GT in the EU

An extraordinary education

Month: July 2016 (Page 1 of 5)

Goodbye Europe

Today we have a free day in Krakow and as suggested by our tour guide Conrad, I’m sitting at a coffee shop writing my blog and feeling the flow of the city of Krakow. In this blog I’m primarily going to reflect on our 10-week program. This would help future students get an idea of what to expect from this study abroad and also at the end of this blog I’m going to leave some useful tips for future students.

Dr. Birchfield likes to change a few things around every year, this year our group visited 8 different cities. Our base was in the always-raining city of Brussels. The other cities we visited were Copenhagen, Stockholm, Paris, The Hague, Berlin and Krakow. Every city had something unique about itself hence there was something different to learn from each city. I’m not talking about our site visits and lectures in each city, more about the general atmosphere in each city for example Paris’s classicalness, Copenhagen’s happiness or Berlin’s ever-lasting exuberance. I even got the opportunity to travel quite a bit by myself before and during the program. I visited Leicester, Milan and Munich before the program started while Frankfurt, London and Bombay during the program. I’m even planning to go back to London for a bit after the program. So bottom line the opportunity to travel is there it’s completely up to you if you wish to take it. I love experiencing new cultures and that’s why I spent almost every free weekend in a new city.

Coming back to our course, along with learning about the culture of cities this course has been rather exciting. Just recently having picked up a minor in International Affairs I wasn’t sure what to expect from this study abroad program. However the program didn’t let me down at all. There are many ongoing problems in Europe and getting different and high ranked government officials and a variety of lecturer’s perspectives on most of the problems was thought provoking. We discussed issues such as TTIP, Greek debt crisis, human rights violations (even the Holocaust), data privacy issues, terrorism, Brexit, the migration crisis, and the rise of the right wing. All topics were interesting but I’d like to comment on the later 3 topics that I mentioned.

Brexit – The reason I wanted to talk about this is because I think this decision has the possibility of completely changing Europe and the level of European integration. The night before, the result of the vote was to be announced I slept soundly expecting the UK to remain. I was remembering professor Manner’s lecture where he reassured us that the polls aren’t always the best judge of the final outcome in the UK. Polls suggested that the UK might leave however I thought the more sensible decision would prevail and that’s why the citizens of the UK would decide to remain. I actually had the opportunity to travel to London the day the vote was announced. Initially I think Brussels was more upset than the UK that the UK left however after the pound reached a 35 year low that really kicked some sense into the citizens of the UK. It’s shocking even after all that Boris Johnson was appointed Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. Right after the vote was announced the most common Google search in the UK was “What is the EU?” Is there a possibility of a second referendum, only time will tell? However it’s estimated that the UK would leave the EU by 2017 and it’s going to be interesting to see what kind of deal they negotiate with the EU especially regarding single market access.

Migration Crisis and the rise of the Right Wing Parties – During our site visit to Human Rights Watch our presenter described the importance of NGOs brilliantly with the use of a famous quote by a politician. “We know what is to be done but don’t know hot to get elected after.” There are a lot of issues surrounding the migration crisis but a conversation I had with my host parents really sums up the biggest problem according to me. According to my host parents it’s against all humanitarian values to not allow refugees into Europe however how can we find the correct balance. How do we stop Europe from getting overpopulated? An increased population means a higher burden on European countries with a possible loss of identity and possible increased security threats. It’s interesting to see how governments try to achieve this balance, which is almost impossible to find. This is one of the leading reasons that is leading to a rise in support for the Right Wing parties across Europe. The cliché saying those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it is really apt in this scenario. The right wing parties may be fronted with softer faces now however their underlying ideology of nationalism remains unchanged. Whether it be the UKIP party in Britain, AfD in Germany, France’s National Front Party or Austria’s Norbert Hofer all far right parties are firm supporters of anti-immigration. This nationalist dynamic makes it harder to resolve the refugee crisis and will possibly lead to a reduced European Integration. The fear of Marine Le Pen winning France’s upcoming presidential election means the possibility of a Frexit would be up for discussion. This sight is extremely scary! However in my opinion the solution cannot be suppression or “more Europe” – that will have the opposite effect – but the urgent creation of what David Cameron called in his Bloomberg speech a Europe of “flexible cooperation, respecting national differences”.

Europe’s future is filled with uncertainty but I hope I’ve done a decent enough job for future students to not be as clueless as I was before the program started and after reading this blog you all will get a feeling of what to expect to learn from this program. I’d like to mention a few tips for the program as well.

