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CAHSS students visit Europe as part of genocide course

13-day trip covered multiple countries

Reading about genocide is not an easy topic, but traveling to the places where it happened is an essential part of the CAHSS undergraduate history course taught by Professor Gary Gershman, Ph.D., J.D.

The course, Genocide in the 20th Century and Beyond, covers genocides around the world, including the Holocaust, the Balkans, Darfur, and Rwanda.

“The reality is, no matter how much we read or do, to go to these places and talk to people, is devastating,” said Gershman, of the Department of History and Political Science. “I think some of it takes days, weeks, if not months to process it all.”

The trip started several years ago as eight days and has grown into 13 days. Gershman and 13 his students traveled in March 2018 to Krakow, Poland; the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp; Budapest, Hungary, and various locations in Serbia and Bosnia. The trip spans events like the Holocaust in the 1940s to the more recent Bosnian War of the 1990s. In Bosnia, students met with survivors from the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, in which more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were killed.

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“On our trip to Eastern Europe, I stared at the many crutches and wheelchairs that lined the walls of a small building, in the heart of Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland,” said Linea Cutter, who previously went on the trip and graduated in 2015 with a double major in Political Science and History.

Gershman said students can struggle to process their experiences and minimize their own personal struggles in comparison to what they learn in class and on the trip.

“Your stuff is still your stuff, and you can’t just dismiss them,” Gershman said. “On the other hand, I think it can give you perspective on your life that some little things just aren’t that important. I think you almost get survivor’s guilt when you go these places.”

Because of the complicated emotions involved, Gershman balances out the trip by including recreational activities. Students maintain journals throughout the trip and write papers after returning. After that, it’s back to studying other genocides in Rwanda and more recent occurrences like Myanmar/Burma.

According to Gershman, many students describe the trip as life altering, not only in taking them to places they would not have visited otherwise, but also in wanting to become more involved and have a positive impact upon the world.

“Dr. Gershman’s class was a life-changing experience, and motivated me to pursue a career in academia, where I hope to follow his example, and raise awareness for human rights abuses and genocides that continue to plague the globe,” Cutter said.

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The shared experiences from the trip create a bond between the students that Gershman said is not typical for most other classes.

“That is all part of the impact,” Gershman said. “It’s a communal sharing of this stuff.”

The conversation does not end when the semester wraps up, as former students keep in touch with each other and Gershman in a private Facebook group.

Gershman has been teaching courses on the Holocaust for 15 years. In summer 2017, he participated in a four-week fellowship at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. The fellowship provided access to a vast archives of documents and photos, and included meetings with experts.

Photos from the trip can be viewed on the department’s Instagram page.

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