Professor Jeff Charnley’s Reflections on “The 4th of July at Buchenwald” 2008

“The 4th of July at Buchenwald?”

In analyzing student writings in response to this study abroad program, I have found that they are learning a great deal and, in many instances, their experiences are life changing.  As one might expect, the culmination of this program continues to be when we spend a day at Buchenwald Concentration Camp near Weimar, Germany.  In 2008, our planned day of study there happened to fall on 4 July and one student asked me, “Dr. Charnley, are we really going to the concentration camp on the Fourth of July?”  I was somewhat surprised at how many students in their site analysis journals commented on this strange juxtaposition of dates and activities.


While their friends and family back in the U.S. were setting off fireworks after a day of relaxation, barbecuing and leisure activities, we would be going to a place of horror.  I told them that I knew it would be a difficult day for all of us but that perhaps this was the single most significant place that we would go to learn about World War II and its continuing legacy in our lives.  I had prepared them as best as I could but I also knew what they would encounter that day in observation and reflection.


Here is what one student, Matthew Jerry, wrote in his journal:


“Once we made the whole circle around Buchenwald it was the inevitable time to see our last building.  Located in the north west part of the camp stands the crematorium.  This was the sickest building I have ever stepped foot in.  This building was a former pathology department, corpse and execution cellar, incineration facility and an exhibition annex (the facility for execution by shooting in the neck).  Before walking through this gruesome memorial, Dr. Charnley prepared us for what was to come. . . .  He  said,

‘Adolf Hitler and the Nazis rekindled the fires of Hell in this place and we will light these memorial candles of Hope, for our grandchildren and theirs to come. . .  This is why we are in Europe and I’m pleased that you are all here with me on this day.'”


All remembered it was the Fourth of July!  In an emotionally powerful entry, another student, Marilee Rump, wrote this in her journal:


“The silence in the room was unreal as we lit our candles.  I started to cry by the time I could see directly into one of the ovens.  We were there in the room where so many innocent people lost their lives for being different, yet the 30 of us all standing there were completely different.  . . . I can forever remember the Fourth of July 2008 for the life lesson it gave to me. . . . We will never forget and forever we will have this day together, the day that changed our lives.”


As long as I am able to recruit thoughtful students such as these, I believe that “The United States and World War II Europe: Memory and Memorials” Study Abroad Program at Michigan State University will continue to thrive and affect students in very positive ways. And, of course, I realize now that going to Buchenwald concentration camp on the Fourth of July is the best day possible for their study abroad experience!


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