Questioning the Question

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Good early afternoon from Costa (the coffee shop with wi-fi and good things to eat, and in close proximity to our accommodations),

The morning was a traveling classroom and lecture and visit to the Galicia Jewish Museum. It was, again, a second time for me to visit this museum and listen to the lecture of  Jakub (Kuba) Nowakowski’s informative and moving lecture on the history of the Jewish Resistance in Kraków, and his stories about the young people who decided stranding up against the Nazi occupation, in spite of the overwhelming likelihood they would be killed, was better than merely being treated in the subhuman manner the Nazi’s characteristically used. Alexander, her main partner-in-crime, Clarissa Hoke, a nursing student as well as an honors student, and I went to dinner at a Georgian Restaurant and spoke about the Jewish question, which is the underpinning of one of our classes. It is typical for all, but perhaps more so for students because they are farther and farther away from the actual time of the Holocaust, to ask how is it that the Final Solution regarding the Jews could be implemented by a country of such cultural heritage and the people did not ask more questions? How it is German peoples, from whom or where we get some of our most amazing biology, chemistry, music, art, literature be convinced that a certain group of people, with a particular religion, were the root of all of their problems? How could they with such an intellectual or educational background be almost duped into believing that the removal and killing of six million people was the answer to their hyper-inflation, their national identity, their struggles from being blamed for the First World War? For most of us, there is little logical about that.

However, is there ever logic that creates a foundation when a group of people regardless their religion, race, or gender is used to decide their fate? Throughout the class, the question that is again pushed to the forefront is what happens with the minority of a society seems to run amok of the expectations of the majority? Dr. Orla-Bukowska continually pushes students to consider this fundamental principle in the lectures, be it in class or as we are on what I will refer to as her walking lectures. Yesterday (the 11th as I am writing this now on the morning of the 12th), we took the tram to Kazimierz, the Jewish quarter of Kraków. The history of this quarter goes back to the 13th century, when Kazimierz, the Great decided to provide a space the Jewish population in Kraków. This is no minor thing when the Jewish people were already being banished from a large part of the Mediterranean basin for a couple of centuries. What continues to astound every one of us who learns about the Jewish plight of a two millennia is how this group of people is scapegoated time and time again because their religious practices that made them both more hygienic and more literate. Of course, what is most relatable to many of the students is that Schindler’s List, the seven time Academy Award winning film, was actually filmed in the streets and in some of the places we were walking. Again, it seems imperative to ask the question, how can such an amazingly advanced society like Germany make the decisions to not only discriminate, but systematically exterminate (kill) an entire group of people based on their faith? What happens when those who are in a position of power, either elected or appointed, are allowed to make statements that deride or affect an entire group, race, or gender? This is not something that should be simply ignored. What happens when that person or a particular party is allowed to legislate in a manner that deride or discriminate against said group, race, religion or gender? Again, if we have elected that person we are societally responsible for what happens.

As we have listened to lectures and watched movies, we have been confronted with our own stereotypic views and attitudes. This is a good thing to learn. When lecturing, I tell my classes, the use of all stereotypes is negative. Furthermore, the practice of employing labels for those different from myself, or the propensity to do such, creates a division that limits or devalues that other person or group. Even if we see the other group as better or more capable. It seems this is what happened in the case of the Jewish people throughout Europe from as early as the 11th century. In terms of movies, students are struggling with this class a bit because the style and subject of movies here in Central Europe are so different that what we are used to watching in America. They are not slick and necessary as glitzy or amusing; they are much more realistic in their portrayal of everyday life, and when considering life in an Eastern-bloc country post WWII and under Soviet rule was a very different time. Then there is the issue of watching a movie that seems very dark and difficult in another language with subtitles. There is something very good in all of this because it compels us to think, to ask questions, to ponder the nature of the movie and to ask what it is we might learn. Art is not the same in all places, and art is a reflection of the culture that has created it. It is very interesting to me how we might go about analyzing a particular film for their final paper, which is what is required. Yesterday in class, you could begin to see some of the concern as they tried to wrap their heads around how to take on such an assignment. Indeed, there were questions on the question.

