Sunday, April 24, 2011

Traveling Seminar--Second Stop: Auschwitz--Giving A Human Face To A Statistic

Although we traveled to many extremely interesting and engaging places during the course of the traveling seminar, the most compelling experience for me was our trip to Auschwitz. Having read about the Holocaust and all of the atrocities that took place at Auschwitz and other concentration camps, I was completely unsure of how I would react to standing on the sacred soil of these events. After all, one can never truly prepare themselves for the gravity of such an experience. For me, going to Auschwitz was a life-changing experience that will forever make me appreciate the life that I lead and the privileges that I far too often take for granted.

After three relaxing days in Krakow, all of the students in my program embarked on a two-hour bus ride to the town of Oświęcim, where Auschwitz is located. Although it is collectively referred to as one concentration camp, Auschwitz is actually composed of three complexes, Auschwitz I (the base camp), Auschwitz II-Birkenau (the extermination camp), and Auschwitz III-Monowitz (a labor camp). In addition to these complexes, Auschwitz also includes 45 satellite camps. During the course of our tour, my classmates and I had the opportunity to see Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau.

Upon our entry into Auschwitz I, I became aware of the weight of anxiety and fear that I would carry with me throughout the remainder of the tour and beyond. I was faced with a level of horror and tragedy that one can scarcely imagine without witnessing it first hand. Although I was surrounded by my classmates, I felt alone. From that point onward, we walked in silence, each absorbing the experience on an intensely personal level.

View of the main entrance to Auschwitz I--"Arbeit Macht Frei" (Work Makes One Free)
Above the main entrance to the camp, one can see a sign that reads "Arbeit Macht Frei" (Work Makes One Free). Flanked on both sides by towering barbed wire fences, this sign served as an overwhelmingly ironic precursor for what was to come.

Prior to becoming a concentration camp, Auschwitz I was the site of 22 prewar brick military barracks which were then turned into the blocks of the camp complex. In 1955, this complex was turned into a museum with a series of exhibitions. During the course of our tour, we were able to see all of the permanent exhibitions, specifically the exhibitions within blocks 4, 5, 6, 7, and 11, with each exhibition focusing on one aspect of Auschwitz, whether the extermination of the prisoners, the daily life of the prisoners, or the conditions in which they lived, to name a few. In addition, we saw the death block, located next to the execution wall, and the interior of the last standing gas chamber.

View of the execution wall in Auschwitz I
View of the interior of the last standing gas chamber in Auschwitz I
At Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the largest complex, we were able to see the barracks in which the prisoners lived. Seeing these conditions was extremely shocking for me.  The barracks in which they lived, along with the bath houses containing communal style restroom facilities were unsanitary to the point of being uninhabitable. Prisoners were filed into these facilities like livestock, with many suffering death solely as a result of prevalent disease and dysentery. For these prisoners, everyday was a new fight for survival. 

View of the interior of one of the prisoner barracks
A closer view of the bunk beds in one of the prisoner barracks
One of my favorites photos--portraying the contrast between the horror of prisoner life and the beauty of memorialization.
In addition, we also saw the remains of the four crematoriums located within the compound, as well as the memorial that was built to honor the victims of Auschwitz, along with all of the victims of the Holocaust. Seeing the memorial was an extremely moving experience for me. As I looked around, I saw other visitors placing flowers around the memorial in silence. There were young people, old people, students, Americans, Jews, Germans, Czechs, etc. All of these people came to Auschwitz for their own personal reasons, whether to witness an important part of history, or even to come to terms with a part of their own history. However, what they all had in common was their shared desire to memorialize the unfathomable atrocity that was the Holocaust. To me, this common purpose is extremely profound, for it brings to light the progress that humanity has made since this unforgettable tragedy.

View of the remains of one of the four crematoriums in Auschwitz II-Birkenau (following WWII, the Nazis attempted to physically destroy evidence of the concentration camps, hence the destruction of nearly all crematoriums and gas chambers at Auschwitz)
View of one of the plaques at the Auschwitz Memorial in Auschwitz II-Birkenau
Every exhibit, building, or memorial that I witnessed during the course of my time at Auschwitz added a new dimension to the overwhelming horror of the camp. Although tears were shed, I don't believe that I fully realized the gravity of what I had seen until days after the experience. Above all, I felt numb. I didn't want to believe that what I was witnessing was real. How could anyone ever commit such atrocities and still be human? What degree of hatred could ever compel one to destroy so many innocent lives? The answers to these questions, among others, will forever evade me.

