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Monday, October 5, 2020

America has never grappled with its racist past. Could Germany be a model?

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, commemorates the victims of lynching in the United States. The memorial, opened in 2018, features steel blocks dangling like bodies.  | In Pictures via Getty Images

The long and public reckoning that followed the Holocaust shows a path forward for a United States that desperately needs to confront its racist past.

In the mid-1950s, a decade after World War II ended, the town of Dachau took down the directional signs that pointed to its concentration camp.

Visitors had swarmed the area — not just survivors of the Holocaust who’d been imprisoned there, but journalists and tourists who wanted to see what remained of the first Nazi concentration camp, where more than 200,000 people were detained and at least 32,000 were killed between 1933 and 1945. The attention exasperated the local population.

A writer for the New York Herald-Tribune made the trip to Dachau in March 1954 and met a German caretaker who tried to convince him that it was the Americans who had built the larger of the camp’s two crematoriums to make the Germans look bad. A clipping from a German newspaper dated around the same time parroted the claim: America had wanted to “pin guilt” on the innocent German people.

Local leaders in Dachau — some of whom would have watched as thousands of people were marched at gunpoint from the town train station to the camp — wanted to be rid of the spectacle. One official recommended that the crematoriums be bulldozed. When the municipal government dismissed the proposal (which had gone public, spurring an uproar from survivors), the town settled for a subtler revision, removing the signs instead.

The excision fit a national mood. Germans weren’t keen to dwell on the atrocities of the Nazi period, let alone to consider what portion of the blame — for the mass murder, the torture, the forced labor — should fall on them. If evidence of the Holocaust couldn’t be razed, at least it needn’t be emphasized. And with the erasure, a counternarrative rushed in to fill the void. In the 1940s and 1950s, Germans were clear about who the war’s real victims were: Who had suffered more than they had?

Decades later, some of the children and grandchildren of the postwar generation would insist that the nation own up to its deep shame. The actions that followed were called Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung, which translates to “working off the past.” The process was so widespread in the 1980s and 1990s that some don’t remember the entrenched, miserable resentment that preceded it.


It fell to private groups to build the first monuments honoring the people who’d been deported to Dachau and killed there. This was in the 1960s — the decade of the famed Eichmann trial, which broadcast the undeniable reality of Nazi crimes into millions of homes around the world, and of the international student protests that would sweep across the United States and Europe. There was a dawning awareness: Something grievous had happened, but too few were willing to admit it.

Even the modest remembrances erected in Dachau and at other sites of mass murder were ambivalent: At Dachau in 1960, a group of Catholic priests funded a small chapel on the campgrounds; its wall texts contained no mention of the Jewish genocide. After further memorials were unveiled there in 1966 and 1967, a British journalist who came to see the camp was disturbed to find the crematoriums concealed behind attractive, well-trimmed hedges. He found that several of the original structures had been demolished, revamped, or enhanced with a fresh coat of paint.

“It means nothing as it is,” a survivor told the journalist. Dachau had been disguised, said another critic, “like a witch who wants to appear harmless.”

 The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images
The crematoriums at Dachau, as captured by Hugo Jaeger, Hitler’s personal photographer, who visited the camp for unknown reasons in 1950. The photos and even Jaeger’s visit reflect the attempts to whitewash the history of the camp.
 NurPhoto via Getty Images
The same crematoriums at Dachau, pictured in 2018, plain but powerful, speak to years of efforts to preserve and memorialize the first concentration camp.

In the runup to and aftermath of German reunification in 1990, Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung came to be seen as a moral imperative. Germans in their 20s and 30s mined for buried history, in their hometowns and in their families. Those who had fled Nazi terror submitted to in-depth interviews to leave a record of their ordeals; some, frail and aging, even returned to the sites of their torture across Europe. (In 2006, when Steven Spielberg’s archive of the recorded testimonies of tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors became available to Germans via the Freie Universität Berlin, the public broadcaster Deutsche Welle called it “a Holocaust denier’s worst nightmare.”)

Determined to see a more honest reflection of the horrors perpetrated at Dachau, a group of survivors and historians issued a series of recommendations to redo the memorials there. Such acts of cultural rehabilitation and renovation were taking place all across German cities and towns, building on the state-mandated Nazi trials, the disbursal of reparations to victims, the overhaul of organizations like the police and armed forces, and the renewed commitment to and investment in democratic institutions. Dachau — the historical birthplace of the Nazi concentration camp — galvanized to meet the moment.

