By Amy Matzke-Fawcett

A group of Old Dominion University students and faculty recently gathered to discuss a transformative study-abroad trip crossing disciplines to learn about the Holocaust.

"Un-Silencing the Past: Knowledge Gained via Study Abroad to Poland" highlighted the experiences of students and faculty who traveled to Poland last May for a moving and personal understanding of Holocaust history.

Sponsored by the Institute for Jewish Studies and Interfaith Understanding (IJIU), the Center for Faculty Development and the Office of Study Abroad, the Office of Academic Affairs and the College of Arts & Letters, speakers included IJIU Director Amy Milligan; Annette Finley-Croswhite, professor of history and director of the Center for Faculty Development; Thomas Chapman, associate professor of geography; and many of the students who attended the trip.

Students shared their experiences and reflected on a study abroad that combined cross-disciplinary, active-learning opportunities. Since the trip was led by Chapman, a geographer, and Finley-Croswhite, a historian and Fellow of the Auschwitz Jewish Center in Poland, it combined the study of the Holocaust in collaborative ways and produced undergraduate research.

Senior history major Melonie Bourque said that although she had studied the Holocaust and seen pictures of Auschwitz and many of the sites the students visited, nothing could have prepared her for the enormity of actually seeing where atrocities took place.

"It went from being exciting, studying abroad, to a humbling experience of actually setting foot into one of the camps or a memorial site," Bourque said. "Once you're there, and you try to understand what people during the war saw and experienced, it's a completely different experience from seeing it on television or in a book."

Until about 15 years ago, the Holocaust wasn't studied from a geographer's perspective. But the movements, deportations and placements, and the reasoning behind the locations of concentration camps are rooted in geography, Chapman said. He credited Finley-Croswhite for designing the course, adding that walking the sites and interpreting the landscapes is an important part of bringing together historical, social and geographic perspectives to understand the impacts of the Holocaust for the students and professors alike.

A critical moment in the trip occurred when the group met representatives from the humanitarian organization Yahad-In Unum. Their guides then led them to mass gravesites where Jews were murdered in 1941.

"It's eye-opening, because you go into the woods and there's nothing there," Chapman said. "It really brings together the different strategies of (the Nazi's) final solution."

Interacting with Yahad-In Unum was also a pivotal moment for senior history and political science double-major Alexandra Arnold. While it was Arnold's third study abroad, and second in Poland with Finley-Croswhite, each teaches something important.

"In order for the phrase 'never forget' to actually mean something, we must actively seek to identify and combat human rights violations on a global scale," Arnold told the group. "Through my studies in Poland, I have learned more than I could have ever imagined. But now what? I feel that it is my responsibility to continue to give a voice to those who can no longer speak, and to share what I have learned in the hopes of repairing the world."

The group met Poles who as children saw Jews being murdered and became acquainted with key research techniques for taking and using oral testimonies.

Finley-Croswhite has led the trip multiple times and said it can be uncomfortable both mentally and physically, but added that it's "the most important thing I do as a teacher."

"My goal is to teach students to recognize the impact of racism and anti-Semitism in the past so they can denounce such hatreds in the present. I want to create global citizens infused with empathy as they face 21st-century challenges," Finley-Croswhite said.

The resources for students on the trip - including Arnold's special project doing research into legislation and the Nuremburg trials - included working with professors at top universities and access to research materials. The rest of the group focused on analyzing landscapes of atrocity.

"We believe strongly in the power of experiential learning that has the potential not only to be a transformative experience for our students, but also to help foster more understanding among different peoples," said Michael Dean, deputy director of the Office of Study Abroad at ODU.

For more ODU student perspectives, visit the Holocaust Landscapes Study Abroad blog.

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