After looking back at the pictures that I took at Auschwitz, I have come to realize that pictures can never fully portray the depth of emotion that was evoked within me as I walked through the gas chamber, stood within inches of the execution wall, or gazed in somber amazement at unfathomably enormous displays of human hair, prosthetic limbs, and other personal effects of the victims of Auschwitz. Seeing shoes, glasses, toys, suitcases, hairbrushes, and other personal belongings of the victims was perhaps one of the most moving moments for me while touring the camp. At the moment that I laid eyes on them, what I had once read about in books was suddenly given a frightening human quality. At that moment, I truly came to terms with the troubling reality that these victims were far more than mere statistics. Each and every victim had a story, and a life perhaps similar to my own prior to being sent to Auschwitz. These victims were unfortunate bystanders living in the wrong place at the wrong time, and they should never be forgotten.

View of a pile of eyeglasses collected from prisoners upon their arrival to Auschwitz 
View of photographs of Auschwitz victims--truly giving a human face to a statistic
Up Next: Moravia & Vienna

Na Shledanou,


Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Traveling Seminar: Krakow-Auschwitz-Moravia-Vienna--First Stop: Krakow, Poland

Hello everyone! After weeks of putting it off due to school work, I have finally found time to catch you up on my travels (apologies for the delay!). During the last week of March, the students in my program and I  embarked on a traveling seminar that would prove to be both a fun and educational experience. Prior to the seminar, I wasn't sure what to think about the experience. After all, Poland has never exactly been on the top of my list of must-see spring break destinations, but these doubts quickly faded upon our arrival in Krakow.

After quickly realizing that getting my tan on at a beach would not be an option, I decided to just go with the flow, even if that flow involved copious amounts of pierogi (Polish dumplings), endless hours of looking at lively communist-style architecture (sarcasm), and enduring the occasional, but far too frequent, torrential downpour. And of course I managed to look extra touristy with my camera permanently attached to one wrist, and a map that looked as though it had survived a war in the other hand (trust me people, being a master navigator is no joke). Oh and no worries, I've completely given up on gaining enough sun exposure to achieve any other skin tone than pale. Rather than acknowledging my paleness, I choose to live in a perpetual state of denial in which I blame my "glowing" complexion in pictures on a camera"flash defect."

Aside from the less than ideal weather during our stay, I found Krakow to be a picturesque and engaging city, to say the least. From the beautiful Wawel Castle to the historic Main Market Square, which is the second largest public square in Europe behind the Piazza San Marco Square in Venice, Italy, the city of Krakow never ceased to impress me. Even with my relatively limited knowledge of European history, I was able to appreciate the overwhelming beauty of the city. Oh, and did I mention that I may have hit up some, maybe all, of the local food stands? Well, I did. I know you're all shocked. :)

Here are some photos from my trip to Krakow. Enjoy!

The Main Market Square in Krakow

A flower stand in the Main Market Square

Saint Mary's Basilica in the Main Market Square (clearly, it's an extremely large square)

Wawel Castle at poor photography skills really don't do it justice. :(

Me looking pale and awkward by the Vistula River in Krakow (typical)

The Schindler Factory Museum (as in Schindler's List)

Up next: A recap of my trip to Auschwitz, followed by recaps of my trips to Moravia and Vienna

Na zdraví! (cheers!)


Sunday, March 13, 2011

My Weekend in the City of Lights!!!

The story of my trip to Paris can be summed up in two words: exceeded expectations. Like any other tourist, I went to Paris unsure of what to expect. I had heard it all, "The City of Lights," "The City of Love," and "The City of Illumination,"but I still had my doubts as to whether a city could live up to all of these tremendous names. I mean I don't know about any of you, but the sight of a lightbulb doesn't exactly make me swoon, but nonetheless, I came into the trip with an open mind and an already well-established love of pastries (I was obviously born to be Parisian). With that said, I can say without a doubt that Paris lived up to every expectation I could have ever had for it. The city is magnificent in every way possible, from the majestic and infinite lights, to the breathtaking skyline, and the rich history (just to name a few).

