On The Spree

Instead of an Airbus A300, I’m currently on a Boeing 767 and am directly south of Greenland. My knees are smashed into the seat in front of me, and my trip has come to an end. I also was able to visit Prague. I’m still thinking about my experience there, so I write about our time in Berlin, Germany. Berlin is the capital of the country, and its fall to the Soviets brought about the end of the war in Europe in 1945.


Upon coming off our well heated bus that left from Krakow, we sprinted to the Bundestag building. The Bundestag is currently where Germany’s parliament meets, and has had many uses throughout history. It was torched in 1933, and that incident led the Nazi party scapegoat the communists as the perpetrators, leading to the banning of their party. During the war it was rarely used. One of the most famous pictures of the war came from the Soviets raising a flag over the taken building. There are still pillars and portions of the building that are decorated by original Soviet graffiti. One art exhibit in the basement had post card sized boxes with every member of the Parliament democratically elected from the 1910s to the 1990s. Some boxes are noted with a tag reading, “Opfer des nationalsozialismus” along with a date. These dates correspond to that member’s death at the hands of the Nazis. Out of the thousands of members, one could find names like Hitler, Himmler, and less infamously, Angela Merkel. Boxes belonging to Hitler and Merkel have had to be filled with concrete to prevent vandalism (Hitler’s box is low to the floor, so it typically receives a swift kick to the tin). We then went to the roof and the top of the reconstructed dome and caught some beautiful views.


After this, we navigated back past the Brandenburg Gate and took a metro to Potsdamer Platz the center of the city, or so. Through the middle of the plaza runs a brick line marking where the Berlin Wall stood. That night we ate a place that served one liter steins of beer, so I have no complaints.


The next day we went through two museums, the German Historical Museum and the Topography of Terror museum. The Historical Museum was split in half, with one half discussing about Germany from World War I to present day. It covered the political discord in Germany before World War Two and had many artifacts. The Topography of Terror museum was very intriguing, sitting at the site of the one time Gestapo Headquarters, there are excavated portions of jail/torture cells used during the Nazi regime. One part that was especially interesting was the bastardization of protective custody. In Nazi Germany, the term did not mean you were being sheltered from possible violence, but that you were being taken in to protect the state and masses. This type of custody sent many people who did very little into Gestapo custody, and typically into a concentration camp.


The next day consisted of a trip to St. Mathias Church, the Benderbloc/German Resistence Museum, one Soviet Monument, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and the now car park that was once the site of the Fuhrerbunker. At St. Mathias, we learned from my trip roommate Chris Herrel about Friedrich Bonhoeffer’s resistance in the war via the church. The Benderbloc was the office space of the Home Armies in WWII, and much of the July 20th Plot fallout took place there, such as the execution of Claus von Stauffenberg. The museum at the site dedicates itself to people from those involved in that plot to German youths who listened to swing music. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe was also a thought-provoking sight, with stone blocks of varying sizes laid over uneven ground.


My favorite moment of the day does not come from any of the things we did as a full group though. Once we finished, a few friends and I decided to stop at the ice cream shop near the hotel, where you could buy a kugel (scoop) for a euro. When we were nearly finished, a motorcycle pulled up on the sidewalk, and the man riding it dismounted and began talking to us. We didn’t catch his name, but he was certainly a proud Berliner. He told us about the office he works at having a facade that is pockmarked by bullets, and detailed defenses of the Berlin Wall that are typically forgotten about now. The Berliner was fourteen years old when the Wall fell, and had many stories of it. Talking to him about his city and seeing how proud he was of it may have been one of my favorite parts of Berlin.


We saw a few more things after this, like the massive Soviet Memorial in Treptower Park, and the Wannsee House, where some details of the Final Solution to the Jewish Question was planned out. My favorite part came at our group dinner on the last night. This was the same restaurant from the first night of the trip, and having everyone together celebrating the trip was incredible. For me, it ended a journey that began in Fall Semester of my second year on campus. During a study abroad expo, I met David Steigerwald and learned about the program, but avoided going due to cold feet and a lot of indecision in my life. I decided that the trip was one i could not pass up, and worked to figure out a major and class schedule to help me take it. With the trip over, I couldn’t help but to see how far I have came as a person, with this study abroad playing a factor in that as well. I have now transferred onto a massive thirteen row jet from JFK to Columbus, and miraculously I am not white knuckled like I was when I first touched down in Heathrow so long ago.


Thank you for reading and auf wiedersehen,


Beau Bilek


I was fortunate enough to stay in Krakow in south Poland for a few days with my study abroad. Krakow is the second biggest city in Poland, as well as one of the oldest. The city is notable for its main square, which dates to the 13th century and is a center of the city’s culture. During World War II, the city was the capital of the German General Government. According to the Nazis, Krakow was an ancient Germanic city.

The sights of the city are wonderful, the city avoided bombing in World War Two, so its pre-war architecture is still intact. For example, St. Mary’s Basilica dominates the northeastern side of the main square, and it was finished in 1347. Wawel Castle is also another notable landmark which was actually used in WWII. During the war the Castle was used as a residence by Hans Frank, the Governor General of the German-Occupied Polish territories.

