Abena Sekum Appiah-Ofori reflects on daily life on sites of tragedy in Virginia and Weimar.
As we took our first train ride from Frankfurt to Weimar, I was mesmerized by the beauty of Germany’s country side landscape and colorful buildings. Yet I couldn’t help but feel a little eerie about being in the same country where Hitler spearheaded horrific acts of violence against those deemed to be other. I experienced similar thoughts during my time at Weimar that lead me to question my own interaction when my own hometown in Virginia.
Weimar was such a charming city. I loved the architecture and the vibrant buildings; initially, I could imagine myself living there. However, as I learned more about the difficult history of the city, the harder it became for me to see myself living there — even in the imaginary sense. Touring the Buchenwald Memorial and learning about how during the Holocaust, the people of Weimar were able to smell Jewish people being cremated and the only thing they did was complain to the city about being inconvenienced by the scent was puzzling to me. How could you continue living life as normal when you smell the torture of you fellow humans?
I then began to question if the current citizens of Weimar could live there without constantly overthinking bout how much suffering went on in the same space that they now live at. Do Weimar citizens who are descendants of Holocaust survivors think about the suffering in the space more than those who aren’t? Or do they stray away from intentionally thinking about the suffering too much to lessen the traumas of being a descendant?
I tried putting myself in their shoes and realized that the same conundrum is present in the space I spent most of my life so far in — Orange, Virginia. Orange was home to many plantations before emancipation. Enslaved people amassed great suffering throughout the years of the plantation. Yet, going through the public school system, slavery was only spoken in the general sense. My classmates and I never learned about the specific enslaved people that were forced to prop up the economy of our county through hard and gruesome labor. This was despite the fact that most of my Black classmates had lived in Orange for generations and were most likely descendants of the enslaved people of Orange.
As an immigrant, because I only learned about slavery in the general, I only thought of it that way as well. I never connected the dots of the fact that the same land I walked on tortured enslaved people in the former plantations that surrounded me. In fact it was much easier for me to connect the dots and ocean away with Weimar and the Holocaust. Thankfully that led me to evaluate my own surroundings at home.
My time spent in Weimar made me reflect on the question: To what extent should memory of the spaces we occupy effect our day to day life? For me, it rarely phased my daily activities while living in Orange County. I would imagine something similar for Weimar citizens. But I wonder if this is fair to those who suffered in these spaces, and if it’s not what would be a better way to honor them?