When I visited Dachau in September 2019, I could see that the work of Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung had taken effect. I walked toward the camp on a trail called the “Path of Remembrance,” which carves the same route across town that victims would have trod from the train station. A reconstructed iron gate at the camp’s entrance reads “Arbeit Macht Frei” — “Work Sets You Free.” I took stock of the watchtower, the guardhouse, the barbed wire that looped like a child’s script around the perimeter. Our German tour guide was unsparing in his account of his nation’s descent into darkness.

But just as the British journalist must have felt when he saw the manicured garden materialize amid Dachau’s bleached landscape, I was unprepared to encounter the lush, pastoral spot where Arthur Kahn was shot and killed in April 1933.

His is a bewildering distinction: Arthur is believed to be the first Jew killed in what would become the Holocaust, dead a mere 10 weeks after Hitler came to power. When he was arrested and transported to Dachau with a group of fellow students, the camp had been open for just two weeks. The deaths of those first Jews were so senseless and violent (Arthur was tortured for hours before his execution) that a local prosecutor indicted the men who’d killed them, a case the Nazis would later suppress.

The place was off to the side of the barracks, unmarked in a grove of tall, handsome trees. The archivists I’d met with when I arrived put an “X” on a map of the camp — a little memorial just for me. I walked over and stood in the place where Arthur had taken his final breaths, the edge of the forest creeping toward me.

“We are honored that you came,” the men in the archive had told me. “And we are very sorry.”


In German, there are a few words for what we in America would call a monument or memorial. In her book Learning from the Germans, the philosopher Susan Neiman lists them: a Denkmal commemorates an event that deserves attention. If the memorialized event is tragic or gruesome, the spot might be marked with a Mahnmal, which she translates as “warning sign,” the historical scar rendered in cement or marble. “For monuments to horror that are large — a restored concentration camp, for example — Gedenkstätte” is the appropriate term, Neiman writes. “The root word is denken (to think), and it signals the enormous amount of thought devoted to the question: What do we remember in matter, and how?”

The question is one that the United States has begun to probe, with white Americans jolted awake this summer to the realization that perhaps streets should not be named for slave owners and domestic terrorists or crowned with statues exalting the traitors who declared a rebel government.

It is a reckoning that Germans undertook decades ago. Even in the bitter postwar period — when Germans were quick to cast themselves as innocent — the terms of their surrender forced at least some admission that their leaders had not been heroes and their cause had not been just.

 United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Marvin Edwards
A sign hung by American troops outside the crematoriums at Dachau in 1945. Ultimately the number of people cremated at the German concentration camp was amended; at least 32,000 were killed at the camp.

After 1945, there were no monuments to Nazis on their boulevards. The streets and squares named after Hitler were rechristened within a matter of weeks. It became illegal to brandish a swastika, the Nazi emblem. Holocaust denial is also now a crime; perhaps those in power understood that a person’s refusal to accept such a core truth is itself a societal menace. Germans outlawed capital punishment in 1949, knowing well the genocidal apparatus that its government once built to decide who should live or die. And the state has no legal means to enact the mass incarceration that has become a fact of American life. The German Constitution describes human dignity as inviolable; the nation’s laws so emphasize the right to privacy that living quarters in its prisons are almost exclusively designed for single occupants. Never mind the death penalty — Germans don’t even trust themselves with bunk beds.

With no equivalent international pressure to concede the defeat of its so-called Lost Cause, America has resisted such reconstruction. Until June 2020, the Confederate flag was immortalized in the state flag of Mississippi. It hangs not just from pickup trucks in the deep-red states but from a window I used to pass often in the East Village in New York. And while survivors of the Holocaust were accorded restitution after World War II, the United States has failed to issue reparations to its Black citizens for the enslavement of their ancestors as well as for the lawful, punitive discrimination and violence that continued here unchecked until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and which has endured in quieter forms ever since. The bill that would establish a committee just to examine how reparations would work was first introduced in the House of Representatives in 1989; it has failed to pass in each session since.

It is at best crude and at worst immoral to compare traumas. The Holocaust was a genocidal reign of terror that intended to and almost succeeded in wiping out a group of people for whom discrimination and persecution has been a fact of their existence for centuries. Nazis didn’t just kill their victims but — as the historian Timothy Ryback detailed in the New Yorker — “harvested” them, using their remains as literal fuel to power the regime. After gassing men, women, and children, Nazis collected hair from their corpses and sold it to German companies at 20 pennies per kilo to be woven into textiles or used to line the boots of U-boat crews.

