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'Monuments to the Unthinkable' explores how nations can memorialize their atrocities

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. You don't have to look far in the United States or any country to find landmarks commemorating our history - statues, museums, monuments and plaques honoring proud moments from our past and those responsible for them. But what do we do or say about our past sins as a nation? Our guest, Atlantic staff writer Clint Smith, wrote a book about his visit to eight sites in the U.S. that, in some way, deal with the legacy of slavery, from a graveyard honoring Confederate soldiers to a historic plantation that focuses on the experience of enslaved people.

For an article in The Atlantic's December issue, Smith traveled to Germany to explore how the Holocaust is memorialized in that country. He found innovative memorials acknowledging the deportation and mass murder of Europe's Jews. But he also discovered there were intense debates about what kind of landmarks should be established and how the story would be told - debates that are ongoing.

Clint Smith is a writer and poet. His book about American remembrances of slavery, "How The Word Is Passed," was a No. 1 New York Times bestseller and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction. It will be published in paperback at the end of December. In 2016, he had a book of poetry published titled "Counting Descent," and he'll have a new book of poems in March. Clint Smith's article in The Atlantic about German commemorations of the Holocaust is titled "Monuments To The Unthinkable."

Clint Smith, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

CLINT SMITH: It's so good to be here with you.

DAVIES: Let's talk about some of the memorials. These are really interesting, unique in my experience. One is - it's not a memorial; it's thousands of them - called Stolpersteins. I don't know if I'm saying this exactly right. You want to explain what these are?

SMITH: So the Stolperstein, which is translated into English as stumbling stone, are these really small, but remarkable, pieces of memorialization in parts of the landscape. So there are 90,000 of them across 30 different European countries. And what they are are these 10-by-10-centimeter brass plaques that are placed onto stone sort of in the middle of sidewalks, in the middle of these cobblestone roads. It was started in 1996 by an artist named Gunter Demnig. So you'll be walking down the streets of Berlin, for example, and you'll see - in front of an apartment complex, you'll see three Stolperstein. And then you'll walk a little further, and you'll see six. And then, you walk a little further; you see 12.

And what's interesting about them is they have the name, the birth date, the deportation date, the death date and the place the person was sent all on this single stone. And when you see all of them together - you know, for example, if you're standing in front of a home that has 12 of them, you can look down, and you can tell who was the child, who was the mother, who was the father, who were the grandparents, who may have been the cousin who lived with them, or who may have been the neighbor who came over for dinner. And so you're looking down at these stones in front of the place where these people were taken from, where they last lived, where they last worshipped.

And you have this profound sense of intimacy, this profound sense of proximity to this history because you recognize that these people were taken from this building, from this home, from this space not so long ago. And it's the largest decentralized memorial in the world. And it's impossible to sort of move across Germany and, increasingly, in many parts of - in many countries in Europe without coming across them and encountering them and being forced to remember the history that transpired there.

DAVIES: Yeah, I mean, it's interesting that the artist who began them, Gunter Demnig, if I have the name right, actually started doing it without anybody's permission. And then, it became a recognized and funded exercise. I'm wondering, when you would stop and stand over one of these markers or a number of them, I mean, would you find yourself visualizing the moment at which these people were taken from their homes and dragged away? And - I don't know. What was the effect on you?

SMITH: Absolutely. I think every time I saw one, I took a moment, and I looked down at the names. And you can't help but imagine. And you can't help but think about who these people may have been. And one of the most powerful parts of the stumbling stone project is not only the fact that they are placed in front of the sort of former homes and residences and places of worship where these people once lived before they were sent off to be killed, but that they're also - that part of the process of placing down a Stolperstein necessitates that the people who are doing so engage in a sort of research, archival research about who these people were.

So, you know, a neighborhood will get together, or a group of school students or an apartment complex or the people who live in the home that was once lived in by Jewish families 80 years ago will all get together. And part of what the project necessitates is time spent trying to get a sense of who these people were. And the details that folks come up with, the details that folks discover about these individual people just really reinforces this sense of intimate humanity. You know, you'll find where they went to school, where they went to the grocery store, where they went to synagogue, where - you know, even the most intimate, granular details of, you know, what was this child's favorite type of ice cream? What was their favorite flavor of popsicle?

