Category Archive: The Atlantic

There Are No Nostalgic Nazi Memorials

Recently, a visitor to a southern plantation wrote a viral tweet complaining about a guide who forced her to spend her vacation hearing about slavery. Some tourists at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and Mount Vernon, The Washington Post reported last week, are posting negative reviews on TripAdvisor and elsewhere because of the barest mention of the African Americans who were forced to work at the third president’s home, creating much of the wealth that made the glories of Monticello possible.

There are no Nazi sites in Germany in the sense that there are plantation sites in the United States. The only equivalent sites that now exist in Germany are concentration camps.* On the site of Buchenwald, where as many as a quarter of a million inmates were held, a museum dispels any notion that the citizens of the nearby cultural capital Weimar were unaware of what was happening in their midst during World War II. The idea that tourists would visit such a place seeking smiling women in dirndls—much as some visit American plantations looking for ladies in hoop skirts—is obscene. Not even members of Germany’s right-wing Alternative for Germany party would suggest glorifying that part of the past.

My great-uncle wasn’t a racist, he just fought to defend his home. My grandfather died for the homeland he loved; what’s wrong with that? Sentiments along these lines will sound familiar if you’ve followed the long-simmering debates over the removal of Confederate flags and monuments across the United States—debates that intensified after nine black churchgoers were massacred in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. Some of those remarks were made by white supremacists who, plainly enraged by the presence of a black man in the White House, knew exactly why they wanted to keep Confederate flags flying. Others who are less malicious, if perhaps less honest, make such claims with vague references to family tradition.

But you’ll probably be surprised to learn that descendants of the Nazi armed forces—the Wehrmacht—once made exactly the same claims as the descendants of the Confederate army, and not just in the dark, shell-shocked days that followed the unconditional surrender outside Berlin in 1945. Remarks exculpating German soldiers continued to be made in public through the end of the 20th century. With 18 million members, the Wehrmacht had included a broader scope of German society than any other organization. Even Germans who did not serve in it had fathers, sons, cousins, or brothers who did. Until the now-famous Wehrmacht Exhibit traveled through Germany from 1995 to 1999, showing photographic evidence of war crimes committed by average troops, many still believed the myth that the Wehrmacht was clean, even gallant. Those brave men who defended their homeland against the Bolshevik menace were no better or worse than millions of soldiers before or after them.

In American life, the symbolic importance of the Nazis stands in inverse relation to what we know about them. Nazi just means: the black hole at the heart of history, the apex of evil, the sin for which no condemnation is sufficient, no expiation possible. There is, of course, a wealth of scholarship about the Nazi period produced by English-language historians. More problematic is public memory: what every half-educated member of a culture knows in her sinews, for it seeped into them before she can remember. Things like your country’s geography: few Americans must pause to consider whether Michigan is north of Arizona, or Connecticut east of California. If you’ve forgotten everything else from your school days, you’re likely to remember that. For most Americans, Nazi is condensed into one genocidal moment that marked the outer limit of Third Reich crimes: the transport of civilians, in cattle cars, to death camps where they were murdered by poison gas. By focusing on that moment, without a glance at what happened before or after it, we lose the opportunity to learn anything useful from the Holocaust whose lessons we are told to remember. We still know too little about how Germany reached the point of committing those crimes. We are also ignorant of how German society slowly and fitfully came to terms with its violent, racist history—a process from which other nations, including the United States, can learn.

Iarrived in Berlin in 1982 as a Fulbright fellow finishing a dissertation on Immanuel Kant. Still the Holocaust was inescapable. The 50th anniversary of the Nazi takeover was the following year, and, in preparation, thousands of Berliners were seeking ways to come to terms with what had happened. There were historical exhibits, theater and art productions, and no end of books and discussion. The projects were occasionally funded, but never organized, by the government. All were created by citizens revolted by the actions of their parents and teachers, and determined to expose the truth about them. Their unofficial slogan, printed on many a banner, was: “Collective Guilt? No! Collective Responsibility? Yes!”

