Undergraduate Research: A visit to Vienna

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

Figure 1. Mauthausen_photo by Rebecca Bielamowicz

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.

Figure 2. Karl-Marx-Hof_photo by Rebecca Bielamowicz

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.

Figure 3. American Studies class at Karl-Marx-Hof_photo by Robert Lemon

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)


Figure 4. Rebecca Bielamowicz in Salzburg, Austria_photo by Steve Hoelscher



Stories from Summer Vacation: Steve Hoelscher, “Meeting Denise on Morzinplatz”

Today, we’re delighted to share with you an incredible and powerful story from Dr. Steve Hoelscher, who spent part of the summer teaching in Vienna:

I spent part of this summer, like three others, teaching a study abroad course in Vienna, Austria. Beyond the obvious pleasure of living in what is arguably the world’s “most livable city,” the course gives me the opportunity to connect different areas of teaching and research interests that often remain separate. Urban geography, cultural memory, and transnational exchange entwine as my students (who are always superb, and this class was no exception) use the city as a living laboratory. We don’t just read about socialist housing in “Red Vienna,” for example; we study the Karl-Marx-Hof by holding class in one of its dozen courtyards, by talking with the curator who singlehandedly opened a new exhibition in one of its former collective washrooms, and by finding the bullet holes, which remain from the 1934 civil war (an event that ushered in Austrofascism and eventually Nazism). The geographer in me—born and bred in the tradition of fieldwork—comes alive when I leave behind the classroom and enter the blooming, buzzing confusion of the world beyond the ivory tower’s womb.

To be sure, there are risks with this approach. It sometimes rains when you’ve got a three-hour walking tour planned. Occasionally students get on the wrong streetcar and end up misplaced on the other side of town. Once in a while a beloved theoretical position doesn’t jibe with empirical reality as it’s lived on the street. Sometimes, though, serendipity brings it all together in a way that’s both unexpected and invigorating.

One such moment took place on the 12th of June this summer. The theme of the week took the somewhat cumbersome, but hopefully explanative, title of “Remembering Hitler’s Vienna: The Collapse of Monarchy and the Rise of Competing Political Movements, 1918-1945.” We had just had a class meeting at Berggasse 19, Sigmund Freud’s house until he escaped Nazi persecution in 1938.  Reluctant to leave the home he had lived in and had practiced psychoanalysis for nearly 47 years, Freud finally took action after his daughter, Anna, survived a daylong interrogation by the Gestapo. Today, all that remains of the former Gestapo headquarters is a rather bleak park on the edge of the central city. Here, on Morzinplatz, stands the first of three Holocaust memorials that trace the changing textures of Austrian cultural memory and its participation in World War 2. Narratives of victimhood and perpetrator, of evasion and responsibility, of redemption and hopeless despair—in other words, many of the central themes that run through discussions of the Holocaust—are written in stone here, and at Albertinaplatz and Judenplatz.

To encourage my students to look closely at such memorial landscapes and to think about what they’re seeing, I ask that they spend a half hour drawing them. (I steal this practice from one of my graduate school mentors, Ted Relph, who convinced me of the importance of “seeing, thinking, describing landscapes,” as a way of understanding them) Although some students initially balk at the assignment—“I’m not an artist” or “I can’t draw” are frequent, understandable complaints—most find it a compelling way to defamiliarize the taken-for-granted. Or, in this case, to make sense of something strange. The site-specific Nameless Library on Judenplatz, for example, only makes sense when seen in its geographic setting; the steel and concrete design comes alive only when one notes that the books’ spines are facing inward, and thus hiding their contents; the power of the place as a void—as a space where things are missing, like handles to the entrance, or the 6 million people it commemorates—can only be felt when you’re viewing it from both up close and at mid-distance (and not, I would argue, online).

hoelscher figure 1

The quiet, somber landscape, which gestures toward loss and emptiness, contrasts with the more traditional memorial on Morzinplatz, with its inscription of Austria’s resurrection and its chained figure breaking the bonds of tyranny. In one, the focus is on Jewish genocide; at the other, the state of Austria is written as Hitler’s first victim—a preposterous claim, but one at the center of Austrian nationhood for more than a half century. Such, at any rate, were some of the things we talked about at each memorial. That is, until we noticed a couple eavesdropping on our discussion at Morzinplatz. After I explained, in German, that we were an American university group studying the history of Vienna, the woman answered, in Australian English, “well, I gathered that.”

hoelscher figure 2

Thus began one of the most remarkable conversations I’ve had in a college course. Denise introduced herself and her cousin, whom she was visiting for the first time.

After the long flight from Australia, it was Denise’s first full day in Vienna and her cousin was bringing her to the site where his father and her father, like Anna Freud, had been questioned by the Gestapo shortly after the 1938 Anschluß. But unlike the Freuds, these Jewish brothers were not allowed to leave, but instead were sent to Dachau. How they escaped the concentration camp was not made clear, but each spent the rest of the war in England, with one eventually returning to Vienna and the other immigrating to Australia.

hoelscher figure 3

My students and I were spellbound by Denise’s story, which seemed to embody the themes of the course. Memory really does seem anchored in places. It’s both personal and collective. And it’s fraught with unpredictability. But Denise’s story did more than just illustrate themes we had read about in books by James Young or Pierre Nora. It also made scholarly concepts real. This is important, and I’m not talking here just about convincing lunatic Holocaust deniers of what happened. Making theories concrete, breathing life into histories that appear ancient, giving voice to experiences that seem unfathomable: all that happens when you meet someone like Denise on Morzinplatz (or Judenplatz, where we ran into her later that day). That’s why I like to teach in Vienna during my summer vacation. And it is a nice place to live.