You know, it's these things that make it so that you - it is no longer an abstract number of 6 million Jewish people. It is an individual. It is a child. It is a mother. It is a grandfather. And I think regularly encountering these daily reminders all around you as part of the landscape of your city, part of the landscape of your country, reminds you that these were people and that it wasn't just a large, abstract number that is difficult to wrap your head around, but that it's - you can imagine yourself. You can imagine your own family. You can imagine your own children, your own grandparents being subjected to this in a different sort of way.

DAVIES: You know, it's interesting that - I mean, those who research the people who lived in these homes themselves are engaging in an active process of remembering, which, I guess, is an important part of what accounting for these past events is about. And, you know, it's interesting. You talked to people who said, yes, the fact that this breaks it down - it's not 6 million. It's individual people. And you see them one, two, four, six, 10, a neighborhood at a time. There were some who criticized it, though, felt like this was, in some way, demeaning. Just share that with us.

SMITH: Yeah, And this is one of the reasons that I felt like it was really important to go to Germany because it's one of the sort of insights that I don't think I could have gotten had I not been there myself and had I not stood next to people who had specific relationships and understandings and a different sort of stake in this history and how it's remembered. And so what's fascinating is that, you know, there are many people who are - who find the Stolperstein to be these remarkable, incredible, almost sanctified spaces. You know, people will go and regularly clean them. People will go and place flowers next to them. And again, there are tens of thousands of them across Europe, and people are encountering them every day and being reminded of what happened.

But there are some, to your point, who think that the stumbling stones are not an effective act of memorialization. There are some who think that it's disrespectful to place the names of Jewish people who were killed by Nazis on the ground where people will step on them where they all have dirt on them, where, you know, there will be pet feces that might get on them. And so, you know, in a place like Munich, Germany, it is illegal to place down Stolperstein. There are people in the Jewish community there who've led an effort to prevent them from being placed down. Instead, what they try to do is place plaques at eye level that people encounter and engage in a different sort of way.

DAVIES: Yeah, and I guess there's value to the debate because it means those who are involved in it are invested in preserving this memory and those who follow the debate are similarly engaged.

SMITH: No, I think so. And what's interesting - I remember a conversation I was having with a woman, the historian Barbara Steiner, who is Jewish and lives in Germany. And we were standing in front of some Stolperstein in front of an apartment building that used to be her home. And she used to live there. She would walk past the Stolperstein every day. And, you know, we had been in conversation. And she knew that I was from New Orleans, which was once the largest slave market and busiest slave market in the country. She knew that I was the descendant of enslaved people. She knew that I had spent time thinking about this question of slavery and memory.

And she looked down at the Stolperstein. And she looked at me. And she said, can you imagine what it would be like if in your town of New Orleans, in the United States, they placed Stolperstein in front of the places where enslaved people lived and worshipped and were held and were sold? And it was this really striking moment for me as I sort of looked at these two stumbling stones, you know, with the sun gleaming off of them, the names of these people who had been killed and persecuted by the Nazis and imagining what something commensurate would be like in the United States. And I kind of just paused. And she said, the streets would be packed. And she was right, you know?

As I thought about it, I was like, well, in New Orleans, entire streets would be covered in brass stones, you know? It would be impossible to walk down almost any street in this city without encountering a stumbling stone that reminded you of the - of someone who once lived here, who was once enslaved here. And that was a really fascinating moment because part of what the goal of this trip was to put German remembrance and American remembrance - and specifically German remembrance of the Holocaust and American remembrance of chattel slavery - in conversation with one another. And to imagine what a sort of stumbling stone project in the American South and, really, across the United States might be like was really striking and kind of startling to imagine.

DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Clint Smith. He's a staff writer for The Atlantic. His cover story about how Germany has commemorated the Holocaust is titled "Monuments To The Unthinkable." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOLANGE SONG, "WEARY")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Clint Smith. He's a staff writer for The Atlantic. He wrote a bestselling book, "How The Word Is Passed," about his visits to historical sites in the U.S. that deal with the issue of slavery. His new cover story in The Atlantic explores ways Germany has commemorated the Holocaust. It's titled "Monuments To The Unthinkable."

You know, you write about a train station in Berlin that has a memorial that lists specific trains that left at times to deport Jews and on their way to being murdered. And again, it breaks this huge, massive event down to a human scale. But I wanted you to talk next about the really, really big monument. That is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Describe this thing. Tell us where it is.

SMITH: So the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is this 200,000 square foot memorial in the middle of downtown Berlin. It is difficult to express how central it is to the middle of the city. And it's, I think, 2,700 stone columns that sort of rise up into the air. If you're looking from an aerial view, it almost looks like a cemetery of sorts.

DAVIES: Twenty-seven hundred, did you say? Wow.

SMITH: Yeah, it's massive. It's almost as if in the middle of lower Manhattan there was a 200,000 square foot memorial to chattel slavery, you know, with 2,700 stone columns. Or if in the - in front of the White House in Washington, D.C., there was a 200,000 square foot memorial to Indigenous Americans who were killed through genocide. I mean, it is so striking in its scale and its scope.

And as you walk through, the ground sort of rises and falls almost like a wave. And it creates this really haunting sensation because as you go lower, it gets darker. As you rise, you see these sort of shards of light, almost as if little slices of sun can make their way through. And it's very overwhelming. And I think it's meant to be. It is the official Holocaust memorial of Germany. And it was built and opened in 2005. And it is meant to, I think, reflect, to some extent, the enormity of the Holocaust and how many people across Europe were killed in this, you know, massive, industrialized genocide.

DAVIES: You know, any monument that stays in a city for a long time gets used by the public in lots of ways. How did you see people interacting with it when you were there?

SMITH: Yeah. I think one of the things about having a memorial of that scale in the middle of downtown is that, you know, people are walking to school. People are walking to work. It's across from one of the biggest parks in Germany. People are eating lunch, you know? So people engage with the space in all sorts of ways. I mean, it's become sort of part of the landscape, even beyond the context of it being a memorial to genocide, you know?

So there were people who, obviously, had come there with the specific intention to engage with it on those terms, who were very solemn, who - I saw people who were crying, who were sort of touching the stones gently to almost feel more proximate to the history. There were also children who were playing hide and seek behind the stones. There were also teenagers who were taking selfies. There were also people who were skateboarding in and around the stones. And so it was engaged in so many different ways that, I think, reflect the ways that certain monuments become parts of our landscape and are not always engaged in on the - necessarily on the terms in which they were erected.

DAVIES: And that's among the criticisms that some people level at this monument. How did you react to it emotionally?

SMITH: You know, I'm coming from a context in which I feel like I've - there's such a dearth of monuments and iconography to the lives of enslaved people that I was so hungry for anything. And I think it was - it's much easier for me to be impressed in some way. But to your point, you know, this is also a place that has come under criticism. For example, people criticize the name - Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Some people say that the name is too passive - like, murdered by whom? Like, why is it being expressed in a sort of passive rather than active voice? Why is - why are we talking about the people who were killed without talking about the people who did the killing? You know, there are also those who say that it's too abstract, that, you know, these are massive stone blocks, but they don't have the inscriptions of any names. They don't have - you know, they don't have the sort of similar intimate details that you might find on a stumbling stone.

And so, you know, for some people, it's too passive, it's too abstract, it's too - and, you know, to our aforementioned point, you know, it's - it also has, in the minds of some, lost its meaning because it's so central to the city and because it is not - because it has - is now engaged in in a way that does not reflect the - or is not commensurate with the level of horror that it is tasked with trying to remember. And I think that that's a difficult task for any large monument or memorial that is in such a central location. But it's certainly something that animates the feelings of many people in Germany.