Having begun my life as a white girl in a South racked by the civil-rights movement, I am likely to end it as a Jewish woman in Berlin. I have spent much of the intervening years watching Germany come to terms with its history. If the 2017 white-supremacist demonstrations in Charlottesville established anything beyond doubt, it’s that Nazis are not only a German problem. Not everyone seeking to preserve symbols of the Confederacy is a Nazi. But the Nazis’ embrace of the Confederate cause makes plain: Anyone who fights for those symbols is fighting for Nazi values. For monuments are neither just about heritage or just about hate. They are values made visible. That’s why we build memorials to some parts of history and ignore others. They embody the ideas we choose to lift up, in the hopes of reminding ourselves and our children that those ideas have been embodied by brave men and women.

Germany has no monuments that celebrate the Wehrmacht. By choosing to remember what its soldiers once did, it has made a choice about the values it wants to reject. Other choices, like glass walls in government buildings, from the Reichstag dome on down, reflect the values it wants to maintain: Democracy should be transparent. When the Berlin Wall came down, it left behind prime real estate in the heart of the city. Instead of selling it to one of the many bidders, Parliament decided to dedicate 4.5 acres to what became the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, along with many smaller monuments scattered throughout the city. The rebuilding of Berlin—a long, sometimes maddeningly discursive process, in which historians, politicians, and citizens debated for more than a decade—was aspirational. No one, least of all a German, would claim that the renaming  and rebuilding of public spaces eradicated the roots of racism. The city was not rebuilt to reflect what is, but what ought to be. Berlin’s public space represents conscious decisions about what values the reunited republic should commit itself to holding—decisions with which Americans are now struggling.

The struggle itself is good news. We have learned that unexamined pasts fester, and become open wounds. Like most white Americans, I was taught a history that was both comforting and triumphant. I wasn’t, of course, entirely ignorant of the ways in which the country failed to live up to the ideals on which it was founded, but those failures remained peripheral, and part of a narrative that sloped upward toward progress. Slavery was a crime, but we’d fought a war to outlaw it; segregation was unjust, but the civil-rights movement had overcome it. Barack Obama’s presidency seemed the natural coda to this hopeful story. Few people believed that the election of an African American president could end racism entirely, but no one expected the backlash we are witnessing now. If there’s a silver lining to a White House that—in its public statements, policy choices, and political strategy—regularly signals its support for white nationalism, it’s that white Americans have been forced to publicly examine their country’s history as never before.

Just a few years ago, major national media had to patiently explain that the monuments valorizing Confederate soldiers were not innocent tributes to recently fallen ancestors, but the deliberate attempt of organizations like the Daughters of the Confederacy to promote a false account of the Civil War that buttressed white-supremacist ideology. For those of us who are not professional historians, the years between the Emancipation Proclamation and the Montgomery bus boycott were largely blank. The information has always been available—primarily in books and documents, far less in film or other media—but it took work to seek it out. Even the name “Jim Crow era” was deceptive. Without much knowledge of the ways in which slavery mutated into Black Codes, convict leasing, and racist terror, white Americans could continue to avoid acknowledging how central racism has been to our national story.  Now this information is harder to avoid. It turns up in PBS specials and in plantation tours that no longer describe the mahogany furniture, but the lives of those who made such wealth possible.

Inevitably, this public history will affect the way future generations come to understand their history.

From Newt Gingrich to Fox News, conservative voices have attacked this new focus as radical-left propaganda. Such reaction was inevitable. In Germany, too, the right has always attacked its country’s exercises in self-examination as exercises in self-hatred—in dirtying one’s own nest. In fact, Germany’s willingness to own its criminal past has been an act of cleaning out the nest after years of sweeping all the dirt under the carpet. Without it, it’s doubtful that Germany would have been readmitted to the family of civilized nations, much less become the leading power in Europe.

Of course, the circumstances surrounding racism in Germany and America, past and present, are not the same. History is just as particular as the individuals who make and are made by it; what worked in one place can’t be straightforwardly transferred to another. Seen in some light, the differences between German and American racist histories are glaring. Seen in another, what’s important is what the commonalities can teach us about guilt and atonement, memory and oblivion, and the presence of past in preparing for the future.

