“And I know one thing more- that the Europe of the future cannot exist without commemorating all those, regardless of their nationality, who were killed at that time with complete contempt and hate, who were tortured to death, starved, gassed, incinerated, and hanged…”Andrezej Szczypiorski, Prisoner of the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, 1995
When the Past Feels Present
Hello, everyone! I have recently returned from a six-day academic study tour to Warsaw, Poland and Berlin, Germany with my core course- Competing Narratives: Modern European History. My blog post will focus entirely on my experience throughout those six days, but before I delve into what each day entailed, I want to discuss why this post will be vastly different from any of the posts I have written before.
A central focus of my history course at DIS is the concept of memory. How do we remember history, its tragedies and triumphs, in the scope of modern society? Warsaw and Berlin are two cities deeply connected to one another in the fabric of European history, specifically in their relationship during WWII and the Holocaust. I visited some of the most pivotal and devastating landmarks from the period of 1939-1945, such as concentration camps, army headquarters, and memorial sites, and spoke with numerous educators from various programs dedicated to historical studies.
The content of these locations and my overall study tour experience will be described under each subheading, then followed by a photo from that location in order to punctuate the transitions between each section of this blog post. Additional photos will be added to a column called “Warsaw and Berlin,” located under the “Denmark Photos” column to the right. Please keep in mind that this post will discuss several tragic and disturbing events that occurred in WWII history. I believe it is extremely important to include the facts, brutal as they may be, in order to effectively remember and properly commemorate the suffering of those affected by WWII and the Holocaust. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to visit Warsaw and Berlin, and connect with the complex histories rooted in each city by actually being where history was made.
In order to achieve some brevity in an already-lengthy post, I will not discuss every stop taken along my study tour, but instead focus on those which were most impactful or unique. Feel free to reach out to me if you’d like to hear more! I am looking forward to sharing all I have learned.
POLIN- Museum for the History of Polish Jews
Our group flight landed in Warsaw around midday on Saturday of last week, and we truly hit the ground running with a host of walking tours and historical site visits within the city. The first major stopping point for my class was POLIN- Museum for the History of Polish Jews. POLIN’s major exhibit, which includes a chronological history of the Jews in Poland, is situated underground. My class was given two hours of free time to explore at our own pace, and the lack of cellphone service was a welcome change from my usual compulsive need to check my phone.
Many of the exhibits featured lights, sounds, or video clips that were representative of the historical time periods that each section of the exhibit covered. The most thought-provoking exhibit for me personally was the history of the Warsaw ghetto during Nazi occupation of Poland in 1939. Many of the quotes etched into the walls of the exhibit were from the diaries and personal memoirs of the Jews who lived in the ghettos. Below is a photograph of one such quote that resonated with me:
The following day, my class took an hour-long bus ride outside of Warsaw to visit the Treblinka extermination camp from WWII. It is extremely difficult for me now, even days after visiting this devastating site, to understand how I stood where approximately 900,000 Jews were either shot or killed in a gas chamber. There are no structural remains of the horrors that occurred at Treblinka. Instead, stones were set in place where historians and geographers believe the train tracks and gas chamber at Treblinka once stood. Below is a photo of the stone monument that stands where the gas chamber was likely located:
Following this somber visit to Treblinka, my class reconvened at a café in Warsaw, where we spoke about the emotions we felt during our visit, and how to properly respect and remember the atrocities that occurred there. I felt that my class really began to bond from the support we provided each other at this point in the study tour.
The Overland Train
In order to get from Warsaw to Berlin, my class took a six-hour overland train between the two cities on Monday night. I was wary at first of such a long journey, especially on a train without any Wifi service or outlets for phones and computers. I’d have to do the unplug myself, and find other ways to fill the time!
Luckily, my class was all seated within the same train car. We chatted amongst ourselves and with our professor about our upcoming activities in Berlin, a city that our professor both studied and lived in for some time before moving to Copenhagen! Before we knew it, our six hour journey concluded, and we were eager to get to the hotel and begin exploring Berlin in the morning.
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
One of the first stops we made during the Berlin leg of our study tour was the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is Berlin’s own memorial for the Jews who were killed during the Holocaust. It is nearly impossible to construct a memorial that can convey the enormity of pain, suffering, and death experienced by the Jews. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe featured rows upon rows of concrete columns of varying sizes, arranged in a grid-like pattern. The architect behind the memorial chose this method of memorialization because it represents a “symbolic cemetery” of sorts. Below is a photo I took of the memorial as I walked through it:
The Berlin Wall
After visiting the memorial, my class had lunch in the glass dome at the top of the Reichstag Building! We were then given several hours of free time to explore Berlin on our own. A large group of my classmates and I decided to use this time to visit the Berlin Wall. My professor had not yet covered the topic of the Cold War in depth, but independently familiarizing myself with its history before visiting the Berlin Wall definitely enhanced my time spent there. I enjoyed seeing all of the colorful artwork that had been painted on the in-tact stretch of the segment that we visited!
Here is a photo of myself against the artfully decorated east side of the Berlin Wall.
The Opera House
As a special treat on our final night of the study tour, my class enjoyed an outing to the Berlin Opera House for a performance of “Die Zauberflöte”, in English “The Magic Flute,” with musical composition by Mozart! Both the interior and exterior of the opera house were stunningly decorated with ornate chandeliers and elegant marble carvings. Our seats were located only seven rows from the stage as well!
Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp
Our final stopping point on Thursday morning was the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, located about 40 minutes outside of Berlin. This camp served as a training headquarters for the SS (Schutzstaffel paramilitary leadership of the Nazi regime) and as a labor and extermination camp for political prisoners during WII. Unlike Treblinka, several remains of Sachsenhausen living quarters, gas chambers, and shooting pits are visible. Upon entering Sachsenhausen, the ominous phrase “Arbeit Macht Frei” translated as “work will set you free” is still carved into the iron gates at the camp entrance. Below is a photo:
The quote I selected for my introduction to this blog post was painted onto the wall outside the entrance to the gas chambers at Sachsenhausen. I read this survivor’s quote several times over before writing it down in my notebook and choosing to include it in this blog post. I think it embodies the obligation we have as citizens to remember just how many lives were lost, sacrificed, or otherwise altered by WWII and the Holocaust, and the duty we have to ensure that history like this does not ever repeat itself.
Amidst all the historical site visits and educational exhibits, I found myself continuously reshaping and expanding my knowledge of WWII history in a European context. I began to wonder how the complexities of such a tragic period still shape the lives of people in Warsaw and Berlin in the present day. I am so grateful to have had this opportunity through DIS to travel and learn in such an engaging and unforgettable way. I want to thank my parents for helping me select the Competing Narratives: Modern European History course from the catalogue, a class outside of my familiar course load of business classes. I have learned so much about the importance of studying history, and recognizing the collective impact that humans have on present society and its future generations.
Thank you all for making it to the end of this lengthy blog post! I’ll be in touch later this week with more updates on my remaining time in Copenhagen. Below are two photos of my classmates, which have become new friends of mine, enjoying our free time in Berlin!