The American enslavement of Black people — who were stolen from their own lands and brought to these shores beginning in 1619 — predates the founding of the United States. While there was a Germany before the Holocaust and a revived democracy after it, there is no United States without slavery. America would not exist without the Black people who laid its literal foundations.

The journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones has written that Black Americans were deprived of their rights and debased in order to rationalize “the extraction of profit” from their bodies. Their dehumanization was so total, the historian James Whitman writes, that when the Nazis sat down to write the Nuremberg Laws that would strip Jews of their German citizenship and looked to America’s legal discrimination for inspiration, the Germans balked: “The one-drop rule was too harsh for the Nazis.”

Evil can’t be ranked, not least because drawing false equivalences between particular horrors would, in fact, be in the Nazi tradition. Like the caretaker at Dachau, most Germans offloaded the blame for their predicament onto their enemies, even as their new government made tepid mea culpas. The United States had bombed their cities, and the Allies had flattened them. And who were the Americans — with their exile and mass murder of Native Americans — to lecture them? Were the Germans’ misdeeds really worse than other nations’ crimes?

But a person doesn’t need to debate comparative sin to measure, as Neiman puts it in her book, comparative redemption. The fact is that German culture is suffused with the terrible knowledge of what its citizens perpetrated. In America, amnesia prevails, our textbooks and laws scrubbed of so much of what happened here.

“Can we compare the processes that are meant to heal the wounds of such different historical events?” asks Neiman, who is Jewish and has lived much of her adult life in Berlin. What’s clear, she answers later in her book, is that redemption for people and nations depends on the same things: guilt and atonement, remembering rather than erasing, “the presence of the past in preparing for the future.” No matter the crime, reconciliation requires an honest accounting.

The Germans are not alone in doing such work, although their example is perhaps most instructive because it has included political overhaul and public trials as well as cultural and financial exercises in reparations. South Africa and Rwanda have also wrestled with their grim histories. In both countries, peace advocates demanded that perpetrators appear in a public forum to detail for the record the full extent of their violence.

 AFP via Getty Images
South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu (C) with fellow commissioners listen to testimony from witnesses during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in the mid-1990s. The publicly televised hearings aired out the worst atrocities of decades of apartheid in South Africa, and were viewed by millions; in the interest of this truth-telling, amnesty was granted to those who confessed.

We can tell ourselves that the Holocaust is a singular phenomenon — that no ground cries out like Auschwitz or Treblinka or Dachau. But even if that’s true, that doesn’t preclude our learning from the German process, however incomplete. “What Germans have done, which the United States has not done thus far as a nation,” Neiman says in an interview, “is to be honest: ‘We suffered, but we have caused other people to suffer more, and we have to face that. We cannot continue to cover up the crimes of our past.’ The fact that Germans didn’t do it wholeheartedly at the beginning — that can be something that gives us hope.”

Atonement depends on renewed commitment; the return of anti-Semitism and far-right ideologies in the former Reich have proven as much. But is it possible to see Germans’ sustained effort to heal as a model? Can we hold up a mirror to ourselves and accept the repellent parts of our own reflection?

America is not unique in its refusal to do such introspection. Britain still teaches the greatness of its empire. And in Poland, the sense of grievance is so pronounced that it’s illegal to implicate “the Polish nation” in the atrocities of the Holocaust.

The late scholar Nathan Huggins noted that America’s founders made almost no direct mention of race or of the use of enslaved people in the documents that declared this nation. Their “more perfect union” rested on a paradox: a free people, dependent on the enslavement of those who toiled beneath them.

“It is as if the Founders hoped to sanitize their creation, ridding it of a deep and awful stain,” he wrote. “If the evil were not mentioned or seen, it would be as if it were not there at all.” But Huggins predicted that such willful blindness wouldn’t last — not forever. “It will intrude,” he cautioned, “and rudely.”

Untreated, the past festers, Neiman writes. In time, it becomes an open wound.


The first reparations from the German government to the people it had tried to annihilate were issued soon after the war. It’s the aspect of the German effort to “work off the past” that people now know best. But at the time, no one wanted to call them reparations. German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer referred to the compensation as “restitution” in 1951, when the new West German state prepared to send more than 3 billion German marks (about $3,000 per refugee) to Israel and to individual Holocaust survivors. In the popular discourse, the word used was the rather noxious Wiedergutmachung. Its literal translation is “to make things good again.”