After living in Prague for the past two months, I had nearly forgotten that the sun still exists (sunlight is a rare luxury here), but there was certainly no shortage of Vitamin D in Paris. Unfortunately, my three glorious days in the sun still didn't do much to help my frightening paleness (sigh), but on a higher note, I still saw some extraordinary sights, and in true character, tried some fantastic food. Oh, and did I mention that I singlehandedly navigated myself and my travel group around the city?! You heard me. It turns out that I can read a map after all.

Here are some of my pictures from the trip. I had a rather difficult time picking my favorites from the 300 pictures that I took over the course of the trip, but I finally narrowed it down to these. Enjoy!

Me "touching" the top of the glass pyramid in front of the Louvre
The Tuileries Gardens
The Tuileries Gardens
Me in front of the Arc du Triomphe
Me in front of the Sacré-Cœur (Sacred Heart) Basilica
Me on top of the Eiffel Tower
The Eiffel Tower at night (stunning!)
The Seine River at sunset (equally stunning!)
The Sainte-Chapelle Chapel
The Sainte-Chapelle Chapel
The Sainte-Chapelle Chapel (clearly I'm obsessed with these windows...breathtaking!)
My croque-madame sandwich...delicious!
Vincent Van Gogh and me hanging out at the Musée d' big deal. :)
One of the 30 pictures that I took of desserts over the course of the trip. Typical!
À bientôt (Bye for now),


Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Lidice: Emotion Speaks Louder Than Words

This past Friday, the students in my program and I had the opportunity to travel to Lidice. Lidice is a small village in the Czech Republic that was completely destroyed by German Nazi forces in reprisal for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich (a high-ranking Nazi official). On June 10, 1942 in Lidice, every man over the age of 15 was murdered on the spot, and women and children were sent to Nazi concentration camps where nearly all of them were killed. Even the bodies buried in the cemetery were dug up. Upon their departure, the Nazis burned the entire village to the ground as a final act of hatred. This event brought significant international attention to the atrocities being committed by the Nazi regime throughout Europe. 

During the first part of the trip, we toured the museum located on the grounds of the former village of Lidice. Although the museum had several artifacts from the village on display, what I found most compelling were the images. As I scanned the images on the wall, I saw families posing in front of their homes, children playing in the creek, women cooking together, and men at work as blacksmiths, carpenters, and butchers. The village of Lidice was just an ordinary Czech village prior to the Nazi massacre. Seeing these pictures led me to realize how truly arbitrary and sadistic this act of violence was. It is realizations like this one that often cause me to question my faith in humanity.

However, it is pertinent to remember that for every aggressor, there exists an innocent victim, and during the second part of our trip, we were given the unique opportunity to meet a rare survivor of the massacre. Jaroslava Skleničková, the woman that we met, was 16 at the time of the massacre, and was thus classified as an adult by the Nazis, although she was the youngest of the women of Lidice. Along with her mother and sister, she was sent to Ravensbrück, a concentration camp located in northern Germany. It was not until three years later when she was released from the camp that she would discover the devastation that had occurred in Lidice three years prior. She continues to live in the new village of Lidice located next to the site where the old village once stood. One of the most compelling moments during the question and answer session was when one of the students in my program asked why she had chosen to come back to Lidice after everything that she had experienced there. With tears in her eyes and an expression of pride on her face, she responded (English translation),"Because I will forever be proud to be Czech."

Due to the fact that she spoke no english, our questions for her, and her responses for us were translated. Watching her speak was so moving for me. It was perhaps the first time in my life that I realized that language is not always the most powerful means of communication. Rather, sentiment has no language barrier. It is a universal language in itself. Although her words were meaningful, her emotional expressions conveyed more than words ever could. It was a truly unforgettable experience.

