And Thus We Have Reached the End

Berlin is one of the most historic sites in regards to World War II as well as one of the most well-known cities in Europe, so I was extremely excited about the opportunity to see it in person. Walking throughout Berlin was very interesting. Compared to places like London and Paris, it didn’t feel as city-like; it almost felt more like walking through suburbs. Sure there were subway stations, but there weren’t too many sky-scrapers and the streets were not nearly as crowded relatively speaking. As far as the food went though, I was more than pleased. There were bratwurst stands everywhere and the German doners were pretty amazing themselves.

But one of the other big parts of Berlin was its history from World War II and the Berlin Wall that was littered all over the city. There seemed to be signs with pictures and information at almost every historic site, regardless of what was left from it. There were numerous signs about the Berlin Wall and its history in certain areas. Some places had remnants of the Wall left, like by the Topography of Terror museum, while other areas had bricks laid down across the sidewalks and streets to show exactly where the wall ran across.

As far as World War II goes, there were some small plaques on the sidewalks to show where Jews were taken from their homes to be killed during the Nazi era. They also had a sign at what was formerly the Fuhrer Bunker, which laid out information about the Bunker and its history during World War II. It was very weird to see signs showing how the Bunker was right underneath what is now currently a parking lot and a hotel. Interestingly, the museums weren’t much different. Many of the other museums we have seen on the trip seemed to have a lot of artifacts from World War II and told a bit of a history about their involvement in the war, but you could always see a bit of the nationalism in their telling of the history as well. The French museums, for example, placed a strong emphasis on Charles de Gaulle trying to mobilize a resistance and seemed to downplay Petain and Vichy’s government as more of “a few bad apples.” Meanwhile we know that the French resistance wasn’t really big enough to make a strong impact on the war as a whole and the Vichy government garnered a lot more support than they made it seem like, and they collaborated with the Nazis much more than they needed to. Germany, meanwhile, seemed to at least try and take a much more objective approach at the war. Granted they definitely wanted you to believe what they were telling you, it was mostly just reading signs with statistics and facts from the war. We saw this in every museum we went to. They were mostly placed at historic sites, but their content was all presented the same way with just a different aspect of the war that they focused on.

Building in Berlin that is still riddled with bullet holes from World War II, showing how much of it's history is still left in the city.

Building in Berlin that is still riddled with bullet holes from World War II, showing how much of it’s history is still left in the city.

Seeing the way that Berlin, and all of these countries presented World War II differently definitely has made me begin to question my own views on it and we are presented history in the United States. In the U.S., we are taught that the U.S. played a very heroic part in the war and that we were definitely the good guys and essentially saviors of Europe. But perhaps we need to question how we present World War II and the Holocaust ourselves as after all, history is always written by the victors.

The Horrors of Auschwitz

Walking through the gates of Auschwitz was one of the most haunting things that I have ever experienced. Above the gates to Auschwitz I read the words, “Arbeit macht frei,” meaning “Work sets you free.” This was not the case. Most people sent to Auschwitz did not even last half of a year. Many died within just the first month or two, and those were the ones who made it past selection, in which the prisoners were lined up and either sent to the gas chambers or to do forced labor. Walking underneath these infamous gates knowing what had happened here was a truly dreary experience.

Gates entering Auschwitz I that read “Arbeit Macht Frei”

There were many buildings and rooms inside of Auschwitz I, the most daunting of which was a room  with two tons of hair from Jews who were killed there. According to our  tour guide,  when the Soviets liberated the camp there was roughly seven tons of hair leftover. As I walked into the room and saw the glass case full of hair on the left my jaw entirely dropped. It went from floor to ceiling and spanned the entire wall. Immediately I began getting choked up as it became hard to swallow I stared at what little remained of the million people killed there. It is one thing to hear about them, but it is another thing to what remains of them, and this was only a small percentage of it. It gets even worse when you see how the Nazis used the hair of the Jews to make boots and other equipment. To the Nazis they were nothing more than guinea pigs, being used for experimentation and forced labor, if not then mercilessly killed. Looking at each strand of hair as I passed by helped to not only accentuate the number of people that died, but how each person that died was their own individual.

Similarly, in another room was a pile full of hair brushes, taken from prisoners as they entered the camp. Inside many of these hair brushes you could see different colors and lengths of hair, some blonde, some brown or black, and some red. They were remnants of the lives lost in the past. Not only were objects and possessions lost, but actual people were. I found myself staring at this collection of brushes and hair for what seemed like forever. I examined every one that I could, finding myself wondering what each person must have been like before they arrived at the camp. What did they do? How were they captured and deported and why? What was their life like before they were sent to Auschwitz?

