Historical Clarity, Contemporary Nuance

As a dancer, artist, and historian, Berlin is a dream city. The contemporary dance scene and famous street art in modern day Berlin is progressive, socially conscious, and internationally renowned. Her history is rich, vibrant, complicated, and well handled. As a student in both the arts and history, I take on the complicated burden of gauging Berlin’s complex and problematic history with her successes in the 21st century. My favorite dance works happening in the world right now are in Berlin, but I know they took root in the 1930s through artists who collaborated with the Nazis and cooperated with Goebbels. How, as a student in 2018, am I to make of this nuance?

Well, ultimately, no one can change the past. Berlin handles history well. From the German Heritage Museum, to the Wannsee House, to the German Resistance Museum, and all the way through to the Berlinische Galerie which I visited days after the trip, World War II was discussed in earnest. Never do curators of these historical landmarks attempt to deny, justify or glorify Germany’s perpetrator role in the war. In true German fashion, I noticed all history was told in a very matter of fact way. Facts were laid out, and audiences could choose, or not choose, to make what they will of them. Even the placement of a large Holocaust memorial, directly in city center, is a blatant acknowledgement and apology for the undeniably bleak nature of German history.

This sort of history then encouraged me to think about the way in which all the German art I love is made. It is unapologetic, narrative, and experimental. It is the work of a people who needed to start new and reconcile with their own pasts as well. The dance specifically is violent. It is unashamed to show the brutality of humankind. Artists are responsible for relaying the world around them as they see it, just as historians are meant to relay the world behind them as their modern eyes perceive it. My favorite German dance artists from Pina Bausch to Sasha Waltz all create raw work that does not indulge in their complicated roots, but there is an acknowledgement that the roots are there.  I had the opportunity to catch a few performances during my time in Berlin, including one from Sasha Waltz, and they all demonstrated the latter statement to me.

As I said, no one can change the past, it is how the past is handled that shows character. Modern Germany does the best she can with her history being one of the most vulgar in human history, and if anything that is something I can respect.

Over-Dramatic Histories

There are ghosts at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The walls of ruined gas chambers could talk, and the murky barracks creaked with moans of despair. And we listened. By this point, we all know the narrative. “In 1939 Hitler invaded Poland,” “The Holocaust was the mass slaughter of Jews, homosexuals, Roma-Sinti, Russian POWs, and other undesirables” etc. Especially for a group of students who find themselves knee deep in World War II studies for four or more months now, these things become desensitized fact.

There seems to be a gradient. When one is ignorant  about a topic, they cannot care because they know nothing about it. When one starts to learn, one starts to care more. Eventually, the student reaches the point  at which they discover that the more they learn, the more they realize they need to learn. When it comes to Holocaust studies, there is always more to learn, and more that will forever go unknown. Getting lost in this gruesome, fascinating, painful subject begins to make one numb to the horrors being presented, because you get used to and instinctively protect your psyche. This desensitization  allows the student to dive deeper into the studies, but visiting sights like Auschwitz-Birkenau are a reminder of the importance of what we are studying.

My heart was heavy in the concentration camp. My body felt as though it weighed one thousand pounds and my palms could not stop sweating. I felt pain for my comrades who have personal connections to this most horrible display of human cruelty. Whenever I felt my skin truly crawl,  as when we looked at the hair of thousands of victims, I reminded myself that at least I had an out, the victims did not. There is no greater way to forward one’s Holocaust education than by stepping on the exact path that someone else stepped to go directly to their death.

As I spoke of in my blog about Normandy, history is more than treaties and diplomacy. It is difficult to really get the humanity in history across in a classroom setting contextualized with exams and stuff classrooms. Of course, part of this discourse we are used to hearing is “the Holocaust was bad.” But do people know how bad? They can conceptualize it, but hearing the whispers of someone’s grandma in a gas chamber, someone’s mom in a women’s prison barrack, and someone’s son in the hands of Josef Megele, contextualizes it. The Holocaust is a cry against humanity, and forcing myself to put my ear right on the speaker reminded me the importance of why I study what I study, and why I have always made memorializing it an imperative.

Normandy Beaches’ Ghosts and Skeletons

On June 6th, 1944, Angelo Paradiso crossed the English Channel at twenty-one years old to fight valiantly for the Allied cause with the 90th infantry on Utah beach. On May 14th, 2018, I crossed the English Channel at twenty-one years old under very different circumstances to remember the sacrifices made by men and women of all nationalities, particularly my grandfather Angelo. When Poppy was alive he always spoke proudly of his Purple Hearts with a grave allusion to the hell he lived through in Hedgerow country and greater continental Europe. Entering Normandy with a familial American perspective prompted shock in me when I witnessed the way the French museums deal with the Second World War.  In retrospect, I should not have been shocked by the France-first perspective portraying the war as one for French liberation rather than European liberation. They suffered bombings, occupation and oppression by the Nazi regime in a way Americans cannot understand. While this doesn’t excuse their disregard for the errors of Vichy France or failures in the interwar years that lead to the fall of France, it does explain it.