  1. Be ready to pay for water and bathrooms in Europe.
  2. Carry an umbrella every time you step out. It rains a lot.
  3. Be prepared to walk a lot. My step count ranged from like 8000 steps to 30000 steps.
  4. Take out time to spend with your host family. You can learn a lot from them.
  5. Don’t lose patience with your classmates. 10 weeks with the same group of people can be a lot, but there is just a lot to learn from each one of them and these friends have the possibility of becoming your best friends.
  6. Finally have a good work-life balance. Study hard, be attentive during class, and ask good questions but don’t forget to enjoy this opportunity to travel around so many different cities and still be able to feel like at home in each city.

I’m really going to miss this trip specially the random people I met in Europe, the fresh food, the culture, the beer, my host family, and most importantly the group of friends that accompanied me on this study abroad with whom I have created a bag of happy memories. This is my second study abroad program with Tech and I wish I could do one more but it’s time to graduate. Thank you Dr. Birchfield and thank you Tech.

Last meal in Brussels with my host parents.

Last meal in Brussels with my host parents.

Visiting the Bundestag

On our second day in Berlin, we began our site visits with a trip to the Bundestag, where we were shown around by an official in the upper house of the German Parliament. The parliament is not currently in session, but will return later in September. As we walked through several parliamentary buildings, one of the things that I noticed was how much care was put into the architecture and design of the buildings. The various architects and designers employed to work on the buildings were given an extraordinary amount of control over their respective areas, and the resulting rooms and buildings are really something to see. Not only are they impressive architectural works of art, many of the features on the parliamentary buildings have great historical or political significance. For example, the plenary room, which our guide referred to as the most important room of the parliament, was designed in such a way that a person can stand outside the building from a great distance away and see directly into the glass walls of the room. The intended result was a room that is both transparent and somehow accessible to the people, reflecting the transparency of the parliament and processes. German history is also an integral part of the parliamentary buildings; there are many references to German identity and history in the buildings themselves and in the tunnels under them. Below the Bundestag in one tunnel is a construction of boxes bearing the names of German MPs. Certain boxes are specially marked and commemorate the members who were killed or imprisoned standing up to the Nazi regime. In this way, the construction is not just a record of those who have served the German people in parliament; it is also a sort of memorial.
The tour of the Bundestag presented an opportunity to see some incredible architecture as well as a glimpse into German culture and history. In each country we’ve visited so far, we have seen multiple government buildings and parliaments, but the visit to the Bundestag gave us an example of how history affects national identity in a very visible way. Throughout the buildings, we saw memorials and monuments commemorating German independence and reunification as well as the events of World War II. Entire rooms and buildings have been redesigned to intentionally reflect changes in German identity and values, making them works of art as well as historical reminders. It was incredibly interesting to see a visible representation of how deeply German culture and politics are linked to historical events.
After the tour, we were briefed by Mr. Hardt, a member of the German Parliament as well as the official coordinator for transatlantic cooperation. He began the briefing by speaking about some of the main topics on the agendas of the EU and the German parliament; according to Hardt, the primary concern at the moment is Brexit, which few expected would actually happen and for which no one was prepared. As the European Union prepares for the UK’s secession, their top priority will be to avoid losing power by showing the European people that they are still strong and prepared to follow through in spite of the referendum. As a part of this effort, Angela Merkel will release a new strategy approach after this coming March, which might involve closer cooperation between state governments as well as EU institutions. We also discussed the potential economic and policy effects of Brexit on both the United Kingdom and the European Union, including what the possible impacts will be on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. In regards to how TTIP will be affected, Hardt’s opinion was that both the EU and the US consider TTIP and its progress a top priority, which will take precedence over any future bilateral trade agreements with the UK. As a result, the UK is at a disadvantage in its trade negotiations with both sides, and its relationship with the US will likely deteriorate, as the United States’ first trade priority is with the EU and not the UK. He also remarked that the UK has weakened significantly its bargaining power with the EU by not actively taking a role in EU politics and issues for the past few years. He finds it unlikely that Great Britain will be able to remain within the single market; while it will probably form a special agreement with the EU, it will not enjoy full integration into the single market after leaving. Hardt also spoke about the direct impacts that Brexit has had on Germany, its role as a member state, and its people’s perceptions of the EU. With the loss of such a large and influential member state, it is possible that Germany will take a stronger leadership role within the EU.
We also discussed the rise of right-wing politics across the European continent, a trend which has become evident with the events of the UK referendum and the recent presidential elections (and re-elections) in Austria. The success of the French Front Nationale and the Austrian People’s Party has been characterized by the rise of national-populistic rhetoric and strong anti-EU sentiment, which is also evident in the words and actions of a number of members of the European Parliament who are actively anti-EU. The events of the Syrian refugee crisis and recent economic hardships (largely due to the financial crisis of 2008), have increased similar sentiments in many European countries. However, by contrast, public support for the EU has recently increased in Germany. Mr. Hardt mentioned that even in the midst of the refugee influx, which encouraged right-wing support in other countries, support for the German far right party was only around 10%, and has since fallen lower. He told us that while the far right party will likely become an acting party in parliament next year, they will do so only as a tiny percentage, echoing what we heard from the official who toured the Bundestag with us earlier in the day.
Finally, our briefing with Mr. Hardt included a conversation on current German politics, including an analysis of Angela Merkel. In particular, he mentioned a decisive moment in Merkel’s career in which she spoke on the topic of refugees, saying that if one can’t be friendly and open to refugees in Germany, then it is not her country. It was very interesting and informative to hear the perspective of a German MP on Angela Merkel and her approach to refugee policy, which has such huge implications for European states today. It was also interesting to hear Hardt’s opinions on TTIP- he gave us part of his explanation as to why negotiations might be moving so slowly. In addition to being extremely complex and difficult to explain to citizens, the trade deal is also encountering issues with differing standards of production, mistrust on both sides of the negotiations, and a certain reluctance to embrace changes that might come with a final deal. The 14th round of negotiations began on the previous day, and there will be a council meeting in September regarding progress. Hardt finds it unlikely that the agreement will be finished before President Obama’s term is up, which means that the next US president will very likely have to look at the final stages of the agreement and push it through. While many speakers have expressed extreme doubt that the agreement will pass if not completed under the Obama administration, Hardt seemed to be of the opinion that the new US president will be able to finish the TTIP negotiations. The briefing has only made it more evident how closely the world is watching the upcoming elections; it’s been spoken about in nearly every single site visit, and this one was no exception. Speaking with MP Hardt was a great opportunity to gain a further understanding of the importance of cooperation between the EU and the US as well as insight into German politics. As we come to the end of the program, it will be very interesting to follow Germany’s evolving role in the EU and in transatlantic relations.

