When I traveled to Warsaw on a Holocaust study tour two summers ago, my group found the city particularly warm. In the middle of the day, we stopped for a respite — from the heat as much as the emotional drain of touring Holocaust sites — at a Starbucks in the city center. The juxtaposition — of both the air conditioning to the hot summer air outside and the lighthearted modern setting to the city’s historical horrors — were welcome, and we were happy to rest and recharge.
When we heaved our bodies and hearts up from their comfort to resume our tour, I was shocked to realize that this Starbucks stood in the heart of the former Warsaw ghetto. This, I think, represents an admirable and important attempt to keep Poland’s unfree past from defining its autonomous present. But it also raised in my mind an equally important question: How much should your past define your present?
For a while, I took the view, just as Warsaw seems to have done, that the past should not at all be a defining factor of our present on either a personal or national scale. Since we continue to change and exist as new people or new nations with every passing moment, I reasoned that we surely should not treat ourselves as the people we used to be. As an 18-year-old, I hold myself to higher standards of independence now than I did when I was 13, and I expect others to do the same.
In fact, until recently, I considered the person who I was a few years ago as someone totally separate from the person I currently am. The 14-year-old Dani Plung is shy. She thinks that maybe she’s intelligent, but isn’t confident enough to do anything with this intelligence, even if that something is just participating in a discussion. The 14-year-old Dani Plung doesn’t talk much, and the 18-year-old Dani Plung, about to graduate high school, is convinced that she is fundamentally a different individual than her 14-year-old self.
This viewpoint abruptly changed when I traveled to Berlin this past summer with the organization Classrooms Without Borders for a study seminar. The primary focus of the trip was to explore the rise of Nazism prior to World War II, and the Soviet Era that followed. Prior to traveling, Germany’s pre-war era, Germany’s war era, and Germany’s post-war era all existed as fundamentally separate periods in my mind, lacking any connections between them. If I had ever taken the time to think it through, I suppose I would have had to logically conclude that of course they were at least related to each other, but causality never crossed my mind. I would learn that the division of East and West Germany resulted from the post-war so-called “reconstruction.”
Walking around Berlin, I also saw noticeable dichotomies in culture between the former East and West Berlin, though they are currently simply different parts of a united city. Over the course of my stay, I came to understand, in a concrete way, that the past causes aspects of the present, that events exist in a causal relationship to the past.
But just because our past directly influences our present, that doesn’t mean we have no control. We can attempt to diminish its effect if we want, perhaps by ignoring our past. Knowing, however, that there are direct links between past and present selves, I think that this is missing a big opportunity.
According to a friend in Germany, Holocaust education is a required and extensive subject in all German schools, and is something that is always referenced on television. Furthermore, as I learned on my trip, Germany is now incredibly sensitive to discrimination, and careful to avoid it. The past exists to learn from, meaning we learn history to ensure that we do not repeat the same mistakes.
After Berlin, I thought about this on a personal level, and now when I feel my confidence dip, when I want to barricade myself and be alone, when I want to regress to the 14-year-old Dani, I remind myself that I have the ability to talk to people, that I have the ability to be more confident, that I have the ability to always be the present-day Dani, no matter the setting.
In the end, I think we should strike a balance between allowing the past to define us and forgetting it completely. We can move forward while still remaining conscious of our past.
Though there is now a Starbucks in the heart of the Warsaw ghetto, there are also several scattered memorials within its perimeter.
Perhaps the entire mentality is summed up best in something my high school history teacher said to me upon graduation: “As you move on to other challenges, remember the experiences you have already had and draw strength from them. The past is never truly gone; it always remains a part of us.”
(Dani Plung of Pittsburgh is a freshman at the University of Chicago. Her essay first appeared in New Voices, an online magazine published by and for Jewish college students, and is reprinted here with the permission of New Voices.)