The first memorials to the Holocaust were the bodies in concentration camps.
In January 1945, Soviet forces liberated Auschwitz, in southern Poland. As the German forces retreated, officers at Buchenwald, a camp in central Germany, crammed 4,480 prisoners into some 40 railcars in an effort to hide them from the Allies. They sent the train south to yet another camp: Dachau. Only a fifth of the prisoners survived the three-week journey.
When Dachau was liberated in April and American forces came upon the railcars near the camp, they found corpses packed on top of one another. Soldiers turned their heads and covered their noses as the sight and smell of the bodies washed over them. They vomited; they cried.
Dachau was about 10 miles northwest of Munich, and was the first concentration camp built by the Nazi regime. It had operated as a training center for SS guards and served as the prototype for other camps. Its prisoners were subjected to hard labor, corporal punishment, and torturous medical experiments. They were given barely any food; they died from disease and malnutrition, or they were executed. In Dachau’s 12 years of existence, approximately 41,500 people had been killed there and in its subcamps. Many were burned in the crematorium or buried, but thousands of corpses remained aboveground.
The American soldiers wondered how this could have happened. How thousands of people could have been held captive, tortured, and killed at the camp, while just outside its walls was a small town where people were going about their lives as if impervious to the depravity taking place inside. Buying groceries, playing soccer with their children, drinking coffee with their neighbors. German people, the Americans reasoned, should have to see what had been done in their name.
And so the soldiers brought a group of about 30 local officials to the camp. When they arrived on that spring day, they saw piles of bodies, mountains of rotting flesh. They also saw thousands of emaciated survivors emerging from the barracks—“walking skeletons,” as many soldiers described them, barely holding on to life. Later, American soldiers ordered farmers and local residents who were members of the Nazi party to bury some 5,000 corpses. This is how they were made to bear witness. This is how they were made to remember.
The mass burial was one of the first acts of constructing public memory in a country that has been navigating questions of how to properly remember the Holocaust ever since.
Today, Dachau is a memorial to the evil that once transpired there. Before the pandemic, almost 900,000 people visited every year from all over the world, including many German students. Visitors see the crematorium where bodies were burned, where the smell of smoldering flesh filled the air, where smoke rose through the chimney and lost itself in the sky. They are made to confront what happened, and they realize that it happened not so long ago.
Questions of public memory—specifically how people, communities, and nations should account for the crimes of their past—are deeply interesting to me. Last year I wrote a book, How the Word Is Passed, about how different historical sites across the United States reckon with or fail to reckon with their relationship to slavery. As I traveled across the country visiting these places, I found lapses and distortions that would have been shocking if they weren’t so depressingly familiar: a cemetery where the Confederate dead are revered as heroes; a maximum-security prison built on top of a former plantation, where prisoners were once tasked with building the deathbed upon which executions would take place; a former plantation where Black employees were once made to dress as enslaved people and give tours to white visitors.