DAVIES: And I guess one thing to be said about this is that it's not just the aboveground columns that are the memorial. There is an underground museum that's part of it. Tell us about that.

SMITH: Yeah. So underground, there is a museum where you can get an audio guide and sort of make your way through. It's not a massive museum. It's not as big, for example, as the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., but it is really striking. It is very solemn. It's very silent down there. It's - the sort of cognitive dissonance, in some ways, of going from the aboveground space where you hear buses and cars and kids and, you know, people - you know, it sounds like the middle of a city.

And then you go downstairs, and it's so quiet and so silent. And you have all these people from all these different countries, you know, with their earphones on, moving through the space, listening to the stories and the firsthand accounts of people who survived the Holocaust, you know, reading letters from people who sent letters to their loved ones when they were in - being held in some of the ghettos, when they were being held in some of the camps. And it - you - again, you see the stories, you see the families. And in it, for me, it works really effectively because above ground, you are surrounded by the sort of massive infrastructure that is meant to give you some small sense of how massive this genocide was. And then underground, you see the people, you know, the sort of human implications of that slaughter.

DAVIES: You also note that some of the exhibits are actually kind of below the floor that people are walking on. So you're looking down through glass to some of these exhibits, which seemed pretty striking.

SMITH: Yeah. There was one room in particular. It's a sort of dark room. And the only form of light, for the most part, are these sort of glass panels that are being lit up. And they have letters that have been written by people who were held in the camps, letters that were written by people who were hiding from the Nazis, letters being written - photos that had been taken of people who were fearing for their lives and many of whom did not survive long after they wrote these letters. And you just can sense the desperation. And it also creates this feeling, similar to the Stolpersteine, where you're looking down and there's a sort of singular focus on the letter, right? You're not necessarily looking at people around you. You're looking at the name. You're looking at the words. You're looking at the specific way that this child or this mother or this grandparent, you know, constructed their sentences. Did they write in print? Did they write in cursive? What did their handwriting look like? Again, just so intimate.

And it's impossible for me, as a parent, you know, as a father, as someone who has a 5-year-old and a 3-year-old, to look at a letter written by a child to her father saying, I think that I'm going to be killed soon. They're throwing children in the pit - and to not break down at something like that. And then - so you see that, and then you look up, and what surrounds you on the walls are the numbers of people - numbers of Jewish people who were killed in each country across Europe. And you sort of - again, it creates this sort of fascinating moment where you both - you look down and you see the most granular, intimate human manifestation of this slaughter. And then you look up, and you see how many - and then you imagine how many thousands and millions of stories there were like this. When you see - you look up at, you know, the name Poland and see that 3 million Jewish people were killed there. It's such a striking, haunting place.

DAVIES: We need to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Clint Smith. He's a staff writer for The Atlantic. His cover story about how Germany has commemorated the Holocaust is titled "Monuments To The Unthinkable." He'll be back to talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEVE REICH AND LONDON SINFONIETTA'S "VARIATIONS FOR VIBES, PIANOS, AND STRINGS: II. SLOW")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're speaking with Clint Smith, staff writer for The Atlantic. His bestselling book "How The Word Is Passed" was about his visits to historical sites in the U.S. that dealt in some way with the issue of slavery. That book will be out in paperback, by the way, at the end of December. His new cover story in The Atlantic explores the way that Germany has commemorated the Holocaust in public monuments and museums. It's titled "Monuments To The Unthinkable."

You know, these public commemorations in Germany are so impressive and impactful, as you describe them. But one thing that you note is that how long it took after the end of World War II and the Nuremberg trials, at which Nazi atrocities were widely publicized - it took so long, decades, for these monuments to appear. What did you hear about why it took so long?

