I’d like to start with a story…
Several days into the trip, three students and I were leisurely strolling through the streets of Vienna, following our spontaneous and whimsical desires instead of a map. When an old church – peaking above its surrounding buildings – would catch our eye, away we would go in its direction. When hunger beckoned, an Apfelstrudel or any variety of Viennese pastry was easily found, purchased and ingested. At some point, we found ourselves on a quieter, perhaps residential street, removed from the high-end shops, gelato stores and cafes that line the major thoroughfare. Quite suddenly, and without warning, we stumbled upon three silver squares built into the street, interrupting the usual monotony of stonework. A member of our foursome explained that these aptly named Stolpersteine, or “stumbling stones,” were here to commemorate the Jewish families taken from their homes and killed by the Nazis. Stolpersteine, he informed us, are all over Berlin. These were the first we had encountered in Vienna. The stones were placed in front of the homes from where the victims – whose names were engraved into the stones – lived prior to their transportation to concentration camps.
As we stood there digesting the power and potency behind such a simple memorial, a strange thing happened. As someone in our group prepared to photograph the stones, a party of three, maybe four college-aged (and presumably Austrian) people (I nearly wrote “guys” instead of “people,” but part of me recalls the presence of more than one gender) passed us by. One of them, in a tone that still puzzles me, said something along the lines of “Nein nein, das ist verboten!” which my mediocre German skills handled beautifully. I relayed the translation to my confused friends: “No no, that is forbidden!” Unfortunately, I could not convey any implicit or implied meaning, which was perhaps reserved only for fluent German speakers. How, exactly, should we take this? Was it actually forbidden to take pictures of Stolpersteine? Was he just messing with tourists? Was he on something (hey, we were exploring all hypothetical scenarios), was his comment in jest, was he really chastising us? Was there something we didn’t know about “stumble stones” and photography? Was that an anti-Semitic, pro-Semitic, or neutral-Semitic experience? Were we reading too much into this?
We bounced these possibilities off each other, but could not reach a conclusion. We still don’t know the meaning, but it remains one of the more definitive and memorable moments for me, due in large part to the subsequent exchange of ideas it created after the incident. Intellectual and curious in nature, I was pleasantly surprised by my peers’ line of questioning. Their inquisitive nature was infectious, and provided an easy platform for discussion.
This is only one example of such discussion, as much of the other activities, both planned and unplanned, roused from brief dormancy our curiosity and stimulated further conversations and even debates. These people thought like me! 4,750 miles from campus, and academic dialogue was often our group’s colloquies. Only a study trip like this could foster such an environment. Now with a little more perspective on the whole 10 days, I realize that the characters with whom I interacted, questioned, met and socialized were the highlights of my trip.
We encountered a handful of fascinating individuals, but it was what followed our meetings with them that I value more. I must not take all the musings and surmising done together for granted. It is a rare experience to walk the streets of a European city in the company of 20-year-olds, and talk maturely about the refugee crisis and the current political landscape.
Before the trip, we were assigned a reading by David Clay Large called Germany + Nazi Denial = Austria. In my pre-trip reflection, I wrote that “Large’s article is the first time I have encountered any information on Austria’s culpability in the second world war.” In fact, my entire reflection focused on Austria’s involvement in, and reconciliation with, the Holocaust. Then I went to Vienna, and saw what I could for myself. In my mid-trip reflection, I commented on the inadequacy of Vienna’s Holocaust memorials. Now stateside and over a week removed from the trip, I have had more time to process Vienna’s nod to Austrian Jews. And it really is just that: a nod. The Jewish Museum Vienna is tucked away in a secluded, ghetto-esque way. While the obvious reaction to this, at least to me, was disappointment, a case in favor of this layout could be made. This was exactly the way many Jews lived here prior to the Holocaust, segregated in a Jewish quarter. In the interest of historical accuracy, putting the Jewish museum in Judenplatz (literally, “Jew Square,” an area that used to be inhabited almost exclusively by Jews) made sense. However, from my perspective, it seemed dismissive and unfulfilling, very much in keeping with the premise of Large’s article. If memorials are anything to go by (and they certainly should be), it seems to me that, while Austria has not forgotten the Holocaust, it has suffered from deliberate and selective memory loss.
For a country that consistently follows Germany’s lead, it was unable or unwilling to mimic its neighbor’s Vergangenheitsbewältigung (the German word for dealing with the past). It also made me wonder back to the Stolperstein experience, and what, if anything, that (again, presumably Austrian) guy meant. I wish I had the quick-thinking and audacity to call after him and inquire further. As it is, I hopefully have more rewarding conversations on this subject ahead of me when I reconnect with the other students from the trip.
I wanted to go to Vienna to learn about people and culture and history. I wanted to satiate some of my endless and eternal curiosity. As is the case with most curiosity-driven pursuits, my appetite only increased by the end of the trip. For every question answered, another one was realized. I am left with a sort of in-between feeling, half full, content but not quite satisfied. This, I think, is what academic and intellectual study trips are all about. That, and building relationships grounded in, and founded by, intellectual discourse.