Our first order of business in the city was touring the Historical Museum of the City of Krakow, or more commonly, the Schindler Museum. The museum sits at the site of Oskar Schindler’s enamel factory, where he saved some 1,200 Jews via employment. Interestingly, the museum does not focus on this, but teaches about Krakow’s role in WWII. This gave an interesting point of view, as Poland was overtaken but had technically not surrendered. When it came to Schindler, the museum had a large glass box filled with enamel ware made in the factory that one could walk into  on all sides were the names of prisoners that Schindler saved.

Our second related journey during the Poland leg was a trip to Auschwitz I and Auschwitz-Birkenau. These were concentration and extermination camps set up by the Nazis, and 1.3 million people were sent there. Of those 1.3 million, at least 1.1 million died, and 90% were Jewish. Words cannot fully describe what I saw, and being there was completely surreal. In one room of Auschwitz I, human hair was piled from floor to ceiling. This hair was typically used for textiles and taken from inmates involuntarily. In another room, 75,000 shoes were gathered in a similar fashion.

Auschwitz-Birkenau was the portion of the camp where cattle cars full of people were unloaded. Directly after this, the new prisoners were evaluated and either kept as workers or sent to one of two gas chambers nearby. In the latter choice, victims would take the “Walk of Death,” which we also did. At the end of the road, the two gas chambers are destroyed and a memorial marks the grounds. We eventually walked back to the tower that stands over the rail line that led so many to their deaths, and a spot of sunlight cut through the clouds to a distant land.


Do widzenia,

Beau Bilek


With this blog, I write about my experiences in France, where we stayed in Bayeux and Paris. Bayeux is a sleepy town in the Normandy region, with old, thin streets and stores that mainly close by 10 pm. Paris is the polar opposite, and is the cultural capital of France. Bayeux mainly feeds on tourism brought on from the D-Day Invasion, while Paris has moved on, and is a business capital of the world. In this blog I will talk about many things, like the invasion beaches we saw, Pointe du Hoc, war cemeteries, and museums.


Bayeux in World War Two is a rather interesting case. The Germans stationed here were not a cutthroat division, and retreated from the Allied Invasion, leaving the town nearly unscathed, although I’m not sure of what happened in regards to bombing raids. Paris also went relatively untouched and was occupied by Nazi Germany for much of the war.


In American memory, Omaha seems to be one of the most remembered beaches, with the opening of Saving Private Ryan being there (it was filmed in Ireland), and more casualties happening here than others. So, what was found was a bit surprising: beachfront properties. The land wasn’t preserved much, but a monument opens to the beach. There’s no museum accompanying the land, but restaurants are named after it nearby.


Utah Beach was a more preserved beach, with sand dunes marking the nearly untouched area. Surrounding the beach were a museum, monuments, and decaying war memorabilia (like a German Flak gun). The water was also at a lower tide when we arrived, meaning the water was receded like it would have been on June 6, 1944. Standing at the edge of the water watching the waves ebb and flow, one could not help but to think that we were seeing what an American soldier would have seen over 70 years ago. Needless to say, Utah Beach was a very touching place to be.


Pointe du Hoc was a German controlled area invaded by Army Rangers on D-Day. These Rangers were tasked with disabling artillery guns which could have been problematic in the beach invasion. Once these men scaled the nearly vertical rock face, the guns were not found in the expected site, but were found and disabled soon thereafter using thermite grenades. The site is now an American monument site and is pocked by huge craters from shelling and Nazi bunkers. Actually being there and seeing the effects of naval bombardment was mesmerizing, as I had always seen footage of ships firing cannons and not thought about the effects on the the receiving end of the firing. Besides going into the craters, going into the bunkers that were occupied with Nazis also had another humanizing feature. Hearing our own voices reverberate against the concrete, it is hard to imagine how deafening the shelling would have been.

View of Pointe Du Hoc


In our time in Bayeux we were also able to tour cemeteries for America, Britain, and Germany. The American Cemetery was gorgeous, with views of the Norman coast and pine trees dotting the land. The markers are also phenomenal, with either a white cross or Star Of David marking burials. Inscribed on each is the name of the soldier, rank, division, state, and date of death. While there, I was blessed to place an Ohio State flag on the grave of John W. Atkinson Jr.,  First Lieutenant with the 101st Airborne Division who was killed on June 8th, 1944. He grew up in Portsmouth (very close to Chillicothe, my own hometown) and attended The Ohio State University. There are twelve Buckeyes buried in the cemetery.


The British Cemetery was a jarring experience, because according to British belief, all soldiers deserve a respectful burial. These led to graves for not only Britt, but also Americans, Australians, Canadians, Czechs, Germans, Italians, Muslims, Poles, Russians, and likely more that I did not see. This display led to a remind that World War Two was a truly global conflict. The tombstones also included an inscription from the family of the lost, which was especially jarring.


