Helga Thorson: I-witness Leader

Meet Helga Thorson, Chair of the Department of Germanic and Slavic Studies! This May, Helga is running the I-witness Field School, a learning opportunity outside of the traditional classroom. When not teaching German culture and language at UVic, Helga can be found hiking or reading. Helga is super easy going, and would love to talk to you about the field school.

The I-witness Field School is one week of intensive study of the Holocaust, followed by three weeks of travel through Central Europe, visiting Holocaust sites. Before the course even begins, though, students are expected to have read the entire reading list. That’s intense!! Then the first week of the field school is spent at UVic, discussing the readings and giving presentations on their site of choice. Then, it’s off to Europe for three long weeks of trying to see as much as possible related to the Holocaust.

Helga’s personal connections to the Holocaust have influenced her study of Germany and its culture. Her mother lived in Germany during the Nazi regime, and her great-grandmother was deported to a concentration camp for being Jewish. During the trip, the field school makes a stop at the grave of Helga’s great-grandfather in Berlin, where an inscription was added for her great-grandmother. Listening to Helga read out family letters written during the Nazi regime and talking to survivors of the Holocaust while in Europe gives students a personal connection to the material being studied that is extremely difficult to obtain in a traditional classroom.

This year, the field school is stopping in Berlin, Germany; Crocaw, Poland; Vienna and Linz in Austria; Budapest, Hungary; and former concentration camps in Germany, Poland and Austria. Students will visit Holocaust memorials, both old and new, and witness the places where prisoners lived before being slaughtered en masse. Students will also have the opportunity to meet with students at European universities and compare the different cultural experiences they’ve had in regards to the Holocaust.

After the trip’s conclusion, students are expected to write a reflective essay, do a public presentation, and write a research paper on their experiences by the end of the summer term.

Helga says that the field school has been known to shape students’ lives and the way that they think. The field school is an excellent opportunity for anyone in any discipline: participants have majored in fields such as Germanic Studies, Writing, History, English, and many more. All participants bring something to the program, with their diverse points of view and varied skill sets.

The deadline to apply to the field school is November 1. Students can find more information at the I-witness website. Students are also encouraged to email [email protected] with any questions they may have. Up to twenty students will be accepted to the field school this year.

Any students who join the field school will be in for a tiring, challenging experience. The field school can be an emotionally and physically exhausting experience, but ultimately extremely rewarding. Helga is looking forward to your applications!