The German government paid out massive sums to its victims in a number of forms, but the distribution — at the start, in particular — was excruciating (and is ongoing). In one striking example that Neiman describes in her book, survivors of Auschwitz, who had to register the tattooed numbers on their arms with the German government to prove their identities, were eligible for less in reparations than former SS guards and their widows received in pensions.

No, it was not all made good.

As part of the treaties signed with the Allied powers, the entire West German nation was supposed to have undergone a “denazification” process. It was at best a lenient, haphazard effort. Some prominent Nazis were put on trial, Adolf Eichmann — one of the architects of the “Final Solution” — included. But just as remorseless Confederate generals became governors in the reunited America, former Nazis moved with relative ease from their wartime ranks into prestigious positions in their new state.

The judicial branch of the government was, in particular, overrun; at one point, as many as 76 percent of its officials were former Nazis. Hans Globke, one of Chancellor Adenauer’s most important advisers, was later found to have contributed a legal annotation to the Nuremberg Laws, sanctioning their enactment. During denazification, he had claimed to be a member of the resistance.

“The notion of a zero hour is a fiction,” says Thorsten Wagner, a historian who also leads a fellowship (in which I took part) that studies how people in the Nazi era became perpetrators of, or acquiescent witnesses to, mass violence. For Germans, there was no clean break with their Nazi past, not in 1945 and not in the decades that followed.

 United States Holocaust Memorial Museum/Courtesy of Eli M. Rosenbaum
The trial of Adolf Eichmann, center, in glasses, in Israel in 1961. The revelations about Eichmann, one of the architects of the Holocaust, were broadcast to millions, as a new generation of German politics was forming.

But one turning point arrived in 1968, when student protests swept German universities and similar demonstrations broke out in France and the United States. The clash took the form of a generational conflict, with children turning on their parents and wanting to know for the first time where their own families had been during the war. It’s a moment that Wagner believes is overstated in the telling of German wrestling with the Holocaust.

“As important as that groundswell was,” he says, “it often got stuck in an emotional, personal conflict within families” — Thanksgiving dinner, with the specter of the Nazi regime. The accusations were abstract and not focused on the victims. And few survivors were there to redirect the conversation; most had fled to other countries, as my family did in 1939.

Then, in 1979, a breakthrough: The four-part miniseries Holocaust, which had debuted in the United States, premiered for the German audience. The show, which aired in America a year after Roots, was an elevated soap opera, presenting a melodramatic retelling of Kristallnacht, the creation of Jewish ghettos, and the deportations to and internment in the concentration camps. Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel called it “[u]ntrue, offensive, cheap: as a TV production, the film is an insult to those who perished and to those who survived.”

But for Germans, it was a sensation. An estimated 20 million people — one-third of the total German population — tuned in to see it. Offensive as the dramatization might have been to survivors, the show represented the first act of collective remembering among the German people. After each episode was broadcast, the network held a call-in show with historians who could answer questions about the real-life events that had inspired the series, and with survivors.

The panel, wrote the historian Alf Lüdtke, “could not cope!” Calls flooded the station with questions from anguished viewers. “Thousands of people cried on the phone,” Lüdtke continued. “And millions of spectators could — or, more precisely, had to — listen to dozens of unknown voices attempting to express their utter bewilderment and despair in public: How could it have been? How could it happen?”

“That was the beginning,” Wagner says. “That was the birth of a grassroots movement of a critical historical investigation.” America had the civil rights movement, but this — what Germans in their 20s and 30s undertook in the 1980s — was different. After the show, the call for a reckoning did not come from the victims. It came from the descendants of the perpetrators.

The upheaval that followed was inescapable. In Berlin, the site of the former administrative headquarters of Nazi power was uncovered. These were the buildings in which the “desktop perpetrators” of the Nazi Gestapo, as historian Karen Till calls them, managed the state police and directed the Jewish genocide.

Debates broke out over what to do with the desolate land near the seam between the East and West German states. In the stalemate, activists started to dig. With the excavation of the past, Till writes in her book The New Berlin, came “feelings of anger, frustration, loss, rejection, mourning, and hope.”

