Who am I?
Individuals, and even nations, face such questions of identity at some point in their existence. And the answers help give purpose and meaning to that existence.
Pretty deep stuff for an old sportswriter to be contemplating, but I did just that recently when I attended a 10-day academic seminar devoted to these issues. Sponsored by the Council for International Educational Exchange (CIEE), the seminar took me and 16 other educators, mostly college professors, to Krakow, Poland and Berlin, Germany to study the topic “Ruin and Revival: History, Modern Memory and Identity.”
Through a series of site visits and discussions with experts in a variety of fields, we learned about the role of historical memory in the forming of individual and national identities in modern post-Holocaust and post-Communist Poland and the former East Germany.
For the next week or so, I’d like to take readers of this blog on that trip with me. It was a time of discovery, as I learned that there was a lot I didn’t know about both World War II and Cold War-era history. And I also learned that I had more than I thought in common with an interesting group of academics from disciplines ranging from art and sociology to chemistry and business.
My own particular interest in this topic was the role of the news media in forming — or debunking — a people’s image of themselves. I didn’t get all my questions answered, but I think I learned enough to start investigating that topic on my own, which is just as good.
“We’ll be looking at difficult issues and going to difficult places,” said Dr. Benjamin Lorch, director of the CIEE’s Berlin Study Center and a former researcher for the Smithsonian Institution, and the faculty leader for the seminar.
“Your emotions will be very important in this seminar, even more important than what you know.”
In what was to become a recurring theme for the next 10 days, Lorch emphasized the importance of stories in the construction of memory and identity.
“Experts are great, but witnesses are better,” he said, a sentiment that a journalist can especially identify with.
In our opening session at the Jagiellonian University of Krakow we spent our first couple of hours together answering that question, “Who am I?” to get started on the journey. Lorch encouraged us to introduce ourselves to the group with a story or any random fact about ourselves we wanted to share. It was a fun way to start to get to know people we were going to be spending a lot of time with in the next little while.
We finished the evening with a welcome dinner at a place called Restaurant Wierzynek on Krakow’s Market Square — see the view at the top of this post.
The place had a neat grand opening back in 1364 with a banquet for about 20 kings from all over Europe.
We weren’t as titled as that crowd, but a meal of roast goose, dumplings, red cabbage, jellied pike and other delectables was certainly a royal end to this first day.