Here are some pictures of Lidice:

The Lidice Children's Memorial

The Sign of the Lidice Museum

A view overlooking where the former Lidice once stood

Best Regards,


Monday, February 21, 2011

My Life Without Nyquil

In light of a drawn out illness, I spent the week taking advantage of some of the less physically demanding activities that Prague has to offer. First and foremost, I made a much needed trip to one of the many pharmacies (lékárnách) located throughout the city. In my rather delusional ill state, I naively assumed that I could find many of the same medications available in the United States on the shelves of a Czech pharmacy, but I was quickly proved wrong. Naturally, I was planning on making a bee line for the Sudafed and the Nyquil, but neither was to be found. My optimism continued to decline when I attempted to inquire about the medications that I was looking for at the pharmacy counter, at which point I quickly realized that the pharmacist only spoke broken English, and did not have the slightest clue what Nyquil was. Instead, I purchased what I assumed was cough syrup, which Google translator later informed me was merely "Vitamin C syrup." I should have taken a hint when I saw that the directions advised "3-5 spoonfuls as needed." Let's just say that I won't hold my breath for a quick recovery with this remedy.

Once my state improved enough to go out in public (trust me, it was ugly), I decided to bundle up and trek out to find a relaxing place to study. I was lucky enough to come upon a lovely cafe located directly across the street from where I attend school. Little did I know that this modest cafe serves some of the best hot chocolate (horká čokoláda) in Prague. I ordered a Euro hot chocolate (an almond & vanilla flavored variety), and I can say without hesitation that it was the best hot chocolate that I ever tasted! I consider myself a bit of a chocolate connoisseur (self-proclaimed of course), and I can honestly say that I have never had anything that could compare to it. Oh and did I mention that it was served in an eight inch tall glass (filled to the top), and that it was served at the perfect temperature? It's safe to say that I fell in love...with a glass of hot chocolate. You heard me. 

Now that I have told you about my extraordinary new study location, I suppose it is only appropriate that I say a little something about what I've been studying here. I am taking five classes this semester, four of which I chose prior to arriving here, and Czech, which is a required course. I have been thoroughly enjoying my classes thus far, particularly a course that I am taking on Resistance and Dissent in Punk and Alternative Culture from Nazism to Communism in the Czech Lands.

As a political science major, I am somewhat familiar with various examples of political resistance throughout history, but I have found this class to be extremely engaging. Specifically, we have been discussing the 1950s Czech underground movement against German occupation and Charter 77, the civic rights movement headed by the former dissident, Václav Havel. In addition, we have also begun to delve into the Czech "alternative scene" of the 1980s, specifically in terms of music, theatre, and film. 

In contrast with the Politics professor that I previously discussed, my professor for this class has a true gift for teaching. Her passion for the subject is thoroughly integrated into the way that she teaches, and I have no doubt that her enthusiasm is one of the main reasons that I have enjoyed the class so much thus far. Her class is also a reflection of her own experiences with the underground movement. Formerly a part of an alternative punk music group, she knows first hand what it was like to be a part of this turbulent movement, and her anecdotes and perspectives truly bring to life what we discuss in class. She has even offered to take the class to a Plastic People of the Universe (PPU) concert on March 6th! Since I assume few, if any, of the people reading this know who the Plastic People of the Universe are, I will briefly explain. The Plastic People (for short) is an avant-garde rock band originally from Prague that is considered to be one the foremost representatives of the Czech underground movement that occurred between 1968-1989. The group essentially represented non-conformity at the time of its conception, and it continues to live up to this reputation today. Although the band members have changed over the years, the group continues to perform in order to keep their signature spirit of activism alive. I look forward to witnessing such a significant part of Czech history, and I will be sure to inform you all of my experience!

Here are a few of the upcoming trips I will be taking:

February 25th: The students in my program and I will be traveling to Lidice. Lidice is a small village in the Czech Republic that was completely destroyed by German Nazi forces in reprisal for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich (a high-ranking Nazi official). On June 10, 1942 in Lidice, every man over the age of 16 was murdered on the spot, and women and children were sent to Nazi concentration camps where nearly all of them were killed. This event was one of the major catalysts for the start of World War II. Although this trip will be emotionally moving, I look forward to witnessing such a significant, although extremely unfortunate, part of Czech history.

March 18th-20th: Copenhagen, Denmark! I look forward to exploring this beautiful city with my roommate, Kirby!