In the rubble, the activists were looking not for exoneration but “a space for their ghosts,” she writes. Visiting it now, the address has retained a haunting aura. It is the site of the Topography of Terror — a museum and memorial that traces the turn from the Weimar Republic into Nazism.

Such acts of exhumation were not unique to Berlin. A desire was spreading across the West German landscape to uncover the truth of a shared past. The movement was called Dig Where You Stand, and it required exertion, with artists, students, and intellectuals picking up literal shovels to sift through the dirt in search of buried traumas.

As memorials sprung up in the hundreds to commemorate these places, some realized the answers to their questions weren’t in the soil. Alexandra Senfft, born in 1961, was the daughter of progressive German parents. Her mother’s father was Hanns Ludin, the Third Reich’s envoy to Slovakia. In his role, Ludin signed the deportation orders that sent Slovak Jews to their death — indisputably, although Senfft’s relatives have denied it. Senfft believes the past tormented her mother, and she has written books about the impact of her grandfather’s Nazi ties on his children and grandchildren, and other descendants of Nazi perpetrators struggling with their tainted inheritance.

For her effort, her mother’s relatives have distanced themselves from her, minimizing contact after decades of closeness. In her estimation, even now, the Nazis have been “othered,” as if the evil hadn’t taken root in Germans’ own families and neighborhoods. Those who did confront the crimes of their ancestors could not have been prepared for what that realization would feel like. When the landmark Wehrmacht exhibition, which publicized the war crimes of the German armed forces during World War II, opened in Hamburg in 1995, Neiman writes, some visitors carried “small photos of their fathers or grandfathers to compare with the photographs in the exhibit.” Others decried the show and its dishonoring of their dead.

“It’s a never-ending process,” Senfft says. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons most of us aren’t eager to do what she has: Once a person has stared into the abyss, it becomes impossible to pretend it’s not there. “I could have put the letters back into the boxes and the boxes back into the attic, but I wanted to go on. I had looked the painful facts in the face, and I knew it would haunt me if I didn’t continue,” she says. “Sometimes, I had the image of a dark tunnel in a huge mountain, and I encouraged myself, ‘Keep going. There will be light on the other side.’”


“I don’t think we’re free in America,” the criminal justice reform advocate Bryan Stevenson has said. “I think we are burdened.”

The founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, which is committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, Stevenson was also the mastermind behind the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama. The site is the first memorial to victims of racial terror in the US.

When it opened in 2018, Stevenson said he had drawn inspiration from the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin and from artist Gunter Demnig’s sprawling memorial — tens of thousands of brass “stumbling blocks” or Stolpersteine installed in cities across Europe — marking on the pavement the homes from which Jews were deported under Hitler. The memorial in Alabama echoes the 2,771 concrete slabs that architect Peter Eisenman built for the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. It, too, is made of columns: 800 steel blocks suspended overhead. Each is inscribed with the name of an American county and, beneath it, the names of the people who were lynched there. Many entries read “unknown.”

The memorial and its environs — stretched over six acres — is a monument to America’s heinous history. But the ambition of the site is not punishment, as Stevenson told the New York Times in 2018. It’s liberation. So, too, is the aim of working off the past: What world could we build if we understood how we arrived at this one?

 In Pictures via Getty Images
A sculpture by artist Kwame Akoto-Bamfo, dedicated to the memory of the victims of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, marks the entrance of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. Inspired by the Holocaust memorials in Europe and by the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa, the memorial’s aim is not to seed guilt, but to remember.

In American textbooks and schools and families, the same phenomenon that Senfft described of Nazism is true. The prevailing view among white Americans is still that “slavery was something that happened somewhere else,” the historian Stephanie Jones-Rogers tells me. It wasn’t in their streets or in their homes. It wasn’t their ancestors.

That denial has shaped what we believe about our nation and ourselves. This delusional rendering of our past explains how the United States government could decide to grant reparations to slave owners in 1862 but has still not repaid the debt it owes Black Americans. It accounts for the fact that Americans aestheticize the “antebellum South,” even hosting their weddings on former plantations.

Marcia Chatelain, a historian and a professor at Georgetown University, notes that even as the fight for racial justice has reached the fore of American consciousness, “most people are deeply ignorant of not only how pervasive slavery was, but the totality of the institution relative to the entire nation.”