SMITH: Yeah, I think that's a misconception that a lot of people have. You know, some people think that right after the war, you know, in 1945, these memorials and monuments started going up, and that's not necessarily the case. You know, part of it is that there was Eastern Germany and Western Germany, who were controlled by different national coalitions, and they had their own stakes in what memorialization looked like. But generally, you know, what people I think failed to understand and what in many ways I failed to understand was that after the war, you had German people who had lost husbands and sons and brothers, you know, thousands, millions of people who died in this war.

And so they're mourning the loss of their loved ones, and they're also mourning having lost the war, and they're also being told by the rest of the world that they are evil, that they were complicit in evil, that they were upholding evil, that they were complicit or direct participants in a horrific, fascist, genocidal project. And so there's this massive sense of shame. There's this massive sense of grief. And what I've been told by so many people who are the descendants of those who lived through this time is that there was this massive period of silence where both people who were Jewish and who lived through the camps and who somehow survived the Holocaust, there was silence in those families, people not wanting to speak about the trauma and the horror and the sort of unfathomable terror that they experienced.

And there was also silence on the side of non-Jewish Germans, you know, people who didn't talk to their kids or didn't talk to anyone about everything that had happened. And it wasn't until a generation or two later when their kids and their grandkids began asking questions and saying, well, where were you during the war? What happened? Were you participating? Were you a part of this? Did you say anything when you watched the Jewish families march down the street? And so it wasn't until a few generations later that new questions began being asked and a new generation of Germans began saying, we have to memorialize and remember and engage this in a fundamentally different way than we are.

DAVIES: You know, you describe some of the people who were responsible for pushing for and getting these memorials built, particularly the really large one, the Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe. You want to explain who these people were and what that campaign to get this built was like? That wasn't actually opened until, gosh, 2005. That's 60 years after the end of the war.

SMITH: Yeah, and that's the case for so many of these monuments, memorials and museums. You know, for example, the stumbling stones that we've been talking about were only placed down in 1996, and they're still being placed down, you know, in different places where they've never been, you know, today in 2022. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe was opened in 2005, right? Not 1955, 1965 - 2005. So it's been a long journey. And part of it is that there have been folks on the ground who have been campaigning, who have been advocating, who have been pushing the German government to say, we need a national memorial to account for and to commemorate, to remember what this government, what this country and what these people of who are our ancestors, what they did.

And one of the people who were leading that effort was a woman named Lea Rosh, who was a German television personality. She is not herself Jewish. But she had worked on this documentary series with a German historian who helped her understand, as she would say, the need to put up a memorial, a massive memorial, to all of the Jewish people that had been killed at the hands of the Nazis. And so I sat down with her, and we had a conversation. And she's in her 80s now. But, you know, she was saying that, you know, they would stand on the side of the street for days, for hours. They'd stood there for years, for decades, trying to get people to sign petitions, trying to get meetings with government officials, trying to use her platform the best she could to advocate for this monument.

And, you know, it certainly was not only her. There were many, many people and with many, many different stakeholders who were advocating for the presence of this museum. But what it revealed to me was that this was not something that the German government just did on its own volition. They didn't just wake up one day and say, oh, we should build a monument. It was an effort that was pushed by people like Lea Rosh, but also by everyday citizens in Germany, by people whose ancestors perpetuated some of the crimes that were committed, saying we need to build something that is an official state-sanctioned project to account for what happened.

DAVIES: Right. And it's interesting - you know, by and large, in many cases, not Jewish activists pushing for this. And part of that was the fact that there were so few Jews left in Germany after the war. And so you had this non-Jewish population kind of coming to terms with Jewish people, many of whom, you write, never even met a Jewish person. They were in some ways kind of an abstraction to a lot of these folks.

SMITH: That's one of the things that I hadn't fully understood until I got to Germany is how few Jewish people are left in Germany. You know, in Germany, Jewish people are less than a quarter of a percent of the population. I think there's less than 150,000 Jewish people in Germany. There are more Jewish people in the city of Boston than there are in all of Germany. And as, you know, one of the folks that I spent time with, who is Jewish, put it, she said, to Germans, Jewish people are a sort of historical abstraction. They are a empty canvas upon which German people can paint their contrition. And that was really helpful for me because she said it's easy for Germans to build memorials and monuments to Jewish people. It is easy for them to, you know, multiple days a year, lay a wreath down and say how sorry they were and how wrong the Holocaust was and how terrible what happened was, in part because Jewish people are more of an idea than an actual group of people. And that, I think, allows for a different engagement with memory and, I think, allows for a different engagement with the past that's very different than what it looks like here in the United States in the context of Black Americans.

DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We're going to take another break here. We are speaking with Clint Smith. He is a staff writer for The Atlantic. His cover story about how Germany has commemorated the Holocaust is titled "Monuments To The Unthinkable." We'll talk more after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WESTERLIES' "PLEASE KEEP THAT TRAIN AWAY FROM MY DOOR")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Clint Smith. He's a staff writer for The Atlantic. His new cover story about how Germany has commemorated the Holocaust is titled "Monuments To The Unthinkable."

We noted that it was decades before many of the large public monuments were established to commemorate the Holocaust. An exception is the concentration camps themselves, particularly Dachau, which was, I think, in the East German side of the country that - which was controlled by the Soviets after the war in the partition. Tell us about Dachau, what it's like. You visited there. Tell us about your experience.

SMITH: It's a haunting, sort of overwhelming place. I've been to many places that carry a history of death, of murder. I've stood on plantations. I've stood in execution chambers. I've stood on death row. I've sat in the chair that has executed people. But I have never experienced the feeling in my body that I felt when I walked through the gas chamber in Dachau. It was unsettling in a way that I've - I don't even necessarily have the words for. I mean, part of what you see when you go there is the process of mechanized, industrialized slaughter that people across Europe, you know, Jewish people across Europe and others across Europe, other groups of people who were persecuted by the Nazis were subjected to.

You walk through the room where people were forced to take off their clothes and told that they were going to take a shower. You walk into the room that they stood in where they waited before the, quote-unquote, "shower." You walk into the chamber itself, where you look up at, you know, this low ceiling that you can touch with your hands, and you see the holes from which the gas would emerge. And then, you go into the next room. And, you know, this is where the bodies were dragged - and then the next room, where the crematorium is, where the bodies were burned. And then, you know, 500 feet away is where those - the remnants of those bodies were buried.

And, you know, it's a sort of single building where all of this is happening. And, again, you - walking through the space yourself, you just - it is impossible not to imagine the fear that the people who would have been forced to experience this would have been carrying. It's sort of a torture that I can't fathom. And it's something that will stay in my body, I think, for a long time.

DAVIES: You know, one of the things that struck me about this issue is that, you know, military service itself creates very intense bonds among those who experience it. I mean, you talked - you know, many veterans of the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan might speak very, very cynically about the politicians and generals and the motives for the war, but will have this intense devotion to other soldiers in their unit and will stay in touch and, you know, remember their experience forever. Were there any monuments in Germany to German generals and soldiers in World War II? Did they come up, too?

SMITH: I didn't encounter any of those. And to the extent that I'm aware, I don't think that there are any monuments or statues that are built to - you know, of Nazi soldiers. I - it's almost something that is unfathomable in Germany, that you would have statues of Hitler or statues of some of the other Nazi and SS leaders. It's something that runs counter to any notion of justice, of memory, of honesty that that country engages in. And so no.

And that's part of what led me to Germany, was that I - you know, I grew up in this city surrounded by Confederate iconography. I mean, I rode my bike past a statue of Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard almost every day. And I was like, how did this happen here? Like, how do we allow statues that have been erected to commemorate people who fought a war sort of singularly predicated on maintaining and expanding the institution of slavery, to be put up in a city not - you know, not just New Orleans, but in the context of my city, a majority Black city, where the people who - the majority of people who live in that city are the descendants of those who are, erected on 64 statues - were trying to keep enslaved.

I mean, the sort of cognitive dissonance of it was - became overwhelming. And one of the reasons I went to Germany was to try to understand how Germany has prevented something like that from happening. Or what is it that prevents something similar from happening in Germany?

