new people, new experiences, and new questions

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Holocaust survivor Bill Behr shares his story.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend the What You Do Matters leadership summit, held by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) at the Field Museum in Chicago. The summit aimed to bring together student leaders from the Chicago area to  discuss ways we can combat hatred in our communities. This idea was centered around USHMM’s exhibit on Nazi propaganda, which was temporarily installed at the Field Museum. 

This was a unique experience on many levels. Contemplating my research topic through a modern lens gave me a new perspective on how we view and respond to images and messages in the media. Bob Behr, a Berlin-born survivor of the Theresienstadt Ghetto, told us how propaganda aimed to visually define the “other” in the Jews, and how this was believed by an acquaintance who claimed that if it is published in a newspaper, it must be true. It is easy to label that as ignorant and question, “how could ordinary citizens not see the total falsity in such reports?” However, with the instant nature of news in the modern era, news can often go unfiltered, as explained by Bill Adair, founder of PolitiFact. We are just as reliant upon, and susceptible to, visual messages as Behr’s acquaintance in 1930s Berlin. This has led me to a new question – How might have these images and newspaper reports that I am studying been received by the German public? 

“Do I really see what I believe, or believe what I see?” questioned Carl Wilkens, the only American to stay in Rwanda during the genocide. Wilkens, who currently travels across the country and globe telling his story with his organization “World Outside My Shoes” reflected upon his experiences, from the decision to stay in a country in total chaos, to his feeling of responsibility to do so, and the dehumanizing propaganda broadcasted across Rwanda on “hate radio.” This particular quote resonated with me – to what extent to we challenge ourselves to think critically and independently, and not accept what we view and what we read for face value? 

Apart from experiencing some amazing stories and meeting passionate, world-changing individuals, this summit inspired some new questions in my own research, as well as my own response to visual media.

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reflections, impressions

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I have been back in the states for about 2 months now, and am dearly missing the gritty, grey, wonderful Berlin. As I have been reflecting on all of the late night döners, twinkling lights of Potsdamer Platz, the coziness of a small cafe in Prenzlauerberg, and awkward silences to German questions, I have also realized how much I have learned doing undergraduate research.

Right now I am finishing up some translations and am choosing which collections I want to focus on for my paper. I will also start preparing for my presentation at Undergraduate Research & Artistry Day and the National Conference on Undergraduate Research in Lexington, Kentucky.  It’s crazy to think I started this program in 2012 as a sophomore with a limited understanding of research, and am now in my second year with a strong project and research experience in a foreign country. Conducting faculty mentored, original research has given me the confidence, skill, and motivation to push boundaries and explore what I am passionate about.

If there are three things I have learned from undergraduate research, its:

1. Faculty mentoring is one of the best experiences an undergrad can have

Working with my faculty mentor for 2 years has been unbelievably rewarding. Having guidance from an expert in my field has influenced my development as a student, researcher, and historian. I walked into my mentor’s office as a freshman not really knowing what kind of research I wanted to pursue, but she has dedicated her time to guide my academic and professional development. This has impacted my own pursuit of a PhD, in hope that I will also impact a motivated student.

2. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes

Research involves so many twists, turns, and challenges I never expected. But that’s the fun part. Running into barriers is what taught me to persevere, problem solve, and consider things from different points of view. 

2. Find your passion and run with it

I have loved history for a long time. I recall the moment that sparked this interest – when I first read the Diary of Anne Frank at 9 years old. Researching my historical interest was not something I imagined doing as an undergraduate, let alone traveling to Germany to handle actual photographs and consult real archivists. But, undergraduate research programs at NIU gave me this platform to truly explore what I love about my field and develop the skills necessary to pursue this. Find what you love, what you’re curious about, and take the time to explore it. 

 

Research Update

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I concluded the international portion of my research last week with one more visit to the Stabi. It is crazy to think how fast the year went, and soon I will be meeting the new group of Research Rookies and getting ready to finalize my project in the spring. 

At this point, I have some more translation to do of the German newspapers I examined, some more comparison between the official and unofficial photos I found, and of course finalizing my USOAR report. The progress journals I have been writing for my mentor will be a basis to start writing in the spring, which I hope to present at the National Council for Undergraduate Research conference in Kentucky. 

Researching in Germany was such a great experience. I was able to get acquainted with the archives and libraries there, as well as hone my research skills (in another language!). I now have the means not only to complete my Research Rookies and USOAR projects, but also a source base for my senior thesis.

 

Dresden Streizelmarkt

The sweet smell of roasted almonds, warmth of a mug of glühwein cupped between your hands, mixed with light snow and good company is how I will remember the Dresden Streizelmarkt. This Christmas Market (Weihnachtsmarkt) is the most famous and oldest one in Germany, 2013 being its 579th year. The backdrop of Dresden’s baroque quarter added to its wintery, christmas charm.

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Die Weihnachtspyramide (Christmas pyramid)

 

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Streizelmarkt

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By the Frauenkirche

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By the Frauenkirche

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Another Weihnachtsmarkt under the Frauenkirche

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Handmade German ornaments

A short note on photography

Photography observes. It observes what is being photographed just as much as the person behind the viewfinder interprets what is being photographed. During my time in Berlin, I have taken thousands of photographs of monuments, architecture, random people, the sky…some of which I have shared on Facebook and this blog, but all of which will shape my memory of quintessential Berlin when I leave. 

The other day I was looking through the photos I have uploaded of Berlin on my Facebook, and realized how the progression of what and how I choose to photograph has reflected how I experienced Berlin, and how that changed between August and now. My first few photos look a little something like this:

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All taken within the first day of being in Berlin, these photos are nothing really special, if not the blank gaze of a stranger that only scrapes the surface of Berlin, much like the highlighted attractions of a hop on, hop off tour. Most photos are for the sake of taking photos, proof that you have seen something.

Gradually, as I dug deeper into Berlin, my photographs began to change. They began to take on Berlin’s character and not just how it appears to the naked eye. The more I delved into Berlin’s districts – Kreuzberg, Friedrichshain, Neukölln – and the more I interacted with the city’s pulsing culture did this begin to change. Random doors, graffiti, moss, and broken windows became the subjects of my photos. Seemingly ordinary things that capture a certain moment or experience more than the thing itself.

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In a way, these photographs won’t only function as observations and documentations of what I saw. But as a whole will become a remembered observation of the character and pulse of Berlin in my own eyes, and a visual memory of the Berlin I grew so attached to as a study abroad student.

The Wall Jumper

So I recently read Peter Schneider’s The Wall Jumper for a class on Berlin literature. I have never read something that captured the division of east and west in both geography and mentality so perfectly. No spoilers (you will have to read it yourself!) but I couldn’t resist sharing some of my favorite quotes:

“He realizes that only the plane’s shadow was free to move between the two parts of the city.”

“For the Germans in the West, the Wall became a mirror that told them, day by day, who was the fairest one of all.”

“The tenants of my building seldom meet; I only know them by their noises.”

“Having come to distrust the hastily adopted identity that both states offer him, he feels at home only at the border.”

“Why have we stayed on here in the shadow of walls, where every word, every thought resounds like the echo of something uttered long ago and in vain?”

“Where does a state end and a self begin?”

and now for my absolute favorite:

“It will take longer to tear down the Wall in our heads than any wrecking company will need for the Wall we can see.”