Chatelain was a member of Georgetown’s Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation — a committee convened to grapple with a sordid footnote in the institution’s past. (German businesses, universities, and even the government have embarked on similar fact-finding missions.) In 1838, with the school on the brink of financial ruin, its Jesuit leadership sold 272 enslaved men, women, and children to secure the university’s future. Chatelain and the working group’s 15 other members set out to find the descendants of those enslaved people and to decide what should be done to make amends. The work spoke to one of Chatelain’s deepest convictions: “People can’t seek to repair something in which they are not aware of how full the damage is.”

In the fall of 2016, the group laid out a number of recommendations; in the report, the group’s chair summarized what he hoped would be its legacy: that “our community can say soberly and sincerely [that] this is part of our history and we take responsibility for it.”

What we need is an appraisal. In her new book Caste, the Pulitzer-Prize winning author Isabel Wilkerson compares America to an old house. “We can never declare the work over,” she writes. “Wind, flood, drought, and human upheavals batter a structure that is already fighting whatever flaws were left unattended in the original foundation.”

It is a daunting proposition, but one well-known to citizens and homeowners alike: A fresh coat of paint will not hide the rot in the basement.

Even among Germans, who have done so much, if imperfect, repair work, the baseboards are showing their age. Acts of far-right extremism are on the rise. In June 2019, a regional politician who defended Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to admit more than a million refugees was shot dead. A few months later, a shooter attacked a synagogue in Halle, killing two. In the German parliament, the Alternative for Germany Party is now the first far-right political group to be seated in government since the defeat of the Nazis. Its leaders have called for a “180-degree” turn in how Germans express public shame over the Holocaust.

Earlier this summer, the New York Times reported that neo-Nazis are infiltrating elite units in the German armed forces. Their takeover is so insidious and hard to trace that the German defense minister took the drastic step of disbanding an entire special forces group, hoping to weaken their network. In a poignant echo of the past, police commandos were dispatched to dig up the garden of a sergeant major in one of the nation’s most secretive units. Buried in the ground, they found thousands of rounds of ammunition, a crossbow, two knives — and an SS songbook, 14 editions of a magazine for former members of the Waffen SS, and other Nazi memorabilia.


In the end, Arthur Kahn spent 24 hours in Dachau. He came in with a group of about 30 men, suspected of ties to communists. (He was a medical student; he had none.) Witnesses would later attest that Arthur and two other Jewish men — Rudolf Benario and Ernst Goldmann, both 24 and from the town of Fürth — were asked to step forward upon arrival. Hilmar Wäckerle, the first commandant of Dachau, ordered several guards, including one named Hans Steinbrenner, to attack them. When the guards relented, a witness reported the three men “bleeding from their nose and mouth and other parts of their bodies.”

Arthur Kahn, pictured in his student ID papers. Kahn is believed to be the first Jew killed in what would become the Holocaust.

The abuse continued for hours, with Steinbrenner commanding the men and an additional Jewish man named Erwin Kahn (no relation to Arthur) to shovel the trash bins outside the barracks as he beat them. What happened next is a matter of dispute, but what is understood is that Steinbrenner came back for the four men later that afternoon and handed them spades, as if to have them dig again. He took them on a march into the woods, and just after 4 pm, gunshots rang out over the camp. Arthur Kahn, Benario, and Goldmann were dead. Records stored at the Bavarian State Archives in Munich show that Erwin Kahn survived for several hours. Then he, too, died. It was April 12, 1933, and the second night of Passover.

Levi and Martha Kahn, Arthur’s parents, heard the news from Bernhard Kolb, who was responsible for Jewish affairs in the small town of Gemünden am Main, where the couple lived and raised their children. Josef Hartinger, the municipal prosecutor whose position in Munich predated Hitler’s rise (and who was not a Nazi, but a member of the conservative Bavarian People’s Party), would later refute the narrative told to them: that Arthur had been shot as he tried to escape. I grew up hearing that Levi knew that Arthur hadn’t run, that after he’d paid to retrieve Arthur’s coffin from the Nazis, he unsealed it and saw his son had been shot in the chest.

I went to Dachau last September because I wanted to find out what was true and what was lore; the stakes felt enormous. I wanted to meet with people who could tell me how Arthur had died. I knew he had been 21 at the time. I knew he had been beloved, a genius, and the great hope of his parents and siblings. I knew because one of them — his brother, Herbert — was my grandfather.

