Catawba College Honors Students Experienced Eye-Opening Trip to Explore Genocide in the 20th Century

Catawba College Honors students enrolled in the class “States of Killing: Genocide in the 20th Century” spent December 6 – 17, 2023 on an immersive trip to Europe. They were joined by faculty members, President David P. Nelson, Kimberly Nelson, and a group of alumni and friends of the college.

The trip itinerary encompassed significant historical sites across Germany and Poland, including Munich, Berlin, Poznan, Warsaw, Krakow, and Dresden. Students had the opportunity to visit iconic locations such as the Dachau Concentration Camp, the House of the Wannsee Conference, Auschwitz Concentration Camp, Oskar Schindler Factory, and the Memorium Nuremberg Trials, Berlin Wall, and Museum of History of Polish Jews, among others.

“Learning in the classroom is one thing, but being able to experience things in real life with your classmates is invaluable,” said Alexis Devlin ’24. “Going places you learned about with those you learned it with was something I needed to make it through some of the challenging places we visited. Taking a trip abroad is something I recommend every college student do.”

With a diverse group of 14 students representing different majors including History, Politics, Spanish, Business, Teacher Education, and Accounting, Catawba provided a comprehensive perspective on the subject matter. Through experiential learning and engagement with historical sites, students delved into the complex questions surrounding genocide:

  • What is genocide?
  • What causes genocide?
  • What are the differences between the perpetrators, victims, and bystanders?
  • What, if anything, can be done to prevent genocide in the future?

“My key takeaway from this trip was recognizing how conditioned we are to evil as a society,” said Emma Nantz. “I’m a very empathetic person, so I struggled at the concentration camps in Auschwitz. With human hair on display, taken from millions of people, it truly puts into perspective how real genocide is. As people walked by, some laughing in their own world at the camp I was blown away by how oblivious we can be to such horrors.”

Dr. Maria Vandergriff-Avery, Honors Program Director and Professor of Sociology, and Dr. Michael Bitzer, Director of the Center of NC Politics and Public Service and Professor of Politics and History, led the students through these profound inquiries, fostering critical thinking and empathy. The trip was not only a supplement to the academic curriculum but also a testament to Catawba’s commitment to fostering global citizenship and understanding.

“This trip was an essential part of the learning that took place in this course,” said Vandergriff-Avery. “While studying genocide from an academic standpoint is an important endeavor, visiting the sites and places where decisions to commit genocide were made enhanced everyone’s understanding of the topic.”

As Catawba continues to offer this thought-provoking course due to student interest and the imperative need to understand the genocide, the institution remains steadfast in its dedication to providing students with the tools to critically examine historical and contemporary issues.

“While a course dealing with genocide in the 20th Century would seem like heavy intellectual lifting, the four questions we pose to the students are deep and necessary to wrestle with in considering how human beings treat other human beings,” added Bitzer. “For our third trip with this course to Germany and Poland, I’m amazed at how the students navigate and deal with the presence of such extraordinary evil. While you can read about genocide, and see it portrayed in documentaries and in cinema, until you walk under the “Work Sets You Free” gate at Auschwitz or see the ruins of the crematoria at Birkenau, you can’t fully understand the magnitude of how such an incredible event like the Holocaust, and other genocidal events, occur.”

Learn more about Catawba's Honor Program on their website.

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