During the last two days, conversations asking what has been the most significant or important learning moment up to this point has provided a number of enlightening answers. Not surprisingly students have noted just the scope of history and how it is so profoundly different from what they know. There is an enormous difference between something that is “old” from the 1790s and something that is “old” from the 1405. There is something different about almost everything they see or experience from breakfast to walking up the sidewalk. There are questions about the “why of something” most every moment of the day. Why do they just pull up on the sidewalk with their cars? Why do people actually wait for the walk sign to turn green? Why do we not drink the tap water here and why do so many people drink sparkling water (water with gas)? How much is that exchange rate? 4.2 to 1 or 25 to 1 or 292 to 1, mathematics and calculating becomes a required skill. Some students have taken time during free time to manage going out an exploring on their own, be it an extra day in Prague or a day trip to Warsaw. Some have found their ways to little places to eat and to sample local cuisine. Even those experiences create questions. As we returned from Prague after the 6th of January, the Christmas Market and the hordes of people have gone, while there is still a presence on the town square, it is nothing like what they experienced during the New Years celebration. One of the things many students have commented on is what it might be like to come back in the summer. I too believe it would be beautiful.

It is interesting to see how the personality of each group is different. This is the third year I have been around some of the students and the difference in both numbers as well as the difference in composition creates for new experiences. That is perhaps the most interesting thing for me. It is in the sitting and speaking in small groups that you actually get to understand how the students are learning and something about what they are learning. I always remember my first trip as a sophomore when I am conversing with them. I am still amazed at what Dr. John Nielsen did on a yearly basis by himself. He did not have another professor with him. There are three of us here this time and, at least speaking for myself, there are still times I feel stretched. What is a classroom? We are in a classroom that is older than any room I have ever been in, at least to do more than walk through. Is a classroom a place of desks, a projector, and now a computer? The inclusive classroom here has names like Dom Profesorski, Bydgoska, utica Garbarska, City Centre, ulica Golębia, Prague, Budapest, and Vienna. The professors are certainly the known ones, but also the people students interact on a daily basis from the clerk at Rossmans to the vendor at the Christmas Market. This year’s group has a number of personalities and there is a wonderful eclectic collective disposition. That is also part of the learning. How do you manage a small space in a foreign land with a person who reacts to the stresses of everything being different, everything being a question? For the first time in their lives, at least for most of them, they are “the other.” In spite of the fact that most of them do not know or realize it, that is the case. That is part of the learning that goes on behind the scenes. It is the thing that many might not realize for years. The reality of this trip, of this class, is that learning occurs 24/7. It is transformative. That is the beauty of it. No one can leave here unchanged. Questions will come to light and they will be pondered. Sometimes they will be pushed to the background, but they will reappear at another time and another place.

Tomorrow students will board the bus for a trip to one of the places for me that has been most life-changing. They will go to Auschwitz, the death camp of all Nazi death camps. Fortunately, it will be a bit warmer than it has been much of the trip, but I know that both times I have been there, it was the coldest day of the entire journey. If that is the case tomorrow, it will be beyond brutal. I think last Wednesday was that day for me this year, at least I hope it was. As I am writing now, we have made it into yet another day. It is the 13th and about midmorning. Students have the morning off because they had two classes on Wednesday. As such it has been a bit quiet here, but I do not mind that solitude. Again, as I have noted in the past, I have learned to appreciate my alone-time. It offers a respite and the ability to reflect. That is rejuvenating for me . . .  I know those earlier in my life would be shocked. Two years ago, after my first trip to Auschwitz, I could not get beyond the idea of evil that had occurred and how that was something that had occurred in a country with such a civilized and cultural history. Those ideas or questions still confound me. It will be interesting to see what their responses are when I see some of them later Saturday night. In the meanwhile, I am working on Polish and working on the possibility of affiliating and working with people in the multimedia area here at Jagiellonian. I am hoping to hear more over the weekend. When I am not doing that, I will be continuing to work on my Polish language tutoring and my own work for second semester that will be upon me before I know it. The picture is of me when I was a student at Dana College. I ran across it recently, it is quite resembles what I looked like when I came to Europe as a student with Dr. Nielsen.

Thanks for reading,

Dr. Martin

Author:

I am a professor at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania and the director of and Professional and Technical Writing minor, a 24 credit certificate for non-degree seeking people, and now a concentration in Professional Writing and Digital Rhetoric. We work closely to move students into a 4+1 Masters Program with Instructional Technology. I love my work and I am content with what life has handed me. I merely try to make a difference for others by what I share, write, or ponder through my words.

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