Every other summer, our department chair Dr. Steve Hoelscher teaches a Maymester course in Vienna, Austria, about the city and historical memory. Undergraduate Rebecca Bielamowicz penned this wonderful essay about her experience in the course, and we share it with you today. For more information about the Maymester in Vienna course, see the department webpage here.
Doing American Studies in Austria
On a beautiful, mild, and sunny Sunday afternoon in the middle of the Austrian countryside, 20 of us gathered around the concrete skeleton of an abandoned swimming pool. Surrounding us in every direction were green, bucolic pastures that stretched out as far as we could see, and we stood at the top of this hill in silence, gazing at an object that seemed so out of place. After letting us contemplate, our tour guide asked us what seemed like too obvious of a question: “Do you know what this is?”
No one responded. If we had been anywhere else, a swimming pool would have seemed like a logical answer, but today we were visiting Mauthausen, the concentration camp that was active between 1938-1945, and such a simple answer seemed beyond reason. The silence continued as we wrestled with imagining the various macabre ways a swimming pool could have been used as an instrument of death in this former camp until our tour guide broke the silence.
“This is exactly what it appears to be. This was a pool that was used by SS officers for leisure.”
He assured us that we were not alone in our shock. In tour after tour, he stopped by this swimming pool to make the point that the SS officers were not some larger-than-life, untouchable evil forces who committed unimaginable injustices against their fellow man; instead, and perhaps more frightening, is understanding that they were human beings who enjoyed normal activities like swimming but who made conscious decisions every day to perpetrate heinous acts.
As a class the week before, we visited the Karl-Marx-Hof, a municipal housing complex whose mission was the antithesis to the ideology that created Mauthausen. The embodiment of a vision for a better, more-fulfilled humanity, the complex offered affordable housing, on-site doctors’ and dentists’ offices, communal yards, kindergartens, and daycares. This juxtaposition of sites – the embodiment of all of the good and, conversely, all of the bad that humans are capable of – brought me back to the point that our tour guide made: despite how out of control the social world may seem, it is mutable by nature, created and changed by even our smallest actions.
Living in Vienna and studying its history for a month has helped me get in touch with biases that I, of course, didn’t even know I had. Prior to applying to the Maymester program, taught by Prof. Steven Hoelscher, I was skeptical about investing time and money in traveling abroad when I felt that there was so much of the United States that I had not yet seen. Moreover, as an American Studies major, I felt that domestic travel needed to be prioritized before traveling elsewhere. Returning to the U.S., I realize how unfounded this argument was and how I was perpetuating my own self-inflicted tunnel vision: if you’re an American Studies student living in America, there’s all the more reason to travel abroad and defamiliarize yourself from an all-too-familiar history and culture. Only through comparison could I come back and understand the United States on a deeper level and learn to see all histories as the sum of human experiences and therefore integral to understanding U.S. history, no matter how unrelated they may seem across time or geographical location.
While traveling and studying the history of the places that I visited has certainly achieved the goal of expanding my worldview, it is also a reminder of the infinite amount of learning there is still to be done. I may know more than when I left, but I also now have a better grasp on all there is left to know.
— Rebecca Bielamowicz, (UT AMS major, Vienna, Austria, July 2015)