March 24th-April 1st: The students in my program and I will be embarking on a travel seminar to Krakow, Poland, Moravia, Czech Republic, and Vienna, Austria. In Krakow, we will have the opportunity to go to a concentration camp, which like Lidice, will be an extremely emotionally moving trip, but it is also a once in a lifetime opportunity that I am very grateful to have. We will also be touring other areas of the city. In Moravia (specifically Brno), we will have the opportunity to go wine tasting which I am very much looking forward to! In Vienna, we will primarily be touring the major tourist sites, but throughout the trip we will also be attending lectures set up for us by our program directors. In fact, the work load for the trip is so demanding that we will receive one college credit for completing the one week travel seminar. For anyone that is currently in college, or for those that have previously attended college, I'm sure you realize how big of a deal this is! One college course is typically 3-4 credits, and runs for an entire semester (16 weeks). I have a feeling that this is going to be an extremely rigorous, but hopefully extremely rewarding, travel seminar.

April 1st-April 3rd: My roommate, Kirby, and I will be flying out of Vienna upon the conclusion of our travel seminar to Berlin, Germany! I am very much looking forward to this trip!

More trips are definitely in the planning phase! I will be sure to keep you posted!

It seems that I had a lot more to say than I initially thought I would. I suppose that is what I get for being so talkative! I apologize for not having any exciting pictures to post! (I just assumed no one was interested in seeing pictures of my "cold" medicine or my box of tissues!) I'm off to go get yet another hot chocolate at my favorite study spot!


Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Week 3...Still Alive and Thriving!

After a little over three weeks in Prague, I can confidently say that I can survive in this city. Of course there are a few notable exceptions to this statement, mainly that my navigation skills are still lacking substantially, and I will never be sure exactly what type of meat I am ordering at a deli. However, I am pleased to report that I am alive, and flourishing if I might add.

In addition to surviving my first experience eating goulash (a meat stew with dumplings), I am also glad to report that I made it through my first week of classes. One of the biggest transitions thus far has been adapting to the teaching style of my Czech professors. Although some of my professors are more accommodating than others, I have a few professors that teach via a very rigid lecture style. For example, on the first day of my Politics class, my professor spoke for 90 minutes straight on World War I history without so much as glancing at the class, clearly giving us no opportunity to ask questions. He also wrote several arbitrary names on a dry erase board, although none of the names were ever mentioned during the lecture. I was floored to say the least. I predict that Wikipedia and I are going to become very close this semester.

Over the weekend the other students in my program and I went to a small town in southern Czech Republic called Český Krumlov. It is a spectacularly quaint and beautiful town, and a must-see tourist destination in my book. It featured many small shops, restaurants, and cafes, but the main feature of the town is the chateau (castle) on a hill overlooking the rest of the town. We were privileged enough to have the opportunity to tour the castle, specifically the Masquerade ballroom and the theatre, both of which were extraordinarily elaborate and well-preserved. It is truly incredible how much history the Czech Republic has to offer. However, I learned the hard way that the interior of a castle is not heated, but rather, is kept at frigid temperatures. If anyone can explain the reason for this, be my guest, but all I can say is that my North Face fleece did not get the job done. Next time I tour a castle I will be sure to bring my Snuggie.

In other news, congratulations to all the Packer fans reading this post! Even the lack of flat screen televisions in Český Krumlov could not stop me from watching the Super Bowl. What can I say, you can take the girl out of Wisconsin, but you can never take the Wisconsin out of the girl! Roughly 15 students from my program crowded a bar at midnight on Sunday night to watch the Packers take on the Steelers. Much to my dismay, the bar did not offer traditional Wisconsin football cuisine, by which I mean cheese and brats of course. Nonetheless, it was a memorable experience.

View of Český Krumlov from the Castle

My roommate, Casey, and me at the castle

The Masquerade Ballroom in the Castle

View of the River in Český Krumlov

View of a Back Street in Český Krumlov

The Castle in Český Krumlov

A Street in Český Krumlov



Sunday, January 30, 2011

Pes v větrovka?! (A Dog In A Windbreaker?!)