In the book Hitler’s First Victims, the evidence of what happened to Arthur is far more explicit than what I’d understood from the stories I was raised with. My grandfather, who died in 2015, named his only son for his older brother, but my father has never read the book. Leave it to the historical record; he tells me he doesn’t want to know. He did look at the photos I took of the plot where Arthur is buried in Nuremberg. When the sun hits his tombstone, it looks brand new.

After the war, the town of Fürth discovered that Benario and Goldmann had been members of the same rowing club, a front for communist and other banned political activities. The riverbank, where the club was based, was in disrepair, and Benario and Goldmann had planted birch trees to buttress it. Fürth later installed a memorial near the trees to honor the two men.

On April 12, 2013 — as the town prepared to commemorate their deaths — news spread that the plaque had been defaced, the trees, standing since the 1930s, damaged, and a name smeared in bright pink letters on the ground before them: “Steinbrenner,” it read. Eight decades later, someone still knew the power of the name of the guard who had attacked the four Jews in Dachau.

We who want to learn from the past tend to fear forgetting most. We agonize over the reports in 2017 that four out of 10 German students don’t know that Auschwitz-Birkenau was a concentration camp or the findings that fewer than 10 percent of high school seniors in the United States can identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War. Determined as we are to remember, we think less about the fact that on private social media forums, in bars, and in secretive clubs, a new wave of extremists is remembering, too.

Real change, as Neiman writes, is a social exercise, and it is achieved in a collective. As a culture, we decide what we will not tolerate. The plaque in Fürth, like the sign in Mississippi that marks the spot where Emmett Till’s body was pulled from the Tallahatchie River, continues to be stolen or vandalized. The town continues to replace it. We fight hate where we see it — in others, in ourselves. We hope there are enough of us to keep it from destabilizing our foundations.

 Christof Stache/AFP via Getty Images
The memorial at the Dachau concentration camp today attracts visitors from around the world.

Neiman has read the same articles I have about a resurgent, fanatical right-wing, but she also sees the protest and denunciation that responds to the violence. “Even though I’ve argued that Germany did a lot right — despite the fact that they were slow at first in doing it — they didn’t get rid of racism or anti-Semitism entirely,” Neiman says. National memory is not a fixed thing; it can shift. It can be warped. “Every community needs to figure out its own way of doing this. I don’t believe history runs according to absolute laws that you can figure out beforehand. I think history is made by individual human beings in different cultural and social circumstances, and that’s a good thing.”

Vast opportunity lies in this moment in America, Chatelain says. Old statues and old modes of thinking are tumbling. “Say her name” is a chant and a promise — we will not forget. People are asking questions of their own families, as some Germans did a generation ago. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, excavators are looking for a possible mass grave that dates back to the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. The digging has begun.

Chatelain wishes those despairing over how much work lies ahead could see what stands to be gained — “a sense of safety, a sense of care, a belief that we’re not disposable and that we’re valuable, a sense that history can be a place where we draw moral courage and don’t have to feel ashamed,” she says. “Those things are possible, but we have to do them together.”


Last September, after my visit to Dachau, I took a train from Munich to Gemünden am Main. My older brother and I had decided to go, wondering about the childhood home where the four Kahn children — Arthur, Fanny, Herbert, and Lothar — grew up. (I looked up what portion of the population voted for the far-right AfD party in the last election: one in 10.)

The town is small, and the streets are lined in cobblestones. In the pavement, a few of the stones glint gold — Stolpersteine for the Jews evicted from their homes. One was placed for Fanny Weinberg, our great-aunt. She and her son Nathan were deported to Minsk and killed in 1941. Stones for Nathan and for Arthur are due to be installed in 2021.

A few minutes after we arrived, we found the house, which stands just as it did when our grandfather might have read or run outside, except a restaurant has replaced the store Levi Kahn used to operate out of the ground floor.

Down the street, in the tourist office, we faced a wall of pamphlets advertising historical interest sites and local attractions: bike trails, hot air balloon rides — and one stamped with Arthur’s face. It took us a few minutes to explain to the woman behind the desk who we were, but when she realized, she clasped our hands and cried. She told us students at the local high school had made the brochure as part of their Holocaust curriculum. It’s filled with short entries on the town’s long-gone Jews.

Above the portrait of Arthur, the words “Wir wollen erinnern” were printed in white: “We want to remember.”

Mattie Kahn is the culture director of Glamour. Her work has also appeared in Elle, Vogue, BuzzFeed, and more.


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