It is difficult to remember every important detail from this long study tour. Covering both Warsaw and Berlin, this one-week excursion honestly felt like two weeks. Thanks to our professor, each day was packed with walking tours, museum exhibitions, local restaurants, and discussions with important and controversial figures in both Polish and German history. Throughout the entire week, we learned the entire contemporary history of both Poland and Germany and connected all the important historical and current events going on in these countries with the themes we have been discussing in our core course.
Now, I won’t go into elaborate detail because I realized that I spent almost 2 hours telling my mom about the minor details. So, I’ll emphasize the areas of the trip that impacted me the most.
On our first day in Warsaw, we traveled to the Palace of Culture and Science, once known as Stalin’s Palace during the period when Poland became a puppet state of the USSR.
While we were in Warsaw, it was quite obvious that the architecture was inspired by Communism. During World War II, Warsaw was almost completely leveled to the ground by continuous bombing. After the war, the government considered rebuilding a city elsewhere instead of rebuilding Warsaw, but that didn’t happen. The rebuilding of Warsaw is still one of Poland’s greatest triumphs.
We also had the opportunity to visit Treblinka, which was once a death camp used by the Nazis to murder over 900,000 Jews. This camp was notorious because it’s sole purpose was to be the site of mass extermination. There is nothing left of the camp except a memorial made up of hundreds of erected stones and this large monument. There is also a small museum and stone slabs placed where the train tracks might have been. Overall, this set the mood for the trip. At times, we were laughing and enjoying our time in Poland and Germany, but it was always overshadowed by the depressing aura of the Holocaust.
One of the most interesting museums we visited was the Polin museum, which tells the story of Jews in Europe since the beginning. It offers an interactive experience of Jewish history and explains how Judaism coexisted alongside Christianity and why anti-Semitism that still exists today is actually an archaic term that has been around for hundreds of years.
Our next stop was Berlin! After a seven-hour train ride through the night, which was overly romanticized by our professor, we arrived at our hotel. I think everyone in my class realized that both hotels we stayed at were chosen because of their historical location. After we ate breakfast at the hotel, our professor took us on a walking tour. After only a few minutes of walking, we arrived at the remains of Berlin’s old train station. This train station was significant, not only because it’s where thousands of Germans used to travel through, but also because it was where thousands of German Jews were deported from.
Berlin was by far one of the most beautiful cities I have visited. I loved the mix of old and new architecture and there is just so much to do and see.
One of the coolest experiences we had was visiting the Reichstag building. We even had the privilege of eating lunch on the roof. It was surreal to think that I was eating lunch on the roof of a building that, in 1945, was stormed by the Soviet Union and symbolized Russia’s victory over Nazi Germany.
During the trip, I realized that this was why I chose DIS. There is nothing better than being so passionate about history and having the opportunity to stand in places that defined so much of Poland’s and Germany’s history.
Another experience my class had was listening to the Berlin Philharmonic. I’m not a lover of orchestras, but this performance had me on the edge of my seat the entire time. I suppose this was the grand finale to our core course, and it definitely felt like it.
But I had to think twice about that statement because the next we visited the German-Russian Museum, which was one of the most, if not the most important place in World War II. On May 8, 1945, Germany surrendered to the Allied powers in this room. All the chairs and flags remain exactly where they were when it happened and miraculously the building remained untouched throughout the war.
Overall, this was a once in a lifetime experience. Never in my life did I expect to be so immersed in contemporary European history than I did last week. This past week not only enlightened my knowledge of the complexities of European (especially Polish and German history), but it also enriched my understanding of how Modern European history continues to be shaped by the past.