While researching these commonalities I spent half a year in Mississippi, not because American racism is confined to the South, but because the region’s deep—if often false—awareness of its history makes it a magnifying glass for the rest of the country. It’s impossible to drive more than a few miles without seeing a road sign marking the site of one Confederate memory or another; but the signs recently erected to commemorate the lynching of Emmett Till in the Mississippi Delta are regularly riddled with bullet holes. Interestingly enough, what gave the most hope to social-justice activists there working toward racial reconciliation was the knowledge that the Germans did not repent in horror the minute the war was over, but reacted much like defenders of the Confederate Lost Cause. Those activists working to convince their neighbors of the ways their racist past informs their racist present are, above all, aware of how hard it all is. The acknowledgments are too defensive, the racism too tenacious, the impulse to insist on one’s own victimization too strong. The knowledge that it took decades of hard work before those who committed what are generally regarded as the greatest crimes in history could acknowledge those crimes and begin to atone for them brings enormous relief to those still working toward similar acknowledgment in the U.S. If even Germans raised in the heart of darkness needed time and trouble to see the light, why shouldn’t it take time and trouble to bring Americans nurtured for years on messages of their own exceptional goodness to come to terms with homegrown crimes? The postwar German experience has been a slow and faulty process. Its successes and failures foreshadow the tentative steps America is taking toward justice and reconciliation. It is too soon to tell how successful those steps will be, but the recent struggles over American history give us some reason to hope.

Auschwitz Is Not a Metaphor

The new exhibition at the Museum of Jewish Heritage gets everything right—and fixes nothing.

A boxcar used for the deportation of Jews to Auschwitz rests outside the Museum of Jewish Heritage.

A boxcar used for the deportation of Jews to Auschwitz rests outside the Museum of Jewish Heritage.SPENCER PLATT / GETTY

The week I bought my advance timed-entry tickets for “Auschwitz: Not Long Ago, Not Far Away,” the massive blockbuster exhibition that opened in May at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in downtown Manhattan, there was a swastika drawn on a desk in my children’s public middle school. It was not a big deal. The school did everything right: It informed parents; teachers talked to kids; they held an already scheduled assembly with a Holocaust survivor. Within the next few months, the public middle school in the adjacent town had six swastikas. That school also did everything right. Six swastikas were also not a big deal.

“Auschwitz: Not Long Ago, Not Far Away” is a big deal. It is such a big deal that the Museum of Jewish Heritage had to alter its floor plan to accommodate it, making room for large-scale displays such as a reconstructed barracks. Outside the museum’s front door, there is a cattle car parked on the sidewalk; online, you can watch video footage showing how it was placed there by a crane. The exhibition received massive news coverage, including segments on network TV. When I arrived before the museum opened, the line for ticket holders was already snaking out the door. In front of the cattle car, a jogger was talking loudly on a cellphone about pet sitters.

This was in the 1990s, when Holocaust museums and exhibitions were opening all over the United States, including the monumental United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Going to those new exhibitions then was predictably wrenching, but there was also something hopeful about them. Sponsored almost entirely by Jewish philanthropists and nonprofit groups, these museums were imbued with a kind of optimism, a bedrock assumption that they were, for lack of a better word, effective. The idea was that people would come to these museums and learn what the world had done to the Jews, where hatred can lead. They would then stop hating Jews.

It wasn’t a ridiculous idea, but it seems to have been proved wrong. A generation later, anti-Semitism is once again the new punk rock, and it is hard to go to these museums in 2019 without feeling that something profound has shifted.

In this newest Auschwitz exhibition, something has. The New York display originated not from Jews trying to underwrite a better future, but from a corporation called Musealia, a for-profit Spanish company whose business is blockbuster museum shows. Musealia’s best-known show is the internationally successful “Human Bodies: The Exhibition,” which consisted of cross-sectioned, colorfully dyed cadavers (sourced, it was later revealed, from the Chinese government) that aimed to teach visitors about anatomy and science. Its other wildly popular show is about the Titanic. This is, of course, not a disaster-porn company but rather an educational company—and who could argue against education?

