This May I traveled to five different countries and six different cities while studying the political, cultural, and military histories of the second World War. As a participant in the Ohio State history department’s WWII education abroad program, I had the privilege of visiting numerous historical sites of monumental importance throughout the course of my four weeks in Europe. These included the underground war rooms in London, England where the British government spearheaded the British war effort under Winston Churchill, the beaches of Normandy, France where the D-day landings of June 6, 1945 took place, the enamel factory where Oskar Schindler saved the lives of 100s of Jews in Krakow, Poland, and the Cecilienhof Palace in Potsdam, Germany where the final major conference of the war was held between the “big three” leaders—to name just a few. In addition to greatly expanding my academic knowledge of the war, the program also gave me a chance to expand my personal self, immersing me in new languages, cultures, and peoples and allowing me to grow into a more conscientious and engaged global citizen.
When I first applied to this program, I was excited at the prospect of merging my love of travel with my love of history through an up-close study of World War II’s impact on Europe. In the end, my time abroad—though undoubtedly fulfilling this initial desire—gave me so much more, benefiting me in ways I never could have predicted. I truly believe it is impossible to participate in this program without coming back changed. My time spent in Europe was definitively transformational, shaping me intoa better version of myself—academically, professionally, and personally. Spending a month in unfamiliar, and constantly changing, territory forced me to become a more capable and adept problem-solver, communicator, and intellectual. I grew more comfortable with stepping outside the box and expanding my limitations, more willing to try new things and adapt to the changes around me. This program allowed me to more deeply understand the nuances of culture, nation, and identity. As a result, I became a better historian, more capable of both applying my classroom knowledge and expanding beyond it. I also became a better global citizen with a much greater awareness of the different shapes of humanity across the globe. As a result, the experience was truly invaluable, teaching me to look beyond my day to day life and its familiarities and instead see the world in its more robust, interconnected form.
It is one thing to learn about European events during WWII while sitting in a classroom and another entirely to stand in the places where these events occurred and see them come alive before you. When my plane landed in London, England, I began a journey that would consistently challenge me, surprise me, and move me as I walked in the footsteps of soldiers, citizens, politicians, and prisoners from an era gone by. This was my experience from day one, when I presented my research on Winston Churchill’s wartime leadership to my classmates from outside the underground bunker that had acted as his headquarters. The presentation was something I had been working towards since Spring semester, and I was excited to finally share my work with my classmates. However, it was even more incredible to do so whilst standing on the streets of London, envisioning what that same spot might have looked like over 70 years before. After giving my site report, I entered the Churchill War Rooms, today a museum that preserves much of the site exactly as it was left at the end of the war in 1945. As I stood in the map room, surrounded by maps charting the final decisive, phase of the war, I could vividly imagine the energy that must have engulfed that cramped space in 1945. Employees—a mixture of government and military officials and everyday British civilians—slept, lived and worked in the underground space for weeks and months on end, seeking shelter from the bombs falling on their beloved city above, or finding strength and hope in the heavy demands of Churchill as they tried to see a light at the end of the tunnel. The ability to personally see a space that I had read and studied about at such great length was truly a definitive moment in my academic experience abroad.
Perhaps the most profound moments of the trip, however, were those we spent at Omaha beach and the American cemetery in Normandy, as well as those we spent at the former Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz/Birkenau in Poland. These visits were incredibly impactful and moving to an extent that is difficult now to put into words. Each location reduced me to tears as I reflected on the enormous sacrifices that millions, from all walks of life, were forced to make throughout the war in their pursuit of freedom or survival under the face of Nazi oppression. At the American cemetery, we laid flags at the gravesites of Ohio State buckeyes who had perished in the battle of Normandy while adamantly serving their country. This action made the enormous scale of the cemetery much more personal, bringing the scope of the American sacrifice a little closer to home. At Auschwitz, no personal connection was needed to be taken aback by the site’s immediate and immense impact. The camp—surrounded by barbed wire and still haunted by the suffering of the millions of Jews who were murdered there—spoke for itself. It is difficult to imagine a more solemn experience than standing in a gas chamber or walking through a concentration camp barrack. Yet despite the difficulty of visiting these sites, they were also perhaps the most important stops on our itinerary. Acknowledging and confronting the horrors of the past is imperative to building a better tomorrow. This lesson was reiterated again and again for the duration of this program, and it remains one of my lasting takeaways from the trip.
While each of the historical sites I visited in Europe left a lasting impression on me, the highlight of my study abroad experience was ultimately meeting and traveling with 23 individuals who shared a common interest—the history of the second World War. Nothing was more rewarding than the conversations I was able to have with my peers about the sites and places we were visiting. This opportunity for shared reflection was enormously beneficial on this trip in particular because of how often we dealt in very heavy subject matter like that of Normandy or Auschwitz. Connecting with my fellow students and being able to engage them in intelligent and meaningful conversations greatly enhanced my time spent abroad and allowed me to get the most out of my trip both academically and personally. Through our shared travels and adventures, I was able to build a new network of peers who consistently challenged me to think critically and entertain complex and varied perspectives. Having the opportunity to interact with a diverse and varied group of people made it easier to digest the information I was constantly consuming and opened my eyes to a variety of different points of view. It certainly helped that many of these conversations took place under monuments, museums, or riverbanks that I had only ever dreamed of seeing until the moment I was actually standing before them. After all, nothing quite beatssitting under the Eiffel Tower at night and chatting with new friends about France, history, and life. It is these simple memories that I will cherish for a lifetime.
When I returned home from Europe in June, I truly believe I stepped off the plane a better version of myself. I am now more confident, more motivated and more prepared to step out of my comfort zone and dedicate myself to achieving my goals. This trip challenged my perceptions and expanded my mindset, not just in terms of World War II but also regarding history in a broader sense, Europe, tourism, culture, and more. This trip solidified for me the importance of historical preservation, particularly the necessity of making history open, honest, and accessible for all people across the globe. I have always been interested in public history, but witnessing the ways in which a nation’s collective memory closely correlates to its national identity has reaffirmed my desire to explore public history further and advocate for its importance as I move forward. In addition, my time abroad has challenged me to reexamine my own national identity and reflect upon the strengths, weaknesses and biases present in America’s own master narrative. Spending an extended period of time in other countries has prompted me to see my own in a new light. It has also put into a greater perspective my personal role in our vast world, a world that is both flawed and beautiful, structured yet constantly surprising, and awe-inspiringly fascinating at every turn.