June 6th, 2018
Our day began earlier than it ever had before, on a sunny morning at 6:45. We loaded onto the bus, sandwiches in one hand and passports in the other. Our itinerary was stock full, beginning with a two-hour travel time to the city of Strasbourg. Strasbourg is a town full of brightly colored houses and tourists crowded into gift shops. However, on this particular day, we were visiting the Council of Europe. The Council of Europe is an organization of mostly European states that get together to discuss human rights violations. The Council does not have the power to enforce its rulings, but it plays a crucial role in making human rights an internationally discussed issue. The entrance to this impactful building displays the flag of each member state, lined along bright green grass.
After being ushered inside by a security guard, we began our tour that started with an introduction to the member states of the Council. They had a map on display, showing a fully filled in Europe, all except for Belarus. Our tour guide informed us that Belarus refuses to outlaw the death penalty, one of the main requirements to join the Council. Then, we were led to the grand meeting room of the parliament. The meeting room is crowded with row after row of chairs and desks in place for a multitude of representatives. This room is where countries from all over the region gather to bring about change and the hopeful betterment of people. The council members do not sit in order of country, but in alphabetical order of their last name. This system is one way to prevent bias because the goal of the Council is to represent international interests as opposed to national interests.
Our passionate guide then led us to be informed by none other than Angus Macdonald, a Scottish communications officer of the Council of Europe. Angus, sunglass clad and sitting atop a desk, spoke to us about why the world needs the Council and how it inspires change across the globe. Angus welcomed our questions throughout his talk, addressing our concerns about migration reform and members attempting to leave the Council. He introduced the Council by exemplifying the distinctions between the Council of Europe and the European Union. The Council has 47 member states, while the EU is soon to have 27. The idea of the Council is in fact older then the EU, Winston Churchill mentioning it in 1943. There was also some confusion expressed on why the Council and the Union have the same flag and the same anthem. Angus clarified that the Council had both its flag and anthem first and that the EU decided to use them as well. He informed us that if the EU had the budget of the Council, then it would only last for two or three days. The budget discrepancy demonstrates how much human rights truly takes a backseat due to what a state considers a priority like trade and economic regulations.
We departed the continent’s leading human rights organization, back on the bus to eat the five-star sandwiches Dr. B got for us. After a short drive with a scenic view of the surrounding mountains, we arrived at the Alsace-Moselle Memorial. This museum featured how World War II affected the region. There was an overhang that gave way to a gorgeous view of the mountains and little town nestled between them. Obviously, we had a photoshoot there, taking advantage of Hamid’s not so hidden photography skills. The entry room of the museum came as quite a shock to me. As we were led into a dimly lit room with portraits lining the wall, I saw the immense amount of history pertaining to Metz. There it was-photographic proof of the German occupation of Metz. It wasn’t just the Germans, but the Nazis in particular. It was such a strange experience seeing pictures of streets that I have walked several times a week that were packed with Hitler supporters instead of shoppers and their dogs.
Passing through the photography exhibit and rooms filled with flashing lights along with makeshift tanks, it was easy to see how well done this museum truly was. There were train cars with uneven floors, rooms lined with flags, and truly captivating videos presented throughout it all. Just before the exit, we were presented with an interactive projection style game. After hearing echoing laughter and shouts of agreement, Hamid and I walked into a brightly lit room filled with mirrors on the walls and images projected onto the ceiling. The majority of our little group had been entertaining themselves by ranking how important different aspects of the EU were. It was a very interesting set up and a good idea on the part of the museum designer. There were also impressive graphics displayed on the ceiling, often incorporating the flag of the EU (and the Council of Europe). We then flooded into the gift shop, surrounding the EU paraphernalia like the true fangirls we have all become. I bought a mug with the EU stars engraved on it; it shall soon be filled with hot chocolate and marshmallows.
Our day got increasingly heavier as we continued with each step of the itinerary: from the Council of Europe to the Alsace-Moselle Memorial to Natzweiler concentration camp. On my previous trip to Europe I had been to Dachau, so I sort of knew what to expect. The thing about concentration camps is that if you don’t read the signs, you don’t immediately know what it is. Natzweiler is at the top of a winding mountain road, surrounded by a grand expanse of cedar trees and blue skies. It was not until we entered the museum that the expected atmosphere was revealed. A somber black and white film depicted what life was like while the camp was active. Stairs led down into the exhibit, an extensive history of World War II and its respective human rights violations were on display. They had conveniently laminated English versions of the information in bins next to each section.
As soon as we began walking through the gallery, rain began pouring down outside. By pouring down, I mean exactly that-water pounding down and thunder echoing in our ears. Some brave souls decided to run into battle with the rain to head towards where the camp was. Soon after we saw them disappear into the ocean that the outside had become, hail began pelting down. This vastly limited the desire of the rest of the group to head to the camp. We all wondered around the upstairs for a while as Dr. Markley told us stories about Romania and we read about atrocities of the past. It began nearing our departure time and yet some of us had not yet braved the weather in order to go to the other museum and physically walk through the gate of the camp. A few of us decided it was worth seeing, even if only for a few minutes. With umbrellas in hand and our feet hopefully avoiding puddles, we ran outside. It is impossible for me to grasp how it must have been, being persecuted each and every day while being surrounded by a beautiful landscape of alps. The physical camp is very flat with long and short buildings on each end. There were also large patches of dirt covering the ground, just how it was at Dachau. The small museum they had at the top of the hill was also very interesting with lots of models of different portions of the war displayed. It was then time to leave, all of us heading toward the bus soaked from head to toe.
It was once again time for a two-hour ride back so we all passed out quite quickly. When we woke up, Pedro informed us that Dr. B was getting pizza for all of us, bringing a cheesy end to our day.