Perhaps the earlier Holocaust museums built by the Jewish community were unsuccessful simply because of their limited reach; despite the 2 million annual visitors to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, two-thirds of Millennials in one recent poll were unable to identify what Auschwitz was. Six hundred thousand people saw Musealia’s Auschwitz exhibition during its six months in Madrid before it arrived in New York. Those 600,000 people have all now heard of Auschwitz. There is clearly public demand.

And the Musealia people clearly know what they are doing. The Auschwitz exhibition was produced in cooperation with numerous museums, most prominently the Auschwitz site museum in Poland, and was carefully curated by diligent historians who are world-renowned experts in this horrific field. It shows.

The exhibition checks all the boxes. There are wall texts and artifacts explaining what Judaism is. Half a room describes premodern anti-Semitism. There are sections on the persecuted Roma, homosexuals, the disabled; the exhibition also carefully notes that 90 percent of those murdered in killing centers like Auschwitz were Jews. There are home movies of Jews before the war, including both religious and secular people. There are video testimonies from survivors.

The exhibition is dependable. There is a room about the First World War’s devastation, and another on the rise of Nazism. The audio guide says thoughtful things about bystanders and complicity. There are cartoons and children’s picture books showing Jews with hooked noses and bags of money, images familiar today to anyone who has been Jewish on Twitter. There are photos of signs reading kauft nicht bei judendon’t buy from jews, a sentiment familiar today to anyone who has been Jewish on a college campus with a boycott-Israel campaign. There is a section about the refusal of the world to take in Jewish refugees. Somewhere there is a Torah scroll.

The exhibition is relentless. After an hour and a half, I marveled that I was barely past Kristallnacht. What the hell is taking so long? I found myself thinking, alarmed by how annoyed I was. Can’t they invade Poland already? Kill us all and get it over with! It took another hour’s worth of audio guide before I made it to the Auschwitz selection ramp, where bewildered Jews were unloaded from cattle cars and separated into those who would die immediately and those who would die in a few more weeks.

Somehow after I got through the gas chambers, there was still, impossibly, another hour left. (How can there still be an hour left? Isn’t everyone dead?) Forced labor, medical experiments, the processing of stolen goods, acts of resistance, and finally liberation—all of it was covered in what came to feel like a forced march (which, yes, was covered too). It was in the gas-chamber room, where I was introduced to a steel-mesh column that, as the wall text explained, was used to drop Zyklon B pesticide pellets into the gas chamber, killing hundreds of naked people within 15 minutes, that I began to wonder what the purpose of all this is.

I don’t mean the purpose of killing millions of people with pesticide pellets in a steel-mesh column in a gas chamber. That part, the supposedly mysterious part, is abundantly clear: People will do absolutely anything to blame their problems on others. No, what I’m wondering about is the purpose of my knowing all these obscene facts, in such granular detail.

I don’t mean giving people ideas about how to murder Jews. There is no shortage of ideas like that, going back to Pharaoh’s decree in the Book of Exodus about drowning Hebrew baby boys in the Nile. I mean, rather, that perhaps we are giving people ideas about our standards. Yes, everyone must learn about the Holocaust so as not to repeat it. But this has come to mean that anything short of the Holocaust is, well, not the Holocaust. The bar is rather high.

Shooting people in a synagogue in San Diego or Pittsburgh isn’t “systemic”; it’s an act of a “lone wolf.” And it’s not the Holocaust. The same is true for arson attacks against two different Boston-area synagogues, followed by similar attacks on Jewish institutions in Chicago a few days later, along with physical assaults on religious Jews on the streets of New York—all of which happened within a week of my visit to the Auschwitz show.

Lobbing missiles at sleeping children in Israel’s Kiryat Gat, where my husband’s cousins spent the week of my museum visit dragging their kids to bomb shelters, isn’t an attempt to bring “Death to the Jews,” no matter how frequently the people lobbing the missiles broadcast those very words; the wily Jews there figured out how to prevent their children from dying in large piles, so it is clearly no big deal.

