic stones are physical blocks we stumble upon in our normal routines. We park our cars and walk out of the lot, already mentally juggling the handful of things we have on our to do lists. This enormous block of stone stops us and jolts us awake, for just a moment. It reminds us to think about what we accept in our lives as normal. When I saw this stone, I was struck with the disparity between the violent history of this space and the normalcy of the parking lot. It made me angry at our violence and our willingness to persecute our community members, or stand by and watch it happen. It made me sad to know that it is still happening, that both then and now the sense of loss is overwhelming. And then it made me resolute- that I would pay attention to the stumbling blocks in my life that make me think. That make me pause. That make me question “what have we done?” and “what are we doing?”
I am sharing this because we are at a point in our country where there is so much anger and hurt. There is so much isolation of minorities who are integral parts of our communities. There are so many uncomfortable topics we run past or turn away from. When people kneel to show their pain and to show that this country is injured, when people march to voice their outrage and mistreatment, when people protest in whatever way they can, it is up to us to engage. These people are our stumbling blocks. They are our stones that stop our normal routine. They make us stop for a moment and really think about how we are living our lives and what our priorities and values are. I hope this post makes you stumble and turn around and question why the path you walk isn’t smooth today. I hope we can all sit in our discomfort and have a real conversation about how we treat one another. Do we want to pave over our violence or do we want to acknowledge it? What will we hold in that space?