DAVIES: I want to talk a little bit more about your work in the United States, looking at how slavery is remembered in public landmarks and monuments. And in the United States, one of the things you see in the South is there are a lot of restored plantations that offer tours. Historically, they've focused on the grandeur of the big house and a life of leisure for the plantation owners. And slavery was, you know, downplayed or, in some cases, portrayed as a benevolent institution. I think that's - I'm sure that's changing in some ways now. But you visited a plantation outside New Orleans, the Whitney Plantation, which was a real working plantation. But it has been restored as a museum to tell the story of enslaved people. Just tell us a bit about how it's done - some of its features.

SMITH: So the Whitney Plantation is a really unique space, in part because it is surrounded by a constellation of plantations where people continue to hold weddings and formal parties and debutante balls, where some of the former slave cabins are used as bridal suites for some of these weddings. And the Whitney is a historical site that fundamentally rejects the idea that a plantation can be understood as anything other than an intergenerational site of torture and exploitation. And so it engages the space and engages itself in that way. It understands itself to have been a site of torture and understands the people who were subjected to that torture were people and that their stories need to be told if we're going to understand the human implications of that suffering, of that terror.

And so it tells the story of slavery from the perspective of enslaved people. And it, you know, has a lot of people who work there who are the descendants, the direct descendants, of people who were once enslaved at that very plantation. And so they take a lot of care and a lot of thought in their curatorial process. And I think all the time about a moment where I was standing in one of the original slave cabins that they have on the land. And I remember stepping inside, and you can sort of hear the wood moan under your feet and you can see the sunlight sneak in through the cracks in the roof. And I stood there, and I tried to imagine what it would be like if one day, I put my children to sleep - I have a 5-year-old, a 3-year-old - if I put my kids to bed, and then I woke up the next day and my children were gone. And I had no idea where they went. I had no idea who had taken them. I had no idea if I would ever see them again. And then you have this moment in this cabin where you realize that this is the omnipresent threat that millions of enslaved people lived under every single day of their lives over the course of generations, that at any moment, you can be separated from your child, from your husband, from your wife, from your parents, from your siblings, from your loved ones.

And it's so overwhelming and unfathomable to consider, but it's something that has a different level of resonance when you are standing in the place where that history happened and standing in the place where enslaved people lived. And this is why I feel so strongly about, both for myself and I think for others, like, putting your body in the place where history happened because it gives you a different sense of the stakes. It gives you a different sense of your own proximity to that history.

DAVIES: This museum was established by a wealthy white man from Virginia that you spoke to, and they're gradually building the attendance. They hope to be - it's in the tens of thousands every year now. But, you know, I'm struck by the fact that, you know, in Berlin, you have this massive monument to the Holocaust, which is right in the middle of downtown. The Whitney Plantation is an hour outside of New Orleans. So it seems we have a way to go in this country before we prominently, you know, build monuments to the suffering and injustice of slavery.

SMITH: Yeah, I think that's true. And in some ways, I think that a more interesting or more helpful parallel is, you know, the concentration camps in Germany. You know - and that is - I want to be clear, you know, for listeners that I am not saying that a concentration camp and - you know, or a death camp in Germany is the same thing as a plantation in the United States. They are - in the same way that I'm not - I would never suggest that the Holocaust and chattel slavery in the United States were the same thing. What I think is helpful is not to conflate these two things or not to suggest they are the same, but to put them in conversation with one another so that we can learn about them, so that I can think about what it means that, you know, Angola prison in Louisiana, the largest maximum security prison in the country where, you know, 75% of the people held there are Black men and 70% of them are serving life sentences - what does it mean that that is built on top of a former plantation?