The last cemetery I can discuss is the German War Cemetery, which was very different from the other two. The cemetery had to play the line of how to honor war dead from a country, when the country was under one of the worst regimes in history. This complex question has raked my mind often, and I think that the best answer is in the cemetery we toured. The tombstones are flat at ground level, typically with two soldiers buried in each plot. In the middle of a cemetery there is a hill with a cross with two Germanic figures underneath it, and the hill has unidentified bodies interred in it. As we walked past it, a French teenager stood at the peak and sang a Whitney Houston song at the top of his lungs. Even though this was a cemetery for Germans who defended Norman beaches from Allied forces, I could not help but to be extremely bothered by the disrespect I witnessed.


German Cemetary


The last part of the French portion I want to discuss are the museums that we saw. Generally, these museums shared a common thread of discussing the war and showing artifacts. Typically, the French museums offered portions on the French resistance and the Free French Forces. In nearly every one of them, a picture of Jean Moulin (who briefly united Resistance forces under General de Gaulle) is shown. What was missing bothered me, there was barely a mention of the Vichy government, of France’s surrender in 1940, or many things that could paint France in a negative light. If you did not have background knowledge of the war and toured some of the museums, you would think that France fought gallantly, then some years passed, and General de Gaulle led forces into the heart of Paris and drove out the Germans singlehandedly.


In one example at the Caen Museum, there is only one picture from the roundup of Jews in the Paris Velodrome d’Hiver. Accompanying it is only a small description and no further explanation of the role that the French played in the Nazi regime. 13,152 Jews were arrested by French police in the two day round up, and they were then sent to extermination camps. The Caen museum was the only one that I saw that mentioned this; not even the Musée de l’Armée in Paris spoke of it. In a later discussion, we learned to be aware of who designs museums, as they may slant the museum to shine lights on some things and ignore others. It seems victims of French-Nazi collaborators are a group that has had the light taken away from them in the collective French memory, which I find to be a travesty.


We now go eastwards to Krakow, Poland. After learning more about D-Day and the Normandy campaign than I ever thought I would learn, I look forward to seeing a different viewpoint of the War. In my eyes, the Norman region thrives off tourism related to the 1944 invasion. Paris enjoys being one of the most renowned cities in the world, with barely a mention of a world war two in sight (asides from occasional plaques commemorating the heroic efforts of the French resistance).  I look forward to portraying my experience to you all again soon.


Au revoir,

Beau Bilek

On The Thames

On May 8th, the Airbus A300 I was riding in slowly descended (after several sharp turns) into London Heathrow Airport. This was the end of a journey that started in Columbus, and I was relieved. To say that I hate flying would be an understatement, and I was white-knuckled against the arm rest for the full duration of the flight. I was a bit surprised at the people who were able to sleep for the ride as I went in and out of bouts of vertigo. Nonetheless, I made it with a friend, and met more as we waded through the UK passport check line.

After this, I went to a London Underground stop on the Piccadilly line. After seeing the Tube map, my memories of it and the way it works immediately came back to me. Based on experiences with a previous study abroad, I was able to lead my friends from Heathrow to Queensway station. Riding the Tube was a great experience, especially when you hear the British accented voice reminding one to “Mind the Gap,” or think of Londoners sheltering in the Tube during a Blitz attack in the 40s.

We have just arrived from England to France and I can not help but to think of what I experienced and learned. We toured quite a few sites during our time, including places like the Churchill War Rooms and HMS Belfast. The most awe-inspiring part of this trip happened at the Imperial War Museum during the World War I exhibition. Most of the museums that I have visited in the United States poorly cover that war, but the memory of it still seems fresh in Britain. One item that shocked me was a man’s glove which was left out during a gas attack and had shrank severely due to the chemicals. In another portion, an interview with a former soldier was highlighted, in which he claimed the war did not change him nor the country, asides from a poor job market. It seems that the human element gets washed away in

Result of WWI Gas Attack on Man’s Glove

favor of battles, casualty figures, and dates. Further from the Museum, my roommate and I found a monument that had been damaged by a German WWI bomb.

My best World War II experience came from Bletchley Park, where German Enigma was decoded for the Allies. The secrecy of the site is incredible, as it had some 10,000 workers but the purpose of the area was never disclosed. I was able to give a site report there based on an expertise paper I did last semester about the Double Cross system. This system found every German spy in Britain and either imprisoned them or gave them the opportunity to become a double agent to benefit the UK. The system was then used to lead the Germans to believe that an invasion was imminent in places like Bordeaux, Norway, and the Pas de Calais. One agent even was able to convince the Nazis that the D-Day landings in Normandy were a diversionary attack, meant to draw out troops from the Pas de Calais. This pinned many German divisions in the area and likely helped save numerous Allied lives. Bletchley also houses a recreation of the complicated Bombe machine, which was created by Alan Turing to crack the Enigma code. Bletchley itself was lovely, being a short train ride from London and situated in a sleepy village. After seeing all this, it is undeniable that Bletchley was one of the most important points in the war.

We now go onwards to Bayeux, where we will be able to see the Normandy beaches, and after that Paris. After learning so much more about the War and culture in England, I am excited to do the same here in France. I also look forward to reflecting on my experience there in the near future.


Beau Bilek