By Anna Meehan
When I was young, my favorite book was “A History of the Baltic States” by Andres Kasekamp. If that sounds odd to you, I must agree – it’s not the average pick for a teenage girl. Macmillan describes it as “an essential textbook for undergraduate students taking modules on Eastern or Central European History, Communism and Post-Communism, the Soviet Union, or Baltic Culture and Politics.” This title may seem incredibly dense and discouraging, concerning foreign countries of minimal interest. For me, however, the contents of this book were the stuff of fantasy. A history vastly different from my own, set in a faraway land; filled with castles, epic battles, women kings, brave leaders and (two) tales of good fighting against evil. Replace the words “good” with “democracy”, and “evil” with “authoritarianism”, and you find the baseline for contemporary Central and Eastern European history. These were the legends that inspired me as a child, leading me to pursue a future in Central and Eastern European Studies. Syracuse University’s study abroad program “Exploring Central Europe” was the perfect fit for my interests.
From the beginning, I looked forward to the travel seminar the most. I used to think that I would never see these lands, histories or cultures with my own eyes. On my 20th birthday our cohort started our adventure around Central Europe. I felt I was reaching back to a younger version of myself, inviting her out to see the real-life fairytales that shaped us. Some places felt as though they were pulled directly out of a storybook: the ancient settlement of Biskupin, Malbork Castle, the lakes and forests of Krasnogruda and Sejny. I explored the crypt of the Wawel Cathedral, gazing upon the tomb of Jadwiga, Female King of Poland, the feminist icon I sought to model myself after. Gazing upon the Vltava River and Czech countryside, I felt inspired in the same way Smetana and Dvorak were, the composers who created the music I have studied so diligently. With each visit I was able to realize these histories, reflecting on the lessons they have taught me.
Unfortunately, those familiar with Central Europe know that these lands, although beautiful, bear deep tragedies as well. For example, although I knew that the Holocaust had taken place across Central Europe, the travel seminar revealed that my heart had not fully understood it. Books, photographs, oral histories, documentaries, and lectures can bring one close to conceptualizing the Nazi Germany terror, but these are no substitutes for witnessing these spaces first-hand. After visiting Auschwitz and Treblinka, I was left with more questions than I had answers, and I continue to wonder if my heart will ever process these tragedies completely. While roaming the streets of Warsaw, it is difficult to imagine that across the copper-colored steel divide that marks the boundary of the largest ghetto in Europe, hundreds of thousands of Jews were imprisoned, gathered as a prelude to mass murder. While gazing upon the romantic cabins and villas dotting the Carpathian mountainside, it is easy to forget how Jews once depended on them for hiding; some people were kept safe for years, others for only a few days. I have found that it is difficult to locate anywhere in Central Europe that has not been deeply touched by tragedy; it is through this process that I have developed the ability to admire and mourn at the same time.
The travel seminar revealed to me the concept of memory. Drawing from oral and written histories, memory is a collection of perspectives, emotions, thoughts, and interpretations, passed down through generations and reaching across borders. Given the region’s complex, often brutal history, memory can be found everywhere. Some manifestations are intentionally obvious: for example, the Soviet Union was intentional in building monuments commemorating their sacrifices to the region, asserting a certain narrative which honors socialism and condemns fascism. These monuments exude ideology, once placed to enforce a specific memory upon the regime’s recently acquired territories. Today these are contested spaces, as local societies have become increasingly vocal in rejecting the memory which has been enforced upon them. The collapse of the Soviet Union has granted local societies with the opportunities to voice their own memories of the 20th century, which recall oppression rather than liberation, now seeking the space to represent their own narratives.
Some of the most powerful memory spaces are also the most inconspicuous. The vast, empty fields in Auschwitz and Treblinka portray memory through absence. Rather than build over these sites, many have been left largely as they were discovered after the Second World War, as not to hide the erasure attempted by Nazis during their retreats. When visiting, I found that these spaces did not need to be commemorated in exuberant ways. The memory speaks for themselves, found in the millions of murdered souls who haunt the spaces today. Their presence alone has been more influential, compelling, and mobilizing than any monument constructed by the pocketbooks and interests held by any government.
In order to truly understand memory, I find it essential to understand identity as well. Given the ever-changing borders and leaderships of Central Europe, identity has become a complex and fluid aspect of each individual. As told by our guide in Košice, citizens from the 19th and 20th centuries were able to experience up to seven different national identities in one lifetime, without ever leaving the city. Understanding the political landscape and history of Central European countries has shown an attempt to create a unified national identity since the collapse of the Soviet Union, striving for the opportunity to experience independence and self-determination. It was rather late in the program when I realized that most locals over the age of 45 are able to recall a personal relationship with the liberalization of Central Europe. They remember how their freedoms were once restricted, as well as the sacrifices they made, often risking personal safety, to achieve a state of democracy. Today, protesting is a strongly exercised right across Central Europe. In three months, across four countries, I have witnessed the enthusiastic support of Ukraine and Palestine, whose experiences resonate with the centuries of oppression faced during the 20th century. Today, the nations of Central Europe stand in support of freedom around the world; they remember their own fight for freedom, and demonstrate to other nations what is possible.
As I prepare my return to the United States, I have reflected upon the privilege I have been given as an American, who has lived her entire life knowing freedom. Oftentimes Americans stereotype Central Europe as a backwards, uninteresting region of the world, with little to offer to the West. I have found this to be wholly untrue. Visiting Central Europe has taught me to approach history with empathy, embracing nuance. Central Europe is not homogenous but diverse, representing numerous identities, experiences, and aspirations for the future. I have learned to think critically about the historical narratives that have been provided to me, and to consider the experiences of each person before presenting a solid judgment on their arguments. If Americans should learn anything from Central Europe, it should be that freedom is not given, but earned; a privilege which must be actively maintained. Central Europe is not a monolith, condemned by its history, or incapable of change. Rather, it is an enigma, everchanging, with aspirations for a brighter future.
- Kasekamp, Andres. A History of the Baltic States. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.