Doxxing Jewish journalists is definitely not the Holocaust. Harassing Jewish college students is also not the Holocaust. Trolling Jews on social media is not the Holocaust either, even when it involves Photoshopping them into gas chambers. (Give the trolls credit: They have definitely heard of Auschwitz.) Even hounding ancient Jewish communities out of entire countries and seizing all their assets—which happened in a dozen Muslim nations whose Jewish communities predated the Islamic conquest, countries that are now all almost entirely Judenrein—is emphatically not the Holocaust. It is quite amazing how many things are not the Holocaust.

The day of my visit to the museum, the rabbi of my synagogue attended a meeting arranged by police for local clergy, including him and seven Christian ministers and priests. The topic of the meeting was security. Even before the Pittsburgh massacre, membership dues at my synagogue included security fees. But apparently these local churches do not charge their congregants security fees. The rabbi later told me how he sat in stunned silence as church officials discussed whether to put a lock on a church door. “A lock on the door,” the rabbi said to me afterward, stupefied.

He is young, this rabbi—younger than me. He was realizing the same thing I realized at the Auschwitz exhibition, about the specificity of our experience. I feel the need to apologize here, to acknowledge that yes, this rabbi and I both know that many non-Jewish houses of worship in other places also require rent-a-cops, to announce that yes, we both know that other groups have been persecuted too—and this degrading need to recite these middle-school-obvious facts is itself an illustration of the problem, which is that dead Jews are only worth discussing if they are part of something bigger, something more. Some other people might go to Holocaust museums to feel sad, and then to feel proud of themselves for feeling sad. They will have learned something important, discovered a fancy metaphor for the limits of Western civilization. The problem is that for us, dead Jews aren’t a metaphor, but rather actual people we do not want our children to become.

The Auschwitz exhibition labors mightily to personalize, to humanize, and these are exactly the moments when its cracks show. Some of the artifacts have stories attached to them, such as the inscribed tin engagement ring a woman hid under her tongue. But most of the personal items—a baby carriage, a child’s shoe, eyeglasses, a onesie—are completely divorced from the people who owned them.

The audio guide humbly speculates about who these people might have been: “She might have been a housewife or a factory worker or a musician …” The idea isn’t subtle: This woman could be you. But to make her you, we have to deny that she was actually herself. These musings turn people into metaphors, and it slowly becomes clear to me that this is the goal. Despite doing absolutely everything right, this exhibition is not that different from “Human Bodies,” full of dead people pressed into service to teach us something.

At the end of the show, onscreen survivors talk in a loop about how people need to love one another. While listening to this, it occurs to me that I have never read survivor literature in Yiddish—the language spoken by 80 percent of victims—suggesting this idea. In Yiddish, speaking only to other Jews, survivors talk about their murdered families, about their destroyed centuries-old communities, about Jewish national independence, about Jewish history, about self-defense, and on rare occasions, about vengeance. Love rarely comes up; why would it? But it comes up here, in this for-profit exhibition. Here is the ultimate message, the final solution.

Then as now, Jews were cast in the role of civilization’s nagging mothers, loathed in life and loved only once they are safely dead. In the years since I walked through Auschwitz at 15, I have become a nagging mother. And I find myself furious, being lectured by this exhibition about love—as if the murder of millions of people was actually a morality play, a bumper sticker, a metaphor. I do not want my children to be someone else’s metaphor. (Of course, they already are.)

My husband’s grandfather once owned a bus company in Poland. Like my husband and some of our children, he was a person who was good at fixing broken things. He would watch professional mechanics repairing his buses, and then never rehired them: He only needed to observe them once, and then he forever knew what to do.

Years after his death, my mother-in-law came across a photograph of her father with people she didn’t recognize: a woman and two little girls, about 7 and 9 years old. Her mother, also a survivor, reluctantly told her that these were her father’s original wife and children. When the Nazis came to her father’s town, they seized his bus company and executed his wife and daughters in front of him. Then they kept him alive to repair the buses. They had heard that he was good at fixing broken things.

The Auschwitz exhibition does everything right, and fixes nothing. I walked out of the museum, past the texting joggers by the cattle car, and I felt utterly broken. There is a swastika on a desk in my children’s public middle school, and it is no big deal. There is no one alive who can fix me.