That time I took a genocide course

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Brandon Chow is a senior political science major from Trinidad and Tobago. He is a member of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity and president of the model United Nations team at NSU.

History 4700: Genocide in the 20th Century and Beyond is offered at NSU every other winter semester. The course explores several genocides during the 20th and 21st century, and includes a trip to Eastern Europe for two weeks during spring break.

The first day I walked into the class I considered myself an optimist. I felt that there was a lot of bad in the world, but we, as a species, could be better.

Many of my previous classes showed me that there are an abundance of corrupt systems in the world, but they were put in place by a very small portion of the population. After the first week of the genocide course, I realized that this class was going to be very different. This wasn’t about corrupt systems; it was about corrupt individuals influencing the average person to commit atrocities. I have never been in a class that offered so few solutions and left me with so many questions. Every time I walked out of those Parker building doors I was a little bit different from when I walked in.

In class, we read several books, had numerous class discussions and wrote papers. We studied the Armenians, Cambodia, the Holocaust and the Bosnian Genocides. Then we went to Eastern Europe for two weeks during spring break, and came back to study Rwanda and Darfur. These were not easy topics, and our professor challenged me to think deeply and critically about each topic. It is easy to get lost in the material. For two days a week we were in class talking about or watching a video on genocide. For the other five days, I was preparing for class by reading and writing about it. For the first two months, I thought about genocide constantly.

Before we left for Europe, we went to a talk given by a Holocaust survivor that was kept in Auschwitz. I was able to meet and talk with him briefly. This made the experience even more real. After meeting him I kept trying to grasp what it meant to kill six million people. Each of those people had a life that was equally important as my own. Every one of those people had loved ones, memories and experiences. How can anyone truly understand the severity of murdering six million people? This question ran through my thoughts for the remainder of the class.

When spring break came, we were off to Eastern Europe. We went to Poland, Hungry, Serbia, and Bosnia. This trip was eye-opening not only because we were able to go to the places we were studying, but because we got to interact with cultures that people do not typically think about travelling to meet. When I hear about people traveling to Europe or taking a semester to study abroad they usually go to Western Europe. It is rare to talk to people that have visited Bosnia or Serbia.

The first place we went to was Poland. We were staying right next to the square in Krakow, so many of us did not waste the opportunity to go searching for bars and restaurants. But the fun came to a halt when we visited Auschwitz-Birkenau. This infamous death camp is massive. We walked around the camp for several hours and I still felt there was more to see. Walking the camp is emotionally difficult. Touring a place where millions were tortured and murdered is hard. Some people say that the hardest part is to walk into the gas chambers but I disagree.

The hardest part for me was seeing the room of human hair. When the Jews arrived at the camp the Nazis would cut off all of their hair and repurpose it. This was to dehumanize them, by making everyone look the same. Being in a room filled with this physical representation of dehumanization was daunting. After Auschwitz-Birkenau my body felt drained and I thought I was getting sick, so I asked my professor if I could take a day off from being with the class. The next day the class went to the salt mines and I slept in.

But I decided to get out of bed at 10 a.m. and venture into the square to find food. I found this gorgeous little café that is know for being Vladimir Lenin’s favorite restaurant. I ate outside facing the square and the weather was perfect. The sun shone down directly on the square, and the winter breeze reinvigorated me. I will never forget that moment, when I stopped thinking and just took in my surroundings.

The next stop on our tour was Budapest. We were only there for one night, but we were able to take a tour of the city. It’s referred to as the Paris of the East, and for good reason. Every building I saw looked like a work of art.

Our time in Budapest was short, as we moved to Serbia. Our time in Serbia felt like a brief reprieve from genocide. We still spoke about genocide, but it was not as intense as Poland. On the second day in Serbia our professor introduced us to some friends he met on previous trips. They took us to a “cavanna,” which is a bar that plays live Serbian music. The people were so welcoming. It felt like the cultural barriers were nonexistent, even though I couldn’t understand any of the lyrics.

The last place on our tour was Bosnia. We spent about five days in Sarajevo, touring the cities and going to museums. We were also able to speak to two people who were in Sarajevo when the genocide occurred. The genocide only occurred twenty years ago and the people have not yet healed. The art on the wall of the streets will remind you, even if the people do not.

My trip to Eastern Europe was a roller coaster of emotions. We were there to learn about genocide, but it’s hard not to have a good time exploring the world with your friends. There were moments that were dark, but there were times that were amazing that I was able to share with people I had grown close to.

By the end of the class, I was not the same person I was when it started. I had learned of the world’s unimaginable capacity for cruelty. I was not the optimist who first walked through those Parker building doors. The class did not turn me into a pessimist, but it did add a realistic aspect to the way I view the world. I have also become more sensitive to many of the issues in the world. The lessons I learned in this class had a positive effect on my academic and moral development. It was impossible for me to fully grasp the meaning of genocide, but I was able to understand it a little more, and grow as a person. I would say that despite all of the negative feelings, taking the class was worth it.

Photo credit: B. Chow.
Caption: Brandon Chow, senior political science major.

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