Freshmen journey to Germany and Poland for immersive Holocaust education

college students holocaust trip

W&J is known for offering its students unique opportunities to travel. Sixteen freshmen had the chance to take advantage of one of these trips before the end of their first year on campus.

Students in the German Film Course, taught by Michael Shaughnessy, Ph.D., traveled to Germany and Poland, which included a trip to the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp to witness what they’d studied in the classroom. They examined how Germans deal with their complex history through the study of memorials, museums, and centers dedicated to the study of the Holocaust.

“We wanted to get students abroad in their first year and let them have that international experience so they can then share their experience with others throughout their college education,” Shaughnessy said. “Taking students from a classroom setting and getting them in an international setting to apply what they’re learning is a really incredible thing W&J is doing.”

Getting out into the field was an important opportunity for the students, who were all nominated by their advisors and W&J professors to take the special topic course.

Visiting sites they had only ever read about or seen in films altered the way they understand the history surrounding World War II and the Holocaust.

Gaining that understanding came from a comprehensive study of artifacts in Munich, Germany, and Krakow, Poland. The students discovered new names in history they hadn’t discussed before, met with citizens of each country to hear their perspectives, and even learned more about their own personal histories. One such student, history major Samantha Kramer ’21, has relatives who were held at Auschwitz and other concentration camps.

“It was really hard for me to go there, but it was also very important for me. It was the first time anyone in my immediate family had gone there,” she said. “It was almost a spiritual experience for me to connect with that part of my family history and to be able to go there and realize the truth of what happened.”

Students only had to pay $300 in travel costs thanks to alumni gifts that helped make the trip affordable for a wide range of students.

“The fact that I was able to go to Germany for only $300 and experience these things that are so ingrained into my own family history was life-changing,” Kramer said.

One source of support for the trip was the Swick Fund, established by John Swick ’47, a generous W&J donor with a passion for international travel. He created the fund to encourage students to see the world. Swick had never left Pennsylvania before serving in the Marines in World War II, but went on to visit 108 countries in his lifetime. Though he passed away in 2015, Swick’s mission to broaden the minds of students through travel continues.

“Alumni support of study abroad is the primary reason why so many students are able to travel,” Shaughnessy said. “The generosity and vision of alumni like John Swick has improved how we teach at W&J by providing the students with first-hand, real-world experiences that make them stand out among their peers.”

Students with professors Michael and Christy Shaugnessy in the Kazimierz district of Kraków, Poland. The district was the historic Jewish quarter of the city before World War II and has experienced a recent resurgence in its Jewish population and culture.

These experiences that take students out of the classroom and away from what they are familiar with allow them to gain a global perspective that will benefit them both in their time as students and as they move beyond W&J.

“Going abroad is something that really does change your life. It takes you out of the small world that a lot of students live in today and it opens the world up for you,” said Ty Bedillion ’21, who is on the 3-2 engineering major track. “You’re not just thinking about Washington, Pennsylvania, anymore when things happen—it’s the entire world.”