Although they are all around us, monuments and memorials to historically significant events and people are typically not at the forefront of my mind. However I find that when I travel, I often notice these structures in new places and compare them to what I know.

Annie Weinberg image 300x300 - Stumbling Upon History
Author, Annie Weinberg

Over my spring break, the University of Virginia sent a group of Jewish students to Germany to learn about modern Jewish life in Berlin as well as the history of Jewish life there. I was one of the students on this trip. While observing the countless memorials and monuments to the Holocaust in Berlin, I reflected on the various structures we have here in the US, particularly those relating to the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. I began to wonder about the differences in how Germany memorializes the Holocaust and how the US memorializes the Civil Rights Movement and African American history in general. How does this impact how we introduce school-aged kids to these events?

Obviously, these two events cannot and should not be compared, however both had an impact on the past, present, and future of their respective countries. I could not help but compare Germany’s efforts to remember with our own efforts to remember here in the US.

During my travels, and through discussions with various community members, I learned that Germany is always looking for ways to remind people of the bad of which we are all capable.

In America, monuments (in my mind) are large, in heavily trafficked places, and often come with a plaque explaining whatever is being memorialized. In Germany, I saw something very different. Memorializing is intentionally made a part of everyday life in a way I have never witnessed here in the US.

One example is the stumbling stones with Holocaust victims’ names on them. These are installed into the ground on the street, often adjacent to where the people once lived or worked. They are supposed to remind Germans today that people killed in the 1930s and 1940s were also everyday citizens. The idea is that people see them walking to work, to a friend’s house, or to the store. The stones are supposed to make one stop and “stumble” upon the memory of a Holocaust victim.

Another element of memorials in Germany that I found incredibly interesting was their lack of need for constant upkeep and maintenance. As one can see from the previous example, even in places where memorials cannot be constructed, they are built into the ground. Perhaps the most obvious example is the Berlin Wall. It would be impractical and likely offensive to some to leave large stretches of the wall standing and dividing parts of Germany. However because leaders in Germany emphasize the importance of remembering these events in everyday life, they marked where the wall would have stood using unique stone patterns.

These comparisons and observations have sparked a thought in my mind. I wonder if we often are missing opportunities in the United States to explain civil rights history and any history for that matter in a way that permits citizens to “experience” history. Can we too embed memorials into everyday life in a way that non-intrusively stops us in our tracks and reminds us of our capabilities and our past? From an education viewpoint, I believe that using actual pieces of history to teach history is one of the richest experiences we can provide to students. The abundance of potential lesson plans and instructional designs one could create are exciting to me, and I would love to hear more from educators who are taking on the task of bringing history to life in the present.