I will admit it... I whined about ice or the lack of ice, really, over the last two weeks that I spent travelling in Europe with a group of students. The Europeans focus more on what they are famous for - beer and wine, so I drank tepid water dreaming of my return to the states and my beloved ICED sweet tea. However, the trip taught me so much more than the fact that I really appreciate my drinks cold.
Our first stop was Dachou, Hitler's first concentration camp. The students and I walked throughout the exhibits portraying Hitler's rise to power and the atrocities perpetrated on an entire race. Tears began to roll down my face. A student asked if I was crying and I simply nodded. I have taught the Holocaust for a decade now. Standing in the spot where the torture occurred, reading about what was done to the prisoners, staring at the wooden rods used to beat them was beyond powerful. The crematories still stand. In my mind, I thought they cremated the Jews en mass. However, these were single ovens that they put three bodies in. The frames being so emaciated that three would fit in the space that would normally only hold one body. I'm shaking my head now with tears freely coursing down my cheeks even as I type these words. I just don't understand how we as a society ever reached that point. There are gas chambers at Dachou but they were never used. Mass graves for the ashes of thousands of unknown victims are along a wooded path over to the side. The trip changed the way I view the Holocaust. It made it more personal. I have always taught the facts of what occurred and dealt with the students who seem to say year after year "this is my favorite thing to study"... This year, I will teach it from a human perspective. I want them to examine what occurred and how it occurred so that the monuments lining the perimeters of Dachou reading "Never Again" will always be true. NEVER AGAIN.
Of course, Germany has so much more to offer than the legacy of Hitler's brutality. We explored the incredibly beautiful castle at Neuschwanstein which serves as the model for the castle at Disney. The king who commissioned the castle for his lovely bride may have been a little off his rocker, but the beauty and magnitude of the castle cannot be denied. Swan elements are found throughout because Leopold was fascinated with the works of Wagner. The castle makes you want to believe in fairy tales again. The bedroom furniture took four woodcarvers over four years to make. Think about that for just a moment... Four men worked tirelessly for four years on bedroom furniture. It is breathtakingly beautiful still. What is to be learned from that? We tend to try to do as much as we can as quickly as we can to show results. However, sometimes we need to slow down and remember that any job worth doing is worth doing well. Beauty takes time. Value takes time. To get the fairy tale result, you have to put in the time. Sometimes, learning takes time. Lets slow down some lessons and dig deeper. Take time for students to truly appreciate what we are studying. Magic can still happen.
After spending several beautiful days in Germany, we travelled to France. Paris, the land of romance. I walked the streets of Paris mesmerized. I have wanted to travel there since I was a young girl and it did not disappoint. The buildings were gorgeous. Notre Dame and its' stained glass were the incredible sights I always knew they were. A river boat cruise along the Seine displayed Parisians picnicking and dancing to different tunes right beside each other. Acceptance and culture were everywhere.
Versailles, a history teacher's dream. You cannot help but be amazed by the grandeur of Versailles. Gold is everywhere. You totally understand why the Parisians who were starving would be outraged by the mere existence of such extravagance much less if Marie Antoinette actually stepped onto the balcony and said "let them eat cake". Seeing the balcony where she is accused on uttering those words was a treat. Walking down the unbelievable Hall of Mirrors where our world leaders signed the Treaty of Versailles to end World War I and arguably begin World War II was overwhelming. I was standing where history was made. In the spot where world leaders had carved out the details of the post-war world, where Wilson had argued for a League of Nations and peace without victory.
The awe of Versailles stays with me but what I learned from travelling to France really deals more with Rome and its massive empire that once ruled Europe. We stopped briefly at Avignon to view the Papal Palace and then, went to see Le Pont du Gard, a Roman aqua duct, standing gloriously and massively in France. We all know that the Roman Empire stretched and stretched until it collapsed but have you ever actually thought about what that means? Relics of the great empire are still throughout Europe. The small town we stayed in that evening felt like Rome still. It housed a Roman coliseum and a Roman Temple. It was a small town in France but it held these massive elements from a time gone by. The Roman Empire touched and changed the landscape of Europe centuries before the European Union was founded. The existence of these massive structures also made me realize that as Americans we are used to recreations. I kept repeating that these were "actual". That's an actual aqua duct. That's an actual Roman temple. That's an actual coliseum. In America, we would have torn down buildings that no longer served a purpose. We build replicas of castles and monuments. You can even take a gondola ride that feels like Venice in Las Vegas... The Europeans understand that history changed their landscapes, their very lives and should be celebrated. Our goal as social studies educators should be to have our studies realize the same thing. History matters! Let's celebrate it!!
Our final stop on this European tour was Madrid, Spain. I am thrilled to have been present when Spain's new king was crowned. The city was decked out in the country's colors. Flags flew everywhere. People walked around carrying small flags or large banners. The excitement was obvious. History was occurring right at that moment and they knew it. History happens every day!! Lets always celebrate it!
Travelling always teaches me things. I had expected to come back with simple realizations that Europe was beautiful. However, I learned so much more. Get out there and travel this summer!! Enjoy your Summer! Tracy