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Spring Break Trip Abroad To Holocaust Sites Sharpens Students' Historical Research Skills

by Davidson College
Plaszow concentration camp Poland
Part of the group is pictured next to the 1964 monument to commemorate the Plaszow concentration camp in Poland.

During Davidson's spring break, two faculty members led 12 students to Germany and Poland to conduct intensive research for their course, "The Holocaust: Interpretation, Memory and Representation." Generous grants allowed members of the class and Associate Professor of History Thomas Pegelow Kaplan and Dana Professor of German and Director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies Scott Denham to make the trip free of charge.

"The purpose of this course and trip is to get students to take a more comprehensive approach to conducting research," said Pegelow Kaplan. "I want students to conduct on-site research by visiting historically significant sites, delving into original archives, and conducting interviews."

The ten-day excursion included site visits to The Memorial and Museum Auschitz-Birkenau, located on the grounds of the former concentration camp of the same name, and the House of the Wannsee Conference, the villa where some senior Nazi officials worked on plans for the genocide of European Jews. The group also met with Germans and Poles who had an interest in the Holocaust, including a former Hitler Youth member, a rescuer of Jews, politicians and current students and historians.

"The highlight of my research was in Poland where I interviewed a Polish rescuer," said senior Shirley Akrasih '12. "She described how her family and other families put their lives in real, eminent danger for the sake of others. For me, the Holocaust is definitely a period of undeniable tragedy, but it's also important to remember individuals, like rescuers, and their acts of selfless altruism."

Shirley Akrasih in Krakow
(right) Shirley Akrasih, who is researching Polish rescuers, met (left) Stefania Wilkosz-Filo in Krakow. During the German occupation, Wilkosz-Filo helped to hide a Jewish family for 18 months and saved them from deportation to a death camp.

Students, who ranged from a freshman to seniors, selected a research project topic from a list provided by Pegelow Kaplan. They conducted on-site research about their topics during the trip abroad, and are completing their papers at Davidson during the rest of the spring semester.

Akrasih said her research has demanded an interdisciplinary approach. "When I reflect on all of my resources, I realize how much I'm making use of a liberal arts education," she said. "I've gathered data from sociological, anthropological, and historical sources. There are also psychological and religious components as well."

Anne Tabb '13 is focusing her project on "The Mischlinge Debate," the Nazi debate over how to classify, and treat, individuals of mixed heritage. Tabb was able to access the actual meeting minutes from The Mischlinge Debate when visiting the House of the Wannsee Conference. Sophomore Michael Berro ‘14 is investigating non-Jewish Kapos in Nazi death camps, especially those at the center of the third Auschwitz trial in the late 1960s.

On day three of their trip, the group visited the Free University of Berlin, where Davidson students spoke with and presented their research to German graduate students and a renowned historian. The group also met later with students from the Silesian University in Poland. "I was pleased with how competently Davidson students conducted their work," said Pegelow Kaplan. "I think our European counterparts were impressed."

In addition to the academic rigor experienced during their 12-14 hour days, students had some free time to visit museums and experience European culture.

Pegelow Kaplan has taught this Holocaust seminar for a number of years. He previously led students on a research trip to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., which contains a 50-million page archive. But this was the first trip to Europe. "The Washington trip had gone very well, so I decided to take it one step further," he said.

Tommy Bell and Beau Clark
Tommy Bell '13 and Beau Clark '13 presented research findings at the Memorial House of the Wannsee Conference in Berlin.

The $24,000 cost of the trip was covered by grants from the German Academic Exchange Service, Davidson's Dean Rusk Program in International Studies, a Davidson Research Initiative grant, and funds from the Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty. Based on the success of this year's experience, Pegelow Kaplan anticipates offering the opportunity to future students, and is also excited about extending relationships developed on this trip with several European Universities.

Denham led a previous student study and research trip to Berlin in 2010 with Davidson Research Initiative funding for a seminar titled "Postwall Germany" that he co-taught with Professor of Political Science Lou Ortmayer. One prominent German politician who was part of the 2010 seminar met with students on this Holocaust trip to discuss effects of history on current debates surrounding integration of minorities, xenophobia, and civil society in Germany.

The dozen Davidson students will be presenting their projects both on campus and at Shalom Park, the Jewish Community Center in Charlotte. The Davidson presentations will take place Tuesday, May 1, at 7 p.m. in the 900 Room of the Alvarez College Union. Presentations at Shalom Park will be on Monday, May 7, at 7 p.m. Both events are free and open to the public. For more information contact Professor Pegelow Kaplan at (704) 894–2284 or email thpegelowkaplan@davidson.edu.