The Weight of Memory: Berlin

In a situation as tragic and unmatched as the Holocaust, how can the land of the perpetrators hope to move forward while acknowledging and accepting their roles in this tragedy? Walking through the streets of Berlin, this question seems to be ever present as you pass by pieces of the Berlin Wall or happen upon a “stumbling stone.”

Of the many cities we have visited this semester, the subject of memory appears to weigh the heaviest on Berlin. This weight can be seen in many forms, from memorials to events to museums. In particular, however, I found the weight of memory to truly feel the heaviest at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

Located around the corner from the iconic Brandenburg Gate and within what was once the “death strip” (the space between the East and West Berlin walls), the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe sits on 4.7 acres of land. Consisting of meticulously placed unmarked gray concrete slabs of varying heights, the memorial first makes me wonder if I wandered upon a piece of modern art.

Entrance to Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe Museum.
Entrance to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe Museum.

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An Incomprehensible Site: Auschwitz

On a grey, misty Saturday morning, our bus pulled into an already full parking lot. Outside a relatively plain looking brick building, tour groups of all ages mulled around without a clear sense of purpose. Seeing signs for currency exchange and snack bars, I was reminded more of an airport terminal than a site of mass murder and evil. All of this gave me a certain added uneasiness about what I was about to walk into.

Tour groups waiting outside.
Tour groups waiting outside.

After receiving our headphones and receivers (given to us so that the guide would not have to talk very loud and limiting the disturbing of other groups) and being introduced to our guide, Szymon, we left the building and walked to the entrance of Auschwitz I.

Suddenly we were standing beneath the iconic “ARBEIT MACHT FREI” (Translation: work will set you free) sign that marks the entrance to the camp. While I stood and stared at the sign, unsure of what I thought about entering a place of such suffering, Szymon made sure to distinguish the difference between a death camp and a concentration camp.

Work will set you free.
Work will set you free.

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Poland’s Royal City: Kraków

Of the three weekend trips that we were to take as a class, I think I was the most excited for our trip to Kraków. Prior to arriving in Kraków, I had heard nothing but praise for its beauty, ceramics and history. Thankfully the city stood up for, if not surpassed, its praise making it one of my favorite cities by far.

We arrived in the Jewish district of Kraków on a rainy Friday morning, with our first stop being the Museum of Galician Jews. The museum was created by a British photojournalist, Chris Schwarz, in 2004 and its main exhibit mainly consists of photographs taken by Schwarz himself. The museum is powerful, as small traces of a Jewish past in Poland are photographed and displayed strategically in an attempt to tell a story of the joy of a culture and society that once was so rich and the now tragic remains.

Part of the exhibit in the Museum of Galician Jews.
Part of the exhibit in the Museum of Galician Jews.

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Reconciliation and Reconstruction: Dresden

When working with the memory and reconciliation of a place of destruction, there are three options for moving forward.  You can do nothing, leaving the scars to speak for themselves. You can rebuild what once was, making a replica of once stood and what will stand again. Or you can start from scratch, building something entirely new.

Walking towards Dresden's city center.
Walking towards Dresden’s city center.

The question of what should be done moving forward is especially difficult in places such as Dresden, Germany. A well connected city during World War II, it was bombed on February 13, 1945. To this day, the city struggles with its mixed identity, being both a perpetrator and a victim. Continue reading “Reconciliation and Reconstruction: Dresden”

Finding Refuge: Prague and Northern Bohemia

After two weeks of settling into Wrocław, we are back to traveling with our “Negotiating Identities” class. On this particular weekend trip we are headed southwest; first to Prague and then to Dresden.

We left Wrocław mid-morning on Thursday ecstatic to be seeing the Czech Republic that afternoon. With a few pit stops on the way, we finally made it to Prague around 5pm where we were greeted with a beautiful buffet and Krista. Krista works at the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. and was our guide in Prague for the weekend.

Following dinner and a discussion on the weekend’s program, we were set free into the night to explore Prague. Seeing Prague lit up under the night sky is truly a unique experience.

The group headed to Old Town.
The group headed to Old Town. Photo courtesy of Juliet Golden.

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