After the conclusion of the Normandy Scholars program, I stuck around in Europe to further supplement my experience. When looking at where to spend this extra time, I tried to find places whose monuments and memorials dealt with aspects of memory that we had not gotten to on our trip. Following these criteria, I chose Krakow, Poland, and Berlin, Germany.
In Krakow, I centered my time there around a visit to Auschwitz. I felt this experience, though emotionally taxing, was fundamental to my understanding of World War Two. After taking the hour and a half journey to the camps, I was bewildered to discover how close the local village was to the camps. This reinforced a concept we had learned in class. The atrocities of the Holocaust did not happen in the dark. There were large communities of people that knew terrible things were happening and did nothing about it. Often times these facts are lost in our collective memory. My second large takeaway came from the much larger and more sinister Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. It was built with four gas chambers and crematorium and killed over 2000 people a day. I was left speechless when my guide informed us that it was built after Heinrich Himmler visited Auschwitz I, liked their work and wanted to exterminate Jews on an even more massive scale. It was this much more personal narrative of evil, something that seems to be lost when looking at the industrial scale of the Holocaust, gave me a whole new perspective on the capabilities of human corruption.
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin found a way to further these feelings. Entering the imposing Stelae of the monument is jarring. Their non-uniformity causes confusion and removes one totally from the city. Once inside the memorial, the narrative is both broad and personal. The audio guide walks you through the lives of families that serve as representatives for the millions killed. These stories, offering insight into the intimate parts of these families, brought the Holocaust down to the personal level much like the story of Himmler did at Auschwitz.
My trips to Krakow and Berlin were a perfect ending to a semester-long journey through the subject of memory. Walking away from this program, I feel that I possess a better understanding of the world and have the tools to unravel the complexities of many contemporary issues. My time was well spent, and I highly suggest anyone, whether their interests are history, economics, architecture, or physics, take this course. Their lives will be better for it.