And I always remember my trip to Dachau and standing in Dachau and seeing this sort of vast expanse of gray land. Look to your left - you see the remnants of the crematorium. You look to your right - you see the remnants of the barracks. And I close my eyes and I imagine what it would be like if on that land, they built a prison. And in that prison, the vast majority of the people held there were Jewish. And I couldn't even finish the thought exercise 'cause it was so viscerally upsetting. It was so absurd. It would be such a horrific, inexcusable manifestation of antisemitism. And yet here in the United States, the largest maximum security prison in the country in which the vast majority of people are Black men serving life sentences, many of whom work in fields, picking crops for pennies on the hour - what does it mean that that place is built on top of a former plantation? You know, and the failure of American memory around chattel slavery allows a place like Angola to exist in a way that a more direct confrontation with memory in Germany would never allow a similar space in Germany to exist in the same way.

DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Clint Smith. He's a staff writer for The Atlantic. His story about how Germany has commemorated the Holocaust is titled "Monuments To The Unthinkable." We'll continue our conversation after this break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GILAD HEKSELMAN'S "DO RE MI FA SOL")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Clint Smith. He's a staff writer for The Atlantic. His new cover story explores the ways that Germany has commemorated the Holocaust in public monuments and museums. The story is titled "Monuments To The Unthinkable."

What efforts have there been to create major memorials to slavery in the United States?

SMITH: So what's true is that there is no national memorial or monument to enslaved people in the sense that there is not a state-sanctioned project that is the sort of official memorial or museum to slavery or to the end of slavery. The National Museum of African American History and Culture is probably what comes close, you know? The first floor or the sort of basement floor of that museum is largely dedicated to outlining the experience of enslaved people. And it's deeply important. And I find that part of the museum incredibly moving.

DAVIES: Do you have an opinion about whether the United States should have, you know, a national museum or monument to slavery or some other commemoration?

SMITH: I do think it is important that there is a space that is singularly dedicated to outlining, in as specific and intentional detail as possible, what slavery was and what had to happen for it to end. I mean, slavery existed in this country - or the British colonies that would become this country - for almost 250 years and has only not existed for, you know, a little over 150. So you have an institution that existed for almost a century longer than it hasn't, an institution that was so economically, socially, politically entrenched in the founding of this country.

And for me, it seems necessary that we have a space that outlines what this institution and its history was, and also a space that celebrates the end of that institution and how - what was necessary in order to end one of the worst things that this country has ever done. So yes, I do think that we still need an additional space with which to do that.

DAVIES: You know, the final paragraph of your story, I think, summarizes well the value of and the limitations of this kind of commemoration. I wonder if you could read it for us.

SMITH: I'd be happy to. (Reading) None of these projects, whether in the U.S. or Germany, can ever be commensurate with the history they are tasked with remembering. It is impossible for any memorial to slavery to capture its full horror, or for any memorial to the Holocaust to express the full humanity of the victims. No stone in the ground can make up for a life. No museum can bring back millions of people. It cannot be done. And yet, we must try to honor those lives and to account for this history as best we can. It is the very act of attempting to remember that becomes the most powerful memorial of all.

DAVIES: Clint Smith, thank you so much for your work. And thanks for speaking with us.

SMITH: Thank you so much for having me.

DAVIES: Clint Smith is a staff writer for The Atlantic. His cover story about how Germany has commemorated the Holocaust is "Monuments To The Unthinkable." His bestselling book about historic sites in the U.S. that deal with slavery, "How The Word Is Passed," comes out in paperback at the end of this month. If you'd like to catch up on interviews you've missed - like our conversation with James Gray, who wrote and directed the new film "Armageddon Time," or with Filipina journalist Maria Ressa, who won the Nobel Peace Prize - check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.

(SOUNDBITE OF PATRICK ZIMMERLI, BRAD MEHLDAU AND KEVIN HAYS' "EXCERPT FROM STRING QUARTET NO. 5")

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF PATRICK ZIMMERLI, BRAD MEHLDAU AND KEVIN HAYS' "EXCERPT FROM STRING QUARTET NO. 5") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: December 9, 2022 at 12:00 AM EST
In this interview, Dave Davies incorrectly states in a question that the Dachau concentration camp was in the Soviet occupation zone after World War II. The camp was in the Allied-occupied zone.
Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.