These were  innocent people; they just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. They were killed because of their beliefs or their heritage, not because of anything that they had actually done wrong. Reading about the number of lives lost in a textbook doesn’t help you to actually understand the importance of each live lost or the true scale of the amount of people killed. Seeing the hair fill up the wall of what was just a tiny percentage of the lives lost helped give a much better visual representation of how many people 1.1 million really is. Sometimes people just think too much about the Holocaust in terms of numbers, but numbers can often dilute things and take away from the value of each individual life. Each strand of hair tells a different story, and each picture of each person tells a story of its own. It’s hard to look back and be able to examine the horror of such a terrifying event without actually seeing some of the damage that it has done on a smaller scale. Entering Auschwitz and seeing all of the electric fences, guard towers, wooden bunk beds, remaining hair, and gates at the entrance really does help to give a better perspective. It helped me realize how real the Holocaust actually was; it’s not just something that you should be able to read in a book and move on from

Picture of the railroad entering Auschwitz II - Birkenau.

Picture of the railroad entering Auschwitz II – Birkenau.

In Remembrance of Those Who Have Fallen Fighting for our Freedom

Walking into the American Cemetery in Normandy was one of the most moving experiences I’ve had. Before reaching the actual cemetery, we walked through a museum that told the stories of some of the people that were buried there. Many of these people left behind wives, children, and parents. They were truly courageous people with many having great lives that they were never able to fully live out. One of the most touching stories was of the Niland family. They were four brothers, Robert, Preston, Edward, and Frederick Niland, from Tonawanda, New York. Robert and Preston died within the first two days of the D-Day invasion, while Eddie went missing just a few days later in the Pacific. Robert “Bob” Niland was killed on June 6, 1944 when volunteering with two others to help hold off a German advance; he was the only one of the three who died. Preston was killed near Utah Beach the next day. Edward Niland went missing on May 16 after he parachuted out of his aircraft. He was captured as a Prisoner of War by the Japanese in Burma and was not known to be alive until he was released a year later in 1945. The only known brother alive at the time was Frederick, who was returned back to the United States to finish the rest of his service there after the tragedies of his three brothers. There is a quote by Stephen Adly Guirgis that says, “No parent should have to bury a child….No mother should have to bury a son. Mothers are not meant to bury sons.” Within a month, a mother was left with the possibility of burying three of her sons. The story of the Niland brothers is the basis for the movie “Saving Private Ryan.” Although the most well-known and perhaps most unique story, this is not the only family that suffered harsh tragedies. Just about every family lost multiple people throughout the war and thousands of mothers had to bury their sons.

As I walked through the entrance to the actual cemetery grounds, the wind blew around me, and it felt as if the ghosts of thousands of people were still flying about. The cemetery was filled with over 9,000 graves of fallen American soldiers. The crosses were lined up perfectly and seemed to go on forever. The gravestones just displayed the soldier’s name, unit and division, the state that they were drafted in, and the date of their death. Many of these crosses covered the graves of soldiers that could never be identified. Seeing the massive size of the graveyard and realizing that it wasn’t even one percent of the amount of people to die during the war is pretty striking. It just seemed as if so many lives were wasted.

One of the rows of graves at the American Cemetery in Normandy

One of the rows of graves at the American Cemetery in Normandy

Although the American Cemetery was very hard to walk through, the British one in Normandy was even harder for different reasons. The American cemetery grounds seemed to place more emphasis on the sheer number of people killed in the war, although they did acknowledge individuals in the museum section before heading outside. They didn’t have dates of birth or the soldiers’ age when they were killed, and they didn’t have anything really personal on the actual gravestone itself. The British one, however, albeit being smaller, was much more personal on each one. It gave the age of their death and a personal quote from the family of each soldier on every gravestone. I remember one in particular saying something along the lines of, “In remembrance of a great father and an even better daddy.” The quotes on them really helped to give a much better perspective of the fact that each person was different and a unique individual; they all had families that they left behind. The ages also helped to put me in their shoes even more. Many of the people buried were only 18, 19, or 20. They were younger than I am. I feel like I still have so much of my life left to look forward to. It’s really hard to imagine not even living to the age that I am or my younger brother is. If I lived in that time period, it’s very likely that I would have been buried in one of these cemeteries myself.