Getto krakowskie

Our second packed day in Kraków we started off with something a bit lighter than the before at Auschwitz. We began our day by walking to the Kazimierz, or Jewish, neighborhood of Kraków while our guide Konrad was pointing out different locations that the movie Schindler’s List by Steven Spielberg was filmed. For me, this was incredibly interesting because I had recently watched the film again before coming to Europe this summer and I was able to clearly recognize the different places he was pointing out to us during the tour. For example, we went to one place in Kazimierz that looked just like a regular alleyway with a restaurant in it but, it was the filming site for an important part of the film where the Jewish citizens are trying to escape and hide before the German SS officers can get to them and take them away or kill them.


After viewing some of the filming locations for Schindler’s List we went to the New Square of Kazimierz where there was a charming little flea market that was just getting started for a quiet Tuesday afternoon. In that New Square there was also apparently the best place in Kraków (or Poland depending on who you’re asking) for zapiekanka in Nowa Square. I did not get to try it but hopefully I can get some by the end of the trip. One Polish delicacy that I did get to try were pierogis during our lunch break. They were absolutely delicious and reasonably priced which makes me wish I could pay Polish prices in all of Europe, especially Scandinavia. I was warned that the food here would not be as great as the other countries we have been to but, I think it’s all about making the most of what is available to you.


During our walking tour we also got to see two synagogues in Kazimierz. One was the only synagogue that is still being used in the neighborhood and the other was the oldest synagogue in Kraków that is no longer active but serves as a museum now. Both were very interesting and gave us a peek into what was involved in the life of Polish jew living in Kraków throughout the years including a wonderful picture gallery of the Jewish culture during the Nazi occupation of Poland.



The hardest part of the day was visiting the former Kraków Ghetto across the river. It was easy to tell when you entered the ghetto because of the breathtaking and thought provoking display of chairs in the square to represent all of the generations of lost families in the ghetto. There was only one section of the wall that separated the ghetto from the rest of Kraków near a children’s playground but otherwise, the former ghetto was open to the rest of the city. It was hard to try and imagine that the streets we were walking upon were once covered in bodies of the victims of the holocaust as the result of human ignorance and maliciousness. In the ghetto we also got to visit the factory in which Oskar Schindler employed all of the Jewish people who he was able to save through his generosity and kindness. The factory is no longer in use and most of the original is not there anymore, but there is a wonderful museum in the former factory with a permanent exhibit on the Nazi Occupation of Kraków from 1939-1945. The exhibit was very interactive and included many photos of Kraków during the occupation that included rooms with different atmospheres that really helped facilitate a more physical and emotional connection to the plight of the Jewish Poles living in Kraków during the time. It was put together and designed extremely well so that I was completely absorbed in the exhibit the whole time. Overall, today was a great chance to understand what really went down in the city of Kraków that terminated an sizable portion of the population that left the city to only have 200~ jewish inhabitants today.




