In my estimation, one of the most thought-proking passages in one of the books Germany Close Up participants were instructed to read in preparation for the trip, Learning From the Germans by Susan Neiman, came when Neiman briefly discussed the major Holocaust memorials in the U.S. and the U.K. Neiman writes, “Both Washington’s Mall and London’s Hyde Park devote space to commemorating one instance of evil: the Holocaust. It’s puzzling that an event that happened in Europe should assume such a prominent place in American or British national symbolism–particularly when the United States did so little to save Jewish refugees before the Holocaust and so much to insure that former Nazis emigrated to the U.S. after it.”
Before reading this, I had never once questioned why there would be a Holocaust memorial on the National Mall. It’s been a fact of the landscape for most of my life; why wouldn’t there be? But Neiman is right that it’s not at all an obvious place to build a memorial to the Holocaust, and it’s productive to question the function such memorials are playing in American (and British, and really every) society. Neiman’s circumspection opened up my thinking about the purpose of memorials in general, a perspective that’s proven really useful on this trip, where one of the themes we keep returning to is how Germans memorialize the Holocaust. This was on my mind as we visited Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, as I tried to think about the memorial as not only a memorial but a sort of snapshot of which narratives about the war Germany was committed to holding up at the time of the memorial’s construction. Memorials are not neutral, I tried to remind myself, and their context is frequently just as meaningful as their purported subject matter.
We’ve also spoken a lot as a group about what memorials should be, particularly after our visit to Sachsenhausen, a concentration camp not far from Berlin. It, too, is a product of its time, emphasizing some of the suffering that took place there more than others. Many of us were struck by its location, just steps away from a residential neighborhood. Before this trip and reading Neiman’s work, I probably wouldn’t have wondered that much about the “why” of preserving Sachsenhausen and what narratives it prioritizes over others; the value of transforming a work camp into a place of remembrance might have seemed self-evident. But our visit and particularly our discussion after it left me trying to make sense of why Germany preserves such places–is it a supposed to be tribute to the lives lost, an apology, a site of education, a culture trying to absolve itself by shedding light on its worst crimes, some combination of all of those things, or something else entirely? Is it ill-advised for a concentration camp to be nestled neatly into a seemingly normal neighborhood in a time and place where anti-semitism persists and right-wing extremism is growing? Is it OK for police to continue to use parts of it as a training facility? I’m grateful I had the experience of visiting the camp, and of visiting many memorial sites throughout this trip, but I’m also grateful for the space to think and talk about the way these memorials serve as tangible examples of a country reckoning with its past.