Hello everyone! Or as we say here in Prague, dobrý den! After being here for a little over a week, it is safe to say that I could not be more in love with this place. Although I was warned many times before my departure about the relative coldness of native Czechs, I have come to find many of them to be extremely helpful and welcoming of Americans. Of course this should never be expected when you are dealing with a girl like me that can barely master basic Czech phrases, is pathetically bad at charades (if you can't say it, act it out!), and has absolutely no sense of direction. Luckily though, I have found many kind strangers who have been more than willing to help me with everything from reading a map to ordering meat at a deli (which really is a feat in itself). Being faced with new cultural norms has truly made me realize how much I take for granted the most basic daily tasks and interactions, whether tipping a waiter or waitress, or maneuvering public transportation.

After 20 hours of intensive Czech language class over the course of the past week, I remain hopeful that I may someday be able to carry a coherent conversation in Czech. My Czech teacher here, Zdenka, is nothing short of phenomenal. I have never been taught by a more patient and encouraging teacher. She even gave us a mini-orientation at the grocery store in order to clarify our many questions and concerns regarding shopping for food. I have no doubt that 20 American students gathered around the deli discussing why the meat is in jell-o attracted a great deal of attention, but for the most part, the confused glares were minimal.

As a dog lover myself, I was quick to notice the prevalence of dogs in Prague. However, dogs appear to behave very differently here. The first thing I noticed is that dogs are often not walked on leashes here, but rather, they are trained to walk next to their owner on the sidewalk. I find this to be very counterintuitive, particularly because we are in an urban setting. Part of my astonishment also stems from the fact that I have a dog that has never been trained a day in his life, and would thus take the opportunity to stalk people around for food if he was ever let off his leash. I have even seen dogs waiting patiently outside store entrances by their own free will for their owners to exit the store. It appears that dog training is not as optional here as it is in the United States. Another trend I have seen is dog garments, by which I mean vests, sweaters, and windbreakers for dogs. I have been attempting to persuade my parents for years that our dog needs a windbreaker, and finally I have my proof. I think I will pick one up for him while I am here. Let's hope that they have size XXL (he's a 90 lbs black labrador retriever).

In true character, I will now delve into my recent experiences with food, which have been pleasant to the say the least. As I predicted in my first blog post, meat (maso) and cheese (sýr) are very much staples of the Czech diet (oh and did I mention potatoes?), however I have been extremely impressed by the amount of vegetarian food that has been offered at nearly every restaurant that I have been to. I am by no means a vegetarian, however I come from a family that eats very little meat, and thus I have taken full advantage of the vegetarian fare that Prague has to offer. My favorite restaurant so far has been one of the most highly recommended vegetarian restaurants in Prague, Maitrea. Nestled in one of the back streets off of Old Town Square, the restaurant has an ambiance that is both welcoming and beautiful, not to mention a reasonably priced menu that would appeal to nearly any vegetarian or non-vegetarian alike (foodie in the making perhaps?!). My roommates and I were also pleased to see that they offered guacamole (a personal favorite), which paired wonderfully with the delicious salad that I ordered. Although I have yet to dabble in the meat dumplings, I plan on doing so in the near future. After all, I am a Wisconsinite at heart!

As a true test of our map reading abilities, our program coordinators sent all of the students in the CET program on a scavenger hunt around the city. Now do not be fooled, this was far from any amateur scavenger hunt, being that it covered nearly the entire city of Prague, and it took a grand total of seven hours to complete. Did I mention that it was 20 degrees outside, and I have terrible circulation to my fingers and toes?! By hour five, I was definitely not a happy camper, but we got the job done, and saw some extraordinarily beautiful and interesting places in the process. We also placed 3rd out of 12 teams, which is quite the accomplishment considering our overall lack of direction. My only saving grace has been the gift of gab that I inherited from my mother, which has been very practical in terms of asking for help or directions. I also contributed to my group's success by picking an excellent restaurant for lunch! (suprising, right?) All in all, it was a great experience, and only one of many that I have had here thus far. 

Let's hope that my first week of classes does not involve any solo navigation around Prague! 

The Astronomical Clock in Old Town Square

The Dancing Building (my favorite building in Prague thus far!)

My scavenger hunt group and me on the Charles Bridge.

The Cathedral

My scavenger hunt group and me in front of the Cathedral.

Me and my new friend (the security guard at the castle entrance). He wasn't exactly the talkative type.

View From The Castle