Entrance to Auschwitz

Today on our first full day in Krakow we had an early start to the day with a van ride to Auschwitz. In my opinion, this has been by far the most emotional and eye opening visit of the entire trip. To me it was just surreal to be standing in the ground where so many people were stripped away of their humanity and murdered only less than 75 years ago. I think mankind has come a long way but if more people had the chance to see places like Auschwitz, there is no doubt in my mind that the world would change for better. Auschwitz is one of those places that is now so peaceful and so historic that sometimes it is hard to see beyond what is right in front of you and actually re-live some of the moments as some of the people that we encountered during our tour proved with their indifferent attitudes.

Auschwitz was not just one concentration camp, it was a network of Nazi concentration and extermination camps which consisted of three main camps plus some 45 satellite camps. There were 1.3 million people that were deported to the camp, 1.1 million of whom were murdered there. Although Jewish people accounted for the majority of those who were deported, the camp did not only include Jewish people. There were many non-Jewish Poles, Gypsies, soviet prisoners of war, and a large number of prisoners from other ethnic groups that included people who opposed the Nazi regime.


Perimeter fence around Auschwitz I

We started our tour on the site of Auschwitz I, where at front gate the first sign we saw said “Work brings freedom.” This was very sad to me because the people that were deported to the camp thought, at least initially, that they would be starting a new life and this was reflected by the kinds of things that they took with them which we could see in some of the exhibitions such as pots and pans, shoe polish, etc. The conditions inside of the living quarters were deplorable to say the least and something that most people accustomed to a modern style of living would not be able to withstand for nearly as long as most people did during WWII. I was particularly shocked by the standing cells in the basement of Block 11. These were 1 square yard with a 2 inch opening for air and a 2 square feet hatch for prisoners to enter the cell. There were up to four people at one time inside the cell where they could not sit or see the light of day and then they were repeatedly forced to work day after day until most of them died. We went through some of the gas and cremation chambers where approximately 90% of the people that were deported to the camp were murdered. These chambers were the result of the optimization of execution by Nazi officials since the price of ammunition was too high at the time. There we saw the places where people were told they would take a disinfecting bath and then sent to the concentration camp with everyone else but never made it out. Another thing that shocked me is that many people that were deported to the death camps were isolated from the rest of the camps and called the Sonderkommando. These special units were forced to work cremating the bodies of sometimes their own neighbors and family members after they had been gassed to death and then they were eventually put inside the chambers themselves.


Belongings from the deportees

We learned that the Nazi officials wanted to destroy Jewish those deported to the camps not only as a race but as human beings. They were lied to just so they would get on the train and then they were lied to just so they would get on the gas chambers. I think if they had known what kind of atrocities awaited them, they would have rather died fighting, but they didn’t know. As soon as they reached the camps they were stripped form their belongings and even their hair which was later used to make fabrics and their bones to make buttons. This to me was the ultimate dehumanization of these people. They were essentially reduced to the equivalent of raw materials, something so inhumane and so atrocious that for me it is impossible to imagine anyone could do that and to another human being and still live with themselves.


Bunk beds where up to five people were forced to sleep on each level

The tour continued in Auschwitz II-Birkenau were most of the murders were carried out. This place is now equally as peaceful as Auschwitz I and even surrounded by beautiful vegetation that now somewhat disguises the atrocities committed there. There we saw some other types of barracks were people were forced to live. None of the places really had a way to stay warm during the harsh winters and the bunk beds they had to share with five other people were not even larger enough for me to lay fully horizontally. Out of all of these experiences in Auschwitz however, what affected me the most emotionally was entering Auschwitz II and walking towards the death chambers using the exact same path that hundreds of thousands of people used to walk to their death. I tried to imagine what it would be like to take those steps during that time, the feeling of hopelessness and desperation that they must have felt when some of them eventually knew the faith that awaited them.


Cremation chamber

At the end of the tour, our guide told us that there have been debates about whether the place should even exist and be preserved anymore. I can almost understand how some people might want to forget this period of their history, move on and erase this painful period of time from their memories; however, this reminded me of a quote that I saw when we first entered the camp which said: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I thought this was a very important quote specially in the times that we are living in right now with a migration and political crisis that is starting to spark feelings similar to those that steered us into WWII. That is why I think that Auschwitz should not only be preserved but should be taught about and should be exposed as much as possible. A few years from now when most survivors from that time period pass away and their relatives feel very distant from their memories, all we will have to remind us that atrocities such as the ones committed during WWII must never happen again will be sites like Auschwitz.

All in all, I think I can speak for all of us in the program when I say that today was a truly moving day and even life changing for some of us. Today, this knowledge was passed down to us so we could learn from it and make better decision during in our life and one day all of us will hopefully pass it down again to the next generations in hopes that we can teach them enough for them not to repeat the same mistakes that have been made in the past and ensure that this will never happen again.

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