Rows of graves at the British Cemetery in Normandy

Rows of graves at the British Cemetery in Normandy

Memorial at the British Cemetery in Normandy that reads "Their Name Liveth For Evermore"

Memorial at the British Cemetery in Normandy that reads “Their Name Liveth For Evermore”

So many people died much too young during World War 2 and although their sacrifice was honorable and important, the sacrifice of so many people’s lives is not something that we should ever want to come to. Hopefully we can all look back and learn from our mistakes and prevent such evil from rising to power again; and prevent ourselves from having to build more cemeteries on the scale of these ones.

First Stop: The War Rooms

Despite the similar language, the culture was very different in London. People did not really leave tips, previous London bombing attempts resulted in the removal of most public trash cans, and fried fish was the biggest food there. London has a vast history of World War II. In London I was fortunate enough to see the Churchill War Rooms. They seemed to give some very interesting insight into World War II.

The Churchill War Rooms were the actual rooms where Churchill and his staff made their war plans. After the war ended, they simply just walked out and sealed up the doors, leaving the office exactly as it was. Upon being discovered, it was made into a museum, with the rooms rearranged as they would have been during the war when they were being used; mannequins were also dressed up and placed in spots where the real people would have been, in order to lend authenticity. The rooms were extremely small and really helped to show how cramped and hot it must have been during the war. Churchill’s room was the biggest, but it was also right next to the map room, which was described as the busiest and loudest room. The map room was by far the most interesting of the War Rooms. The map room was full of huge maps covering the entire walls up to the ceiling. The maps really helped to give a much better perspective of the scale of the war as it was progressing. Most maps I have seen of the war before are usually no bigger than a laptop screen or book, so seeing them on a bigger map with the details of specific battle points and fronts really helped to show the massiveness of it. I noticed this especially with Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union. Although the invasion was initially somewhat successful, people often refer to Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union as one of their ultimate downfalls during the war. The maps, however, really did help to show how successful Germany’s initial invasion was, as it gave a much better perspective of how deep they actually reached.

The map rooms were also laired with mannequins who represented the many people who used the map rooms every day. The mannequins showed how the officers used the massive maps to help predict the movement of opposition troops and plan the advance of their own. Winston Churchill’s room was located directly next to the map rooms. Considering the busyness of the map rooms, it seems to pretty clearly show how little sleep he and others were actually getting. They speculated at the exhibit that people got more sleep during random naps throughout the day than actual sleep at night. The Churchill War Rooms really helped to give me a much better insight into how a war is actually planned out. I never realized how many different rooms there would need to be and how much people actually worked and how stressful it was in making plans during the war. Communicating around that much commotion while also feeling the vibrations of bombs dropping above them would have been immensely difficult. It truly is amazing how they were able to organize an entire war effort in such difficult circumstances.

A picture of one of the biggest maps in the War Rooms. This was located in an annex of the War Rooms and showed in great detail the advances and positions of the Germans and the Soviets at the time during the war.

A picture of one of the biggest maps in the War Rooms. This was located in an annex of the War Rooms and showed in great detail the advances and positions of the axis and allies in the European Theatre.

Get to Know Me

Hello all!

My name is Jonathan Borgese and I just finished my third year at the Ohio State University. I am originally from Smithtown, New York, which is on Long Island, although my family and I moved to Raleigh, North Carolina this past summer. My major is “Integrated Social Studies,” which is essentially a history major geared towards someone who wants to teach high school level social studies. After I graduate from Ohio State, I intend to go to a graduate school to get my Masters of Education in teaching Social Studies and plan to teach social studies/history at a high school.

I find history to be an extremely important and fascinating subject, particularly World War II. I had thought about studying abroad before, but never really looked into it much until I had heard about this program. World War II is one of the biggest and most interesting subjects to me, so when I found out about this program I knew that I had to apply. I’ve only truly been outside of the country once before, and I’ve never flown overseas, so I am extremely excited to see Europe and all of these historic locations.

The classes that I have taken in preparation for this trip has really been an eye-opener for me, as I have never truly studied World War II in detail before. In particular I specialized in studying the German opposition to Hitler and the July 20th plot. I found this topic to be one of the most fascinating parts of World War II and am extremely excited to give my site report at the Memorial to the German Resistance in Berlin, where many of the July 20th plotters were shot. I hope that by going on this trip I can gain an even deeper understanding of World War II and its implications in a way that I can’t just gain in a classroom.

I would also greatly like to thank all of the professors and donors who have made such a cool trip possible for me. Without them I may have never had such an awesome opportunity to study abroad and study World War II history at the same time.

– Jonathan Borgese