Confronting the past to change the future by Amy Cotton

“My family has a history of bystanders and perpetrators.”

It was our first day of programming for Germany Close Up (GCU). Our guides, young historians who would lead us through 9 days in Germany, shared this part of their background as we were finishing introductions.

It was a detail that turned over in my mind over the next few hours and days as we visited public memorials to the Holocaust and Cold War political oppression. It felt courageous for our program leaders to voice, while also being challenging to hear. 

In the US, we are struggling against extremists who are actively working to cover up America’s history of slavery and white supremacy. They want to cut off any space for this kind of acknowledgement, alongside banning library books, marginalizing LGBTQ people, eroding historically accurate curricula, and undoing legal precedent supporting diversity in college admissions. 

Given all of these challenges, I came to Germany wanting to learn lessons about confronting America’s past. It’s not about imposing shame or guilt on current generations. It’s about recognizing the truth so we can move forward in a way that centers justice and freedom. 

It has been moving to experience so many different kinds of memorials that aim to tell parts of the Holocaust story. 

We walked on the grass by a large black reflecting pool surrounded by names of death camps etched into broken slabs of stone. This was the memorial to the Roma and Sinti people, nomadic communities whom the Nazis largely deemed racially undesirable.

The area was bordered by tall glass panes showing a timeline of their persecution. Down the sidewalk were other panels showing faces with personal stories.

It was clear this memorial was intentionally immersive and broadly accessible to the public. It was on the outskirts of one of the biggest city parks in the area. Many people milled around reading the descriptions.

The Stolpersteine, or “stumbling stones,” are a different type of marker.

A decentralized memorial across Europe, they’re brass cobblestones imprinted with names of victims and survivors. They are laid in front of buildings or other sites that had been their homes.

“Here lived

Erwin Aronsohn

Born 1906

Deported 15.8.1942

[to] Riga

Killed 18.8.1942”

A few are in front of the hotel where our tour group is staying.

They urge people to reflect on each life, bringing the enormity of the terror down to an individual level.

It was heartening to hear that several schools encourage students to research their community and be part of installing stolpersteine. And when people add stones to their block, they’re often invested enough to hold ceremonies and honor annual yarzheits, or anniversaries of victims’ deaths. 

I asked a docent at Wannsee Conference, the site where Nazi officials discussed the final solution of exterminating 11 million Jews, if he felt these memorials made a difference in combating rising extremism and antisemitism. 

He reflected that they offer opportunities for education, especially for adults with some curiosity. It’s up to us to learn, witness, and carry the truth back to our communities.

In our conversation, he also acknowledged his family background, with ancestors who were both victims and oppressers on some level. He was so open. 

There are some institutional efforts in the US to acknowledge and tell the American story of racism and racial violence. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, where I live in Washington, DC, is one example. The private National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama is another, among others. 

But what of efforts in every community? What it would be like for the US to establish more markers of racial terror? More memorials to individual victims in public, everyday spaces? 

How can we encourage further reflection into our own or our families’ historic response to racism or other forms of oppression? 

We have so much to learn, and the questions keep coming. I hope the memorials make the truth about the past nearly impossible to ignore. image0.jpegimage1.jpegimage2.jpeg

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