RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Writer Clint Smith thinks about public memory a lot. For his latest book, The New York Times bestseller “How The Word Is Passed,” Smith wrote about places around the U.S. that try to tell the story of chattel slavery – some monuments, memorials, cemeteries, prisons. But after the book was published, he says he found himself talking more and more about Germany, a place where public memorials of the Holocaust are everywhere, a country that has put time and money into commemorating the shame of its recent past.
So how has it changed Germany’s collective memory? Smith answers that question in the current cover story for The Atlantic. Visitors to Berlin know about the big Holocaust memorial near the Brandenburg Gate, but Clint Smith described to me the small memorials embedded in everyday life.
CLINT SMITH: The Stolpersteine are these small, brass stones that are placed in the middle of these cobblestone sidewalks as you’re walking down the street. And they were created by a German artist named Gunter Demnig in 1996. And one of the things that’s so powerful about it is you’ll be walking down the street, and you’ll see one in front of the home. And you look down and it has a person’s name, their birthday, the day they were deported, the day they were killed and where they were killed. And what you come to understand is that what this stone is communicating, is the people who lived in the homes that the stone is placed in front of, who were taken from their homes and sent to their deaths by the Nazis, both people who were Jewish and other groups of people who were persecuted by the Nazis.
And I remember the first time I came across one. It kind of catches you off guard. You see it. The sort of gleam of the sun sort of shines off of it. And you go look and you look at it, and then you look up at the house that it’s sitting in front of, and it’s this profound sense of intimacy. There is a constant set of reminders throughout Germany of what was done there.
MARTIN: You spoke with one Jewish woman in Berlin who said that Germany was able to make memorializing the Holocaust an important part of national life because Jewish people are more of – and these are her words – Jewish people are more of a historical abstraction than an actual people. Can you explain that?
SMITH: It’s this idea that in Germany, Jewish people represent less than a quarter of a percent of the population. That is very different than what it means to be Black in America, for example. You know, there are over 40 million Black people in this country. We represent a massive social, political and cultural bloc. And so one of the things that some of the Jewish folks in Germany would tell me is that it’s much easier for Germany to create memorials and monuments to the past, to the Holocaust, of what was done because, as was said, Jewishness is almost more of a historical abstraction than it is an actual people. Most Germans don’t know Jewish people, don’t have relationships with Jewish people.
In the United States, it’s a little bit different because if you’re going to build a monument or memorial to chattel slavery or to Jim Crow apartheid, you can’t simply lay a wreath down and say, we’re so sorry this happened. You have to account for the material cost of what was done. There are tens of millions of people here who are the descendants of those who this harm and violence over the course of generations was enacted on who are experiencing the residue of that harm. And so you can’t simply build a monument and say sorry without also engaging in, like, a real intervention of resources. And that is something people are much less willing to do.
MARTIN: Because it’s about the now. You can’t just look back and say – like you were saying, there are present conversations that would need to happen. There are wrongs that need to be righted today. It’s not just about looking to the past.
SMITH: Absolutely. And one of the things that that same woman told me when we had our conversation is she said – we were standing in front of her former home. And there were stumbling stones in front of it. And she had a moment where she looked at me and she knew I was from New Orleans. She knew that I was the descendant of enslaved people in America. And she said, can you imagine what it would be like if they had Stolpersteine in your hometown? And I kind of thought about it for a moment. I was looking at these brass stones in the ground and imagining what it would be like if these were in New Orleans, which was at one point the largest, busiest slave market in the country. And then she said to me – she was like, the whole city would be covered in stones. And I was such a striking moment for me because I was like, that’s absolutely true.
MARTIN: Did your time in Germany and these conversations and this research, did it expand or contract your idea of what public memorials can do in a society?
SMITH: I think that memorials and monuments and museums, they are not a panacea, right? The existence of Stolpersteine, the existence of the memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe, the existence of all of these different memorials that have been created in Germany, it does not make Germany immune to hate. It does not make Germany immune to those who would attempt to deny the past. I mean, Germany is in a moment where it’s dealing with its own sort of rise of far-right-wing extremism and ahistorical neofascists folks who try to deny that the Holocaust ever happened or limit talk about – that its significance is overblown. And so it’s a place that is not fully protected from that simply because it puts memorials down. But I think there is still something to be said for how ubiquitous and omnipresent they are in that space and how, for so many millions of people, they wake up and are encountering on large scales and on tiny, intimate, singular scales, reminders of what was done and what was done not that long ago, right? Like, there are people who are still alive today who survived the Holocaust.
I mean, this didn’t end up in the piece, but, you know, after I came back from Germany, I spent time with a Holocaust survivor who lives only about 10 minutes away from me in Maryland and just sitting with her and hearing these stories of what she experienced. You’re reminded that this history we tell ourselves was a long time ago. I mean, it just wasn’t that long ago at all. And I think we’re in a really interesting moment now where we only have a few more years of people who lived through the Holocaust still being with us and people who survived the Holocaust still being alive. And I think it’s really important to make sure that we are collecting those stories, that we’re hearing those stories, that we’re recognizing how important and unique it is to have these people with us, these people who survived the most horrific genocide in modern history and to recognize that those stories give us a similar sense of intimacy to that history, give us a different sense of proximity to that history in ways that we shouldn’t take for granted.
MARTIN: Clint Smith – his new cover story for The Atlantic is called “Monuments To The Unthinkable.” Thanks so much for talking with me, Clint.
SMITH: Thanks for having me.
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST: