Can German Atonement Teach America to Finally Face Slavery?

While living abroad I was struck by how Germans confront the darkest parts of their past—they even have a word for the process. When I learned about my American family’s slave-owning history, I wondered, ‘Shouldn’t we?’

Can German Atonement Teach America to Finally Face Slavery?

When I arrived in Florida, my grandpa picked me up in a new Cadillac that he had, according to my mother, bought with money from a reverse mortgage to impress a gold digger named Michelle. He drove me across Fort Lauderdale to a neighborhood of tract houses framed by shaggy palm trees. His house was a thin-walled 1950s ranch with interior design by Honey, his second wife — white leather sofas, silver-on-black bamboo-print wallpaper, vases of silk orchids — all neglected in the years since her death. The wallpaper was peeling at the edges, and wood was splintering off the cabinets. My grandpa gestured to a sideboard displaying dust-coated porcelain figurines of cats and shepherdesses. “Honey collected a lot of Trotskys,” he said. I was baffled until I realized he meant tchotchkes. The only mark of his presence in the house was a bookcase of opera DVDs and books by Ann Coulter and Glenn Beck.

He was my only living grandparent, almost ninety years old, and was, I had heard, in poor health of a grave but unspecified nature. I planned to spend my visit recording interviews with him. When this idea came to me on a gray November day in Berlin, where I had moved almost a decade ago, I’d imagined sitting with him beside his backyard pool among lush tropical plants. I’d imagined he would tell me stories about his life and our family history and the ways the world had changed since he was young. I thought I would love it if someone came along in my old age to record my stories: by coming to Florida I was escaping the Berlin winter while also doing a good deed.

It was difficult to get my grandpa outdoors. As a person who lived in a cold climate, I wanted to absorb all the sunlight I could; as a person who lived in a tropical climate, he wanted to stay in the air conditioning. When I pried through all the blinds and locks to get to the backyard, I found a twig-choked pool surrounded by poured concrete, not a tropical plant in sight. He explained that he’d had the pool area redone for the property value, but now the property value didn’t matter anyway on account of his reverse mortgage.

Because he had mentioned his love of Dunkin’ Donuts, I got him breakfast sandwiches from there the next morning and spread them on the poolside table to lure him outdoors. He ate only the meat and cheese, telling me he was on a low-carb diet to lose weight for Michelle. “That one’s a real pussycat,” he said. “She’s what you’d call high-maintenance.” She had vanished recently, he said. He’d heard it was another DUI but he’d called all the jails in the county and hadn’t found her.

At the start of the interview he told me he had coined the word motel. He’d been working for a Miami hotel chain after the war, and when his boss had explained the new concept of a roadside hotel, the word appeared in his mind fully formed, just like that. I pushed for more details but he seemed unable to stick with his own experiences for more than a few sentences. He kept veering off into rants about Benghazi and Obama. I asked about his family history. “We’re descended from King Edmund I circa the year 800, who was a real bastard,” he said.

“And the family came to Ohio from England?”

“Oh, no,” he said. “I myself am a Buckeye, but my parents moved to Ohio from Ole Virginny.”

“And what did your family do in Virginia?”

“Farming,” he said.

“For how long?”

“Hundreds of years. Since the earliest days of the colony.”

“Was it a big farm?”

“There were two plantations,” he said. “Really big ones.”

“Like slave plantations?” I took a horrified sip of my sickly-sweet coffee. I had accidentally ordered it “regular,” forgetting that “regular” meant with sugar.

“Loads of slaves, loads of ’em,” he said, untroubled if not downright proud.

At the time that I began to interview my grandfather, I had been living in Germany for the better part of a decade. I worked in a German office and spoke more German than English in my daily life. Trips back to the States showed me how German my habits had become. So when my grandpa mentioned his own grandparents’ slaves, my mind turned to Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung, a concept that permeates daily life in Germany. The word is notoriously difficult to translate — the English translators at my job bickered about whether to render it as “unearthing and confronting the past,” “coming to terms with the past” or “reappraisal of the past.” The problem with all these translations is that they imply an endpoint, but Aufarbeitung has no closure. It’s supposed to be a ceaseless process of digging up the most uncomfortable parts of history — your country’s and your family’s — and grappling with what the actions of past generations mean for the present.

In Berlin I lived in a cityscape of Aufarbeitung. I saw the collective, institutional side of this process in the ongoing scrutiny of public statues and street names, the markers at the sites of atrocities, and the brass-plated stones embedded in the sidewalk outside my apartment building that listed all the Holocaust victims who’d once lived there. I saw the individual side of it in the lives of my German friends who’d spent a gap year volunteering at hospitals in Israel, who studied Yiddish in a spirit of preserving the endangered language of a culture their great-grandparents sought to annihilate, or whose relatives read their Stasi files and confronted the neighbors who’d informed on them to the East German police.

The longer I lived in Germany, the more steeped I became in this attitude toward the past, and the stranger the scarcity of visible markers of slavery and the genocide of Native Americans seemed on my visits back to the U.S. I understood that the two countries’ histories have different timeframes, different geographies, different varieties of wrongdoing, but some of the broader lessons of Aufarbeitung — that individuals and societies can improve themselves morally by struggling against the human urge to look away from the sins of the past, or that atonement is a process that instills a sense of responsibility for the past rather than an action that starts from that sense — felt strikingly absent in America.

Though it was early in the morning, the heat began to bother my grandpa, and he ended the interview to go watch TV inside. My grandpa’s language bore the heavy mark of Fox News, but I never saw him watch it. Instead he watched opera DVDs. He showed me a DVD of his favorite soprano, Anna Netrebko, singing Dein ist mein ganzes Herz at the Waldbühne. “This should remind you of home,” he said, and I wondered if he’d forgotten that I was not an actual German. In a long sparkling red gown, with her black hair and pale skin, Netrebko looked like an operatic Snow White. “That one’s a real pussycat,” he said. I couldn’t pay attention to the opera; my mind wandered to his ancestral plantation in Virginia. I felt that this revelation had opened up a process of historical Aufarbeitung, and the only responsible option was for me to pursue the topic despite my discomfort.

At the next interview, he unrolled on the kitchen table a family tree that he had ordered from a historian forty years earlier. It was hand-lettered in elaborate calligraphy. The part deep in the tree’s roots that showed King Edmund I was separated from the rest by a drawing of a cloud, as if to signal the speculative nature of the connection. But the part at the top that stretched back from my grandpa to the plantation was all solid lines. The Virginia portion of the tree spanned hundreds of years. The space it covered was far greater than the distance of my generational remove from it. I counted up the stacked calligraphy boxes from the end of the Civil War to my grandfather — three generations. Five for me.

“And when your parents moved from Virginia to Ohio, they sold the plantation land?” I asked. “Of course,” he said. Yes, they’d used that money to buy new land in Ohio. Yes, he’d sold the Ohio land when they died. I wondered how much of that money had trickled down to me. I tried to remember if he’d ever sent me checks at college or for Christmas, or ever given a large sum to my mother.

But this line of questioning seemed to strike my grandpa as irritating and pointless. His finger lingered at the top of the tree, where his children’s names nestled in boxes sprouting from his own. There was my mother, then Steven, the older of his and Honey’s two sons, and Doug, the younger son. All of them had birth dates without death dates.

“Had this done up before Stevie died,” my grandpa said. “Wouldn’t have done it if it were after.” Steven died as a teenager, before I was born. He hit his head doing daredevil tricks while he was waterskiing with his buddies. My grandpa stared down at the box with Steven’s name and birth year. I wondered if he was considering writing in the death year. “Enough of this history business,” he said, and rolled the scroll up. “Let’s go out to the Everglades and see some gators.”

In the car we passed the Ammo Depot, the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, and an establishment with two people pacing in front of it in the hot sun holding CASH FOR GOLD signs. I wondered if it mattered much anyway whether I’d received any proceeds of my own family’s plantation, given that I’d benefited from slavery in a broader sense regardless — this money was everywhere in my country, it was built into everything. Then we drove past a pavilion with a vast parking lot. “That there is South Florida’s largest flea market,” my grandpa said. “Honey used to sell ferns there when she was going crazy after Stevie died.”

The alligator farm lay behind a state prison with layer upon layer of metal fencing interspersed with swampy moats, each fence topped with hay bale-sized loops of barbed wire. We stayed only briefly because the heat bothered my grandpa. He insisted on paying for the tickets, which cost twenty dollars each. I feared I was becoming a financial burden on him. He constantly took me out to nautically themed restaurants serving gigantic portions of breaded fish because “you don’t eat grocery store food on vacation.” He was relentlessly generous, an excellent tipper at all the restaurants, and never let me pay for anything. He hinted that he’d run through most of the money from the reverse mortgage, which he’d only gotten this year. The math didn’t make sense. The Cadillac had cost maybe a third of what he’d gotten. Could he really have already blown the rest on steak dinners for Michelle?

On the way back from the alligator farm I insisted that we take the old Highway 1 up through Miami because I thought it would have interesting historical sights, though my grandfather objected that you don’t take an old road when a new road exists. We passed Haitian restaurants and a behemoth sports stadium and 1950s motels whose names were written in neon cursive on jaunty triangular signs. He was uncharacteristically silent along the drive.

When we arrived back at his subdivision, he said, “That was the first time in forty years I’ve been on that road.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Goes past the hospital where Stevie died,” he said, and I felt horrible. I had conjured far more than I meant to with my clumsy questions. The only difficult history I had considered was political history. The only person I’d envisioned grappling with the darkness of the past was myself. I’d treated my grandfather as just a source of information, forgetting there were reasons other than ancestral guilt to avoid thinking about the past.

While he napped in front of an opera, I Googled the names I’d jotted down from the family tree. I had thought it would be hard to find information, but within a few minutes I had photographs and maps of two plantations connected to my grandpa’s surname. In the 1860 United States Census Slave Schedules for Halifax County, Virginia, I scrolled down to his name to find a John R. with 140 slaves, a Sterling E. with 52 slaves, and a Thos with 32 slaves. The census had preserved his ancestors by first, middle and last name while recording the people they owned only as numbers. What could I do with this knowledge? What came next? I found myself thinking about these questions in German. I had no vocabulary for them in English, and no answers in any language.

My grandpa announced that he’d had enough of my interviews, and that I had to stop. I agreed, but got him to concede in exchange that I could buy us groceries and cook instead of him taking me to restaurants. I usually made hamburgers. He appreciated that they were low-carb, but thought it was old-fashioned to shape ground beef into patties myself. “You want hamburgers, you buy meat in the shape of hamburgers. You want meatballs, you buy meat in the shape of meatballs. It’s all right there in the freezer section.” For our last meal together I also bought individual key lime pies. This, at last, truly delighted him. He even made an exception to his low-carb diet. As he was savoring his pie, he leaned in across the table and said he had a secret to divulge, but I couldn’t tell anyone else in the family. He had made an investment on an insider tip, six figures, and when the money came in it was going to be very big. I wouldn’t believe how big. He’d be flying the whole family down on a private jet. We’d be VIPs. I wanted to ask what it was, but held my tongue because I’d agreed to stop beleaguering him with questions.

My mother and siblings had never heard anything about my grandpa’s slave-owning ancestors. At Christmas I told them that the Fort Lauderdale house came from money from an Ohio farm that came from money from Virginia plantations that came from the toil of slaves in the tobacco fields. They initially responded with snarky comments about Fox News and Republicans — when it came to anything political, they experienced my grandpa across the red-blue partisan divide that I had become somewhat detached from by living so far away for so long. Of course grandpa would just talk about slavery as if it weren’t a bad thing; they said grandpa says all sorts of awful things. I tried to argue that the issue wasn’t how he had told me about it, the issue was that it had happened, and the question was what we were going to do.

“What’s there for us to do about something that happened hundreds of years ago that grandpa’s talking about in an offensive way that he already knows we don’t agree with?” they asked. I felt stumped by this question, and realized I had been foolishly assuming my grandpa’s revelation had the same implications of Aufarbeitung for them that it did for me, though of course it didn’t. I had a keen sense of a failure of translation.

I thought of my friend Sandra in Berlin, who spent a year cleaning and cooking at a kibbutz nursing home outside Haifa that had been built with reparations money from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. When Sandra decided to volunteer there, she felt that the initial structural and collective work of confronting the Nazi past — recognizing the need for reparations, changing the way history was taught in schools, overhauling forms of public commemoration — had already been done by earlier generations. The more private, quiet form of atonement she chose, she said, was what was left to be done. My situation is different from Sandra’s: The history I’m grappling with began much further in the past, yet America’s process of facing it is still at a much earlier stage. My position was more like that of her parents’ generation, who’d struggled in the 1960s and ’70s to draw their country’s attention to its past wrongdoing. I can’t just transpose to America what I’ve seen in Berlin, can’t translate Aufarbeitung literally, but I can carry it with me to urge the collective reckoning with the past that I believe my country is only beginning, just as I carry the knowledge of my family’s ugly inheritance.