The social media of a student abroad has become somewhat misleading as it only shows the highlights that the student experiences. From photos of the Swiss Alps to the canals of Venice, it seems like I’m living the life of luxury, with no responsibilities to worry about. But of course, no one wants to see an Instagram post about pages of written History notes or chicken scratches of the Czech language. So in the words of Ashton Kutcher, you all have been “Punk’d”! I actually have to put the “study” in “study abroad!” Don’t get me wrong, studying here in Europe is much more exciting than any of my classes in the United States. Academic responsibilities for my program consist of many field trips, along with Czech language and history classes.
If you’ve kept up with my other blog posts, you already know a little bit about my Czech language class. I think all of my classmates can agree that it’s something we all dread. Our professor likes to push us to the point where we’re all sitting on the edge of our seats, hoping she doesn’t call on us for an answer. While the class is intimidating, I have successfully learned numbers, pronouns, restaurant dialogue, and other common phrases in Czech. It doesn’t have the beauty of Italian or Spanish, but I actually enjoy figuring out the pronunciation of Czech words. Last week my class and I gave a presentation about Nebraska to Czech students and our Czech professors. Reluctantly, I volunteered to say our introduction in Czech. Judging from their giggles and applause, I assume I did alright! Turns out I’m learning something after all!
Aside from our Czech class on Mondays and Thursdays, I also attend history lectures Monday thru Friday. Our professors, Martin and Jan, give the majority of our history lectures. Jan’s class is centered around the broad history of Europe, all the way from the Holy Roman Empire to the Velvet Revolution in 1989. He adds a special emphasis on the evolution of the Czech people and their culture. Martin’s class primarily focuses on the Holocaust and the centuries of discrimination towards the Jewish population. When I learned about WWII in high school I always wondered “why the Jews? And what possessed the Nazis to commit the worst genocide in history?” We always talked about what happened, but never why it happened. While many questions are still left unanswered, I finally understand the series of events and beliefs that eventually led to the Holocaust. What I find most interesting is how normal men and women of the Nazi regime were able to commit such horrific crimes against humanity, yet most of them were considered to be psychologically healthy. Much of it has to do with the misrepresentation of the Jews through propaganda and having authority figures with totalitarian power.
To some, these history classes may seem boring. But in Europe, we actually get to see these places where history has been made. It gives you a whole new perspective that can’t be attained in a classroom with a marker board and PowerPoint presentation. One thing that attracted me to this program was the immense amount of field trips to the historical sites of Europe. Our first field trip was a weekend trip to Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, and Dresden, Germany. In Prague, we visited the Prague castle where King Charles IV reigned as both the King of Bohemia and the Holy Roman Emperor. Dresden was remarkable to see as it was the site of a WWII bombing by the Allies. Significant buildings like the Dresden Frauenkirche church were obliterated during the bombings but were eventually restored from the debris.
Our next field trip was to Vienna, Austria and Venice, Italy. Vienna had a lot of historical significance, considering it was the center of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the home to many famous musicians. While we there, we visited one of the most prestigious art museums of Europe, containing hundreds of paintings from the renaissance period. In Venice, we visited the beautiful San Marc Cathedral and the Duke’s Palace.
Our most recent field trip was to Krakow, Poland last weekend. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I actually liked the city, despite its dark history. In 1943, the Nazis liquidated the Jewish Ghetto and thousands of Jews were transferred to the nearby concentration camp of Auschwitz where majority of them died. Our hostel was located in the Jewish ghetto, but you wouldn’t be able to tell now because we were surrounded by lively restaurants and pubs. On Saturday we visited Schindler’s Factory, which was mostly a museum explaining the events in Krakow during WWII. Last week we watched Schindler’s List in class to gain a better understanding of Oskar Schindler and his efforts to save the lives of hundreds of Jews. While it was sad learning about the history of Krakow during WWII, it was nice to experience a culture that seemed to have restored itself after its hardship. The highlight of the trip was getting to lick salt off the walls of the salt mine!
I am not looking forward to our next field trip as it will be a tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau. People say it can be emotionally draining and its something that will stick with you in your mind for a very long time. Although it will be difficult to see the aftermath of such a dark place, I believe it’s important for all to realize the horrific events that took place under the power of Adolf Hitler. I think George Santayana said it best:
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”