Coming to Terms with the Past: An American German Student in Berlin

At the Reichstag Building.

Kate Greer

History and German, Class of 2020

I started learning German when I was twelve years old, and when I was sixteen, I decided I wanted to study the language for the rest of my life. Sincerely learning a language, however, means learning another culture and history as well, and while every country has its attributes it would rather forget, Germany’s struggle to come to terms with its past has always been prominent for me.

I traveled to Germany for the first time in 2014 to attend school as an American exchange student. Before my first day, my host sister was careful to explain to me that I shouldn’t talk about World War II unless it was brought up in history class. I was also not to stick my index finger under my nose in reference to a moustache, because it reminded people of Hitler. Even saying the word “Jewish” made people feel uncomfortable. I fell in love with other parts of German culture as the weeks rolled on, such as efficient public transportation, universal appreciation for art, and determination to care for the environment. But no matter how many delicious German meals I ate or World Cup games the German soccer team won, I continued to notice the inherited guilt that overcame my German friends whenever a darker part of their history was brought up. Back in America, I got serious about German Studies, and I read more and more about the anti-Semitism fostered in German culture, art, and media during the early 20th century. I discovered that Hitler did not begin anti-Semitism in Germany; he simply encouraged people to act on their deeply-rooted beliefs. I learned about the Holocaust from the perspective of the German people during and after the war, when they realized what had happened. I began to understand what the culture I had fallen in love with had, at one time, been capable of.

Walking along a remaining portion of the Berlin Wall.

Even though I have been studying German language and culture for eight years, I had never been to Berlin until this year. I had read books, watched movies, seen photos, and done projects all about Berlin, but actually traveling to the German capital city, as an American German student, was one of the most profound experiences I had on this trip. Although Berlin played an important role in many historical periods, our group was there to learn about World War II through German eyes, so we went to sites such as the German Historical Museum, the German Resistance Memorial Center, the Topography of Terror, the Wannsee House, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the German-Russian Museum, and Cecilienhof Palace to get a better idea of this.

Experiencing the sobering Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

All of these museums laid out the events of the war as they occurred, explaining Hitler’s ascent to power, the German takeover of Europe, and the Holocaust. In the German Historical Museum, the Jewish people were given their own section of an exhibit with the same sculpture of a crematorium full of murdered people that we saw at Auschwitz. In the German Resistance Memorial Center, one placard informed guests that the members of the resistance movements were the vast minority of citizens at the time; almost all other Germans were okay with Hitler’s accumulation of limitless power. The Topography of Terror also detailed ways in which Germans would terrorize each other in a struggle to stay on top in the Third Reich. Although these recollections didn’t seem to answer why almost everyone in Germany supported the Nazis or why they stood by while their Jewish comrades were murdered, they did demonstrate honesty in the narrative of their country’s brutal history, which wasn’t always the case in France or Poland.

A building full of bullet holes from the Battle of Berlin.

As an American German student, I am proud of my second home country for being determined to tell their nation’s history, no matter how difficult and shameful it is. As an American history student, I can see that they still have a long way to go in accepting the magnitude of support for policies and ideologies that almost wiped out an entire race of people. And as an American, I hope that my country can follow in Germany’s footsteps and improve the way we present our history, which is also full of bloody war, discrimination, and genocide. Coming to terms with the past and vowing to never repeat the terrible mistakes of our ancestors is a long process, but I hope that America and Germany, two countries that I love, can brave that journey towards honesty, understanding, and healing together.

Our tour guide explains the Reichtag’s decision to keep some Soviet writing on the building’s walls.

Contemporary Krakow: The War’s Legacy Through Polish Eyes

The Nazis created a narrative that Krakow was an ancient Germanic city.

Kate Greer

History and German, Class of 2020

In Poland, it is illegal to speak about the Holocaust with any implications that the “Polish nation” was complicit in the genocide of European Jews and other minorities. When our class first read about this new law at the beginning of spring semester, we joked that we would all definitely be arrested in Poland just for talking about the material we were going there to learn. None of us, however, truly realized the monstrous and deeply tragic shape the Second World War took in Poland until we read Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland. In this book, historian Jan T. Gross tells the harrowing story of a Polish town that systematically murdered its Jewish inhabitants in 1941. Through our class discussions about Neighbors and other Holocaust readings, we learned that anti-Semitism was not imported to Poland when the Germans invaded; it had been deeply rooted in Polish culture and belief for decades, and Hitler’s rhetoric simply empowered people to act on their prejudice. Everyone on the World War II trip knew we were going to Poland to see remnants of some of the worst oppression humans have ever inflicted on other humans, but none of us knew how these crimes manifested themselves in modern Polish society, especially with the new Holocaust law in place.

Listening to a site report about Poland under the occupation.

Krakow definitely surprised me for many reasons. For one, I expected the city to display much more of a Soviet influence than it did. I didn’t realize how well preserved the medieval architecture was, mostly spared by the Nazis, who believed it to be an ancient Germanic city. I also was pleasantly surprised by how well the Poles spoke English. In Krakow, I encountered a young, vibrant population who are still helping their newly democratic nation develop its national identity. Reminders of the war’s legacy were not visible throughout the city though, as they were in London and Bayeux; we had to truly seek out local perspectives in order to understand how World War II lives in Polish national memory today.

At both Auschwitz-Birkenau and the Oskar Schindler Factory, our group followed a young Polish tour guide who helped us better understand her nation’s view of the war. On the bus drive to Auschwitz, she very clearly articulated to us that the camp was a “Nazi concentration camp,” rather than a “Polish concentration camp.” During her tours, she also focused on the Poles as a group that was oppressed by the Nazis. In Auschwitz, she was careful to point out a place where a Polish Catholic priest sacrificed his life to save a Jewish stranger and told this story in detail. Her interpretation of events, combined with the passage of this new law, communicated to me that the Poles feel that they were victims too during World War II, and they want to find ways to draw national pride from this dark period of their history, instead of shame.

The medieval city center, spared from Nazi destruction.

Our tour guide also carefully instructed us on how to best be respectful of the places we were visiting. In Auschwitz, the group witnessed some truly insensitive and disgusting behavior from tourists, who were taking selfies and chatting loudly in spaces where terrible things happened. The Polish guides, however, were very serious about reflection and education in the concentration camp, and I noticed that, even though they lived close to the camp and had visited it many times, the torture, enslavement, and execution still deeply affected them.

Today, in Poland, the people still understand the atrocities that many committed on their soil, as they viciously sought the eradication of specific groups of people. Where the Poles fail to bring honesty to their national narrative, however, is exactly what the new Holocaust law addresses. After decades of tyrannical occupation under the Germans and Soviets, the country would much rather move on and rediscover their national pride than come to terms with their complicity in the violence of the past. Although modern, exciting Poland surprised me with its thriving culture, impressive architecture, and friendly citizens, there is still that dark history lingering underneath the surface, and time will only tell whether the Poles admit to their wrongdoings, like those uncovered in Neighbors, or continue with a streak of denial that risks repetition of history’s worst.