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



Alumni Voices: Jessie Swigger, Associate Professor, Western Carolina University


Last summer, UT AMS alum Jessie Swigger put out a book called History is Bunk about the historical development of the Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan. We recently spoke to Jessie, who is currently teaching at in the history department at Western Carolina University, about the book and her time at UT.

Can you tell us a little bit about your book, History is Bunk, and how you came to the project?

My interest in public history started when I took Steve Hoelscher’s Place and Memory course. My research paper in that course formed the basis of my Master’s Report. After comps, I knew that I wanted to continue to work with Steve Hoelscher and to grapple with issues of place, memory, and history.

It was around this time that I took a trip to Detroit, where I visited Henry Ford’s outdoor history museum Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan. I had read about Ford’s project and knew that it was one of America’s first outdoor history museums, but was struck by what seemed to be its unique landscape. The village mixes replicas and preserved buildings from across the country. Among the many buildings, Henry Ford’s birthplace, the Wright brothers’ cycle shop, and a replica of Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory populate the space along with two brick slave cabins from Georgia, a tenement farmer’s house, and a Cotswold cottage from England; an eclectic group of structures, to be sure. I was also surprised that so many people were eager to visit a museum that celebrated Ford given Detroit’s economic struggles. I wanted to understand the village and it became the focus of my dissertation.

Contrary to my initial reaction to the village, I found that in many ways Henry Ford’s conception of preservation was not atypical. Instead, Ford’s approach was similar to nineteenth century preservationists who defined the activity broadly. Preservation might mean, for example, creating a replica. The village’s interpretation of the past was, however, clearly linked to Ford’s own complex, and at times contradictory worldview. The village’s history after Ford’s death also proved fascinating. New administrators tried to maintain Ford’s vision while continuing to attract new audiences. Throughout the village’s history, administrators tracked visitor reactions to the site. Using journals written by guides, marketing surveys, and internal reports, I was able to consider how visitors encountered the village and how their responses informed the site¹s interpretive programming. Finally, the archives showed how the site’s marketing approach and interpretation were entangled with the history of the Detroit metro area. My book is a substantial revision of my dissertation and uses the village as a case study to examine the many contexts that shape history museums.

How is the work that you’re doing right now, as a scholar or a teacher or both, informed by the work that you did as a student in American Studies at UT?

My approach to teaching is influenced by the work I did at UT as an undergraduate and graduate student. As an undergraduate I took Main Currents with Mark Smith and as a graduate student I was a teaching assistant for Julia Mickenberg, Janet Davis, and Elizabeth Engelhardt. I still have my notes from all of these courses and have consulted them many, many times when writing my own lectures. We are also extraordinarily lucky that our program allows graduate students to design and teach their own courses. I still use much of the material that I developed during my time as an assistant instructor.

Do you have any words of wisdom or advice for students in our department about how to get the most out of their time here?

The AMS Department does a great job of offering graduate students professional development opportunities. Take advantage of these. Take time to talk to faculty about how they approach research, teaching, and service. These conversations may not help you the next day, but will prove invaluable as you start your career. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there professionally–attend talks, work on publications, present at conferences, and definitely attend all happy hours.

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.

Announcement: Symposium This Week on “Creativity in the Face of Death”

This week, the Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies and Texas Performing Arts will be hosting a 3-day symposium called “Creativity in the Face of Death: The Contemporary Resonance of Terezín.” The symposium will include performances, panels, lectures, and a photography exhibition. A number of the events feature AMS Professor and Director of the Schusterman Center, Dr. Robert Abzug, as well as AMS affiliate faculty member Dr. Rebecca Rossen.

The following is a description of the event from the Schusterman Center’s website:

“Creativity in the Face of Death: The Contemporary Resonance of Terezín,” a three-day symposium, will explore the enduring influence of music and art created by prisoners at Terezín (Theresienstadt), the “model ghetto” near Prague designed by the Nazis as a sham showcase to mask their murderous campaign against Europe’s Jews. The inmates, mostly Jews from Germany and Czechoslovakia and among them many notable artists, writers, composers, and musicians, acted out their parts for unsuspecting visitors even as, in the shadow of death, they raised the spirits of their fellow prisoners. Only 12 percent of the 140,000 Jews originally sent to Terezín survived. Virtually all of the members of the artistic community perished in the death camps or at Terezín itself.

Their heroic example has served as a haunting challenge for later artists to create what Kafka declared books must be—“an axe for the sea frozen inside us.” “Creativity in the Face of Death: The Contemporary Resonance of Terezín” will bring together world-class musicians, dancers, choreographers, photographers, and scholars whose work has been touched by the legacy of Terezín.

The following events feature Dr. Abzug and Dr. Rossen in conversation with artists and scholars on the symposium theme:

Wednesday, October 10

Creativity in the Face of Death
Daniel Hope | Jeffrey Kahane | Donald Byrd
Moderated by Robert Abzug and Rebecca Rossen
12:00 – 1:30 p.m. | Harry Ransom Center, Prothro Theater

Thursday, October 11

Veronika Tuckerova and Robert Abzug
History and Memory: The Emergence of Terezín in Historical Artistic Consciousness: Czechoslovakia and America
4:00 – 5:30 p.m. | Garrison 1.102

The Theater of Needless Talents
Donald Byrd, choreographer and director

PRE-PERFORMANCE LECTURERebecca Rossen and Robert Abzug
7:00 pm | Bass Concert Hall, Lobby Level 4

8:00 p.m. | Texas Performing Arts’ Bass Concert Hall

Spectrum Dance Theater’s The Theater of Needless Talents, an evening-long work choreographed by Donald Byrd, pays homage to the Jewish artists who, though imprisoned in Nazi death camps, managed to create, perform, and bring hope to themselves and fellow inmates. The work is a series of powerful and eloquent sequences comprising modern dance, theatrical vignettes, cabaret, and commentary drawn from the words of artists and others of the time. These searing and evocative segments resonate with the horror and the absurdity of the situation in which these artists found themselves. The dance is set to the music of composer and death camp victim Erwin Schulhoff. The Theater of Needless Talents strives to make connections between the Holocaust and present-day sufferings brought on by prejudice, oppression, and persecution.

More information and a complete schedule can be found here.

5 Questions with Department Chair Steven Hoelscher

One of the goals of AMS :: ATX is to connect you with all of the exciting things happening around the Department of American Studies. One way we hope to do this is by introducing you to some of the inspiring and accomplished people we are proud to call mentors and fellow scholars. In our “5 Questions” posts, we want to take a little time to talk with our faculty members about the many places they are coming from and why they do what they do.

Last week I sat down for our very first “5 Questions” talk with Dr. Steven Hoelscher, Chair of the Department of American Studies and Academic Curator for Photography at the Harry Ransom Center.

What is your academic background? How does this inform your work today?

My background, unlike a lot of people in this department, is in a traditional academic field, human geography and environmental geography. My undergrad majors were Geography and Environmental Science, and my MA and PhD were also in Geography. So, in that regard, I’m coming to American Studies after my formal education has been completed. I don’t see that as necessarily a hindrance to me as an American Studies scholar, but it makes me somewhat unusual. It also makes me unusual in the Geography world that I’m as committed to interdisciplinarity as I am to anything “geographical.” But it certainly informed my American Studies scholarship. Issues of landscape, space and place, are part of pretty much everything I do. So, for instance, I’m working on a book about the Magnum photography archive, and the chapter of my book, I believe, will be something called “Magnum’s Geographies Toward a Global Sense of Place.” That’s a very geographic concept with a rather nontraditional source material for geographers.

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