As Jews observe the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we enter a period not of celebration—notwithstanding the former being known as the “Jewish New Year”—but of profound reflection. Best known as a period of prayer and repentance, it is also, and explicitly, a period of remembrance: Yom Kippur is one of only four times each year when Jews recite the Yizkor prayer, primarily for deceased parents. It concludes, more broadly, with “Av Harachamim,” the eleventh-century prayer first written after crusaders destroyed German-Jewish communities.
We will recite it this year at a time when remembrance has become complicated—especially as it involves public memorials. It is in that context that a personal story of remembrance comes to mind, for suggesting what may currently seem counterintuitive: that there is much that we miss when a historic site has no monument.
My own encounter with such a site came on a trip to Germany that my wife and I took three years ago. It was a trip inspired by a long-ago conversation with my wife’s elderly cousin Roselle Weitzenkorn, who fled Northern Saxony in 1937. When we spoke with her in the mid-1970s in her Philadelphia apartment, she was still thoroughly German in many ways—and not just in her Kissingerian accent. She was a fan of the Bismarckian social-welfare state and looked down on what she viewed as the benighted United States. Her family, composed of small shopkeepers and cattle traders not far from Hamlin, was well assimilated to German life. Indeed, a member of her own family was named on the village Great War monument for his service to the Kaiser. But once the Nazis took power, Jewish children, such as Roselle’s niece Ilsa, were separated from Christians on the school playground. Soon after, the Hitler youth massed outside Ilsa’s father’s business one evening, threatening him for having traded with Gentiles. If that was not enough to convince them to flee Germany, there was, as Roselle put it, the night “I saw Hitler speak.”
She’d provided a clue as to where she heard him by noting that she’d lived in “Emmerthal on der Weser”—the river in northern Germany. We began to look into events in that rural, agricultural part of the country with the help of German friends whom we had met in graduate school. They arranged for us to meet a Hamlin-based author and guide, Bernhardt Gelderblom, the son of a Nazi soldier who has taken it as his mission to restore desecrated Jewish cemeteries, such as those in which my wife’s family members were buried.
Gelderblom told us that, yes, just outside the municipal limits of Emmerthal—within a short walking distance—was Bückeberg Mountain. This was not just somewhere Hitler spoke; it was a place of chilling Nazi spectacle. There, in the autumns from 1934 to 1937, it was the site of Das Reichserntedankfest, the so-called Nazi harvest festival. In October, 1937, more than 1 million Germans gathered on the mountainside overlooking the river to witness military maneuvers and much more. They massed there in the countryside for a show culminating with Hitler himself striding up the Führerweg (Führer’s way) to a harvest monument. Women were said to have begged for Hitler to touch their children and to serve as their godfather. At a festival altar, he addressed the throng. “The starting point for National Socialism’s views, positions, and decisions lies neither in the individual nor in humanity,” Hitler said. “It consciously places the Volk at the center of its entire way of thinking. For it, this Volk is a phenomenon conditioned by blood in which it perceives the God-given building block of human society.”
Yet when we visited, there was not only no monument to Hitler—of course—but also no historic marker of any kind. No plaque, no explanation—nothing to indicate what had once happened there. Without our guide, we would never have noticed that there remained but one telling remnant: a still-visible path, the Führerweg, where a parade of troops and notables—and Hitler himself—had marched. Otherwise, this was a rural hillside with nothing to distinguish it.
The postwar German state does not have a uniform policy of not acknowledging the Nazi past. The party’s old rallying ground in Nuremberg has been preserved, and some of its buildings are landmarked. My point is not to criticize postwar Germany but to highlight the vacuum created when monuments are missing, or removed. It is one thing not to honor the past, but another not to mark it at all. As Americans begin the process of dismantling markers of the past that some find painful or offensive, we should keep in mind that leaving a gap in the historical record says as much about us as any statue or monument from the past.
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