What does still offend me is the Airborne museum, or as my comrades and I dubbed it “Ronald Reagan saved the world wax museum”. The historically imperative Sainte-Mère-Église turned the tragic historic events into a tourist trap complete with a tasteless model of a paratrooper hanging off of the church in town Center. The museum diminishes the horrors of D-Day to an iPad gimmick complete with games and Disney World-like 4D exhibits. I could only imagine walking away that my grandmother, Dorothy Paradiso, in a traditional Italian-American-from-New-Jersey fashion, would not stand for making a spectacle of her husband’s suffering.

There is a gross difference between memorializing and sensationalizing. To see a museum commissioned by Americans themselves sensationalizing the sacrifices made by their own people was disappointing. Tourism internationally poses the difficulty of maintaining authenticity against the economically reasonable outcome of making a culture a caricature of itself for monetary gain. In a place like Normandy particularly, this is a line that should be tread carefully.

Regardless of any nauseating experiences, it must be mentioned that visiting the Omaha and Utah beaches was a humbling experience. Angelo Paradiso died in October of 2014 at 93 years old after living a very full life and seeing many important things. Upon his death my grandma presented my sisters and I with a letter he wrote to us relaying his experiences in World War II. My historian’s brain was immediately interested, but I found that I could not separate myself from the personal connection of the situation and perceive the letter in a scholarly fashion. As an American collecting shells from beach and exploring museums and memorials, I found myself facing a similar dilemma. My time in France was an important experience for me to secure family ties rather than textbook national identities. History is more than treaties and battle strategies, it is guttural human experience. I leave for Paris, diving deeper into Europe just as Angelo did, and ponder my week in Bayeux with a lot to think about, I’m feeling pride in my family, my country, and humankind, rather than disgust at the way the French handle their history. I’m sure Angelo Paradiso would be proud of the scholarly discourse and emotional response his proud history inspired in myself and my comrades. I am left with a yearning to return to the beaches to delve even deeper into their implications, and a feeling that someday I will. As Poppy would always say “this isn’t goodbye, it’s see you later”, and I’m sure at some point in my life I will be faced with these dilemmas later on.

London Through a Comedian’s Newsreel

On my first night in London, I found myself entering an attic in Camden, The Camden Comedy Club, and laughed as a comedian made many jokes and struggled to participate as she referenced politics I didn’t understand. By entering a new nation one enters a knew political and social climate. Suddenly, jokes were centered around the Royal Wedding and Brexit rather than Donald Trump and the Mexican border. The Royal Wedding was a massive buzz everywhere from Trafalgar Square to Kensington. Brexit was whispered around with weighted connotations about future implications for the British people. And yet, what I found most interesting was that these buzz words fluttered across the City of London in a similar manner as any breaking news story would around New York City. It was dealt with in posters, with humor, and with a marked desire for commercial gain. The Royal Wedding is a national celebration of an old English tradition of monarchy as well as capitalism. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s faces were plastered all over shiny mugs and magnets ready to be sold at a kiosk anywhere and everywhere. And while Brexit has serious implications as heavy as any deal Donald Trump is currently pulling out of in the United States, the British people, in their classic British manner reminiscent of Hitler jokes during the Blitz, cope through laughter.

As I watched political history unfold and new skyscrapers rise in London, I could not help but notice a simple fact. The British are not yet over World War II. A few months ago I asked an Englishman named Christopher if I could use the name Chris, and his knee jerk response was “sure sure, anything but Adolf, right?”. It seems that thousands of air raids cannot so easily be forgotten. While I expected to experience World War II memorabilia during our time at the Churchill War Rooms or Bletchley Park, I was not expecting to experience it in everything I did during my free time. Our comedian began making jokes about Winston Churchill and his handling of Dunkirk within twenty minutes of her set. From this moment on I knew, the Second World War was still fresh in English memory. Everywhere from the Tate museum to St. Pauls’ cathedral, plaques were posted commemorating fallen soldiers, and art was on display to celebrate the British strength in World War II. It seems indisputable to assume that, whatever the current political and social climate in the United Kingdom may be, modern London is a direct product of Second World War sufferings and efforts. If a comedian can connect Churchill to a recounting of her failed blind date, then it can transcend into the functioning of modern society from Parliament down to the individual Englishman.