Auf Wiedersehen, Berlin!

Upon arriving in Berlin, my perspective on World War II had certainly evolved since the morning that I disembarked from my plane in Heathrow Airport. Seeing so many landmarks face to face, like Auschwitz-Birkenau and the beaches at Normandy, gave me a more nuanced and fully realized interpretation of the events of the war. I knew that being in Berlin and learning about that period through the eyes of a country that had rebuilt itself after committing unspeakable atrocities and coming out on the losing side would be informative in a completely different way.

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Some of the Soviet graffiti

Berlin does not shy away from its history, and that could not have been more evident than at the Reichstag, which is the seat of the German Parliament. The history of the Reichstag is closely intertwined with the history of World War II. It was a fire in that building, started by a young communist, that gave Hitler the opportunity to assume total power. Although the Nazi government was never conducted from the Reichstag, it remained so symbolic of German power that the Soviets made a point to seize it when they marched on Berlin, scrawling graffiti all over its walls. Some of this graffiti remains at the Reichstag today. Our tour guide explained this as a conscious decision to acknowledge every aspect of the building’s past. It was fascinating to look at the individual names and symbols written on the walls and wonder what state of mind those men must have been in after surviving the hellish Eastern Front and finally taking part in the fall of Berlin.

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Hitler’s box

Another interesting way the Reichstag acknowledged the Nazi Party was an art piece that listed the names of every democratically elected German official on individual boxes, stacking them together to symbolize the foundation of the German state. Controversially, the artist chose to include NSDAP members who had been democratically elected. Certain boxes looked like they had been punched or kicked in, and Hitler’s box had to be reinforced with concrete to prevent further damage. I do feel as though including the Nazis in the piece was the right choice, as it serves to recognize that they were initially democratically elected by the German people.

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The Soviet War Memorial

The Soviet presence still is heavily felt in Berlin, whether through the prevalence of Soviet Bloc-style architecture on the Eastern side or the multiple Soviet memorials scattered throughout the city. The most impressive and imposing one was at Treptower Park and featured a gigantic statue of a heroic Russian man holding a child in his arms while crushing a swastika beneath his feet. It also featured a series of smaller concrete blocks that depicted scenes of not only the Red Army but also women and children. This seemed to convey that the Russians remember the devastation of the war as having impacted every single civilian.

Our visit to the German Historical Museum made it clear that the Germans want no part in covering up the darker parts of their country’s history. Here, as opposed to certain French and Polish museums that deemphasized the collaboration of their own citizens, every aspect of Hitler’s rise to power was covered in detail. It paid specific attention to the conditions in Germany during the 1920’s that allowed the Nazi Party to become successful. Their country experienced a similar economic boom to the one in the United States, and Germany refers to their period of prosperity as the “Golden Twenties”. The 1929 stock market crash impacted the German people even more harshly than it did the Americans due to their country’s lingering debts from World War I. The widespread poverty and resentment brought forth a political climate that was rife to absorb Hitler’s rhetoric.

Although my blog entries focus mostly on the educational and historical aspects of the study tour, my time in Europe has meant so much more than that. I am endlessly appreciative of the opportunity it has given me to see so many uniquely beautiful cities. Most importantly, however, I could not be more grateful that I could share this experience with 22 of the best people I’ve ever met. I am also especially thankful to Dr. Steigerwald and Lauren for being such great travelers and teachers and making this trip the amazing experience that it was! I know I will never forget the memories contained in these past few weeks!

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Group picture at Prater Garten!


Au Revoir / Do Widzenia / Auf Wiedersehen / Goodbye!

Krakow and Auschwitz-Birkenau

As soon as I stepped foot on the streets of Krakow’s old town, I knew that my blog post about the city would be conflicted. Krakow is beautiful and is one of the only parts of Poland that was able to retain some of its pre-World War II historical architecture. There were shops all throughout the main square selling, not just kitschy touristy items, but jewelry and some incredibly comfy looking scarves that I kind of regret not buying. The exchange rate between US dollars and Polish zloty makes it so that you can buy huge amounts of food for amazing prices. I ate my fair share of pierogis during our limited time in Krakow, and I am sure that once I get home I will find the frozen grocery store ones to be lacking. Overall, I had some of the most fun of the trip so far in Poland, so I want to be mindful in balancing that with a sensitivity for the most important reason we were there: Auschwitz.

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Some art on the streets of Krakow


The Schindler museum was a fitting precursor to the experience. It is built in Oskar Schindler’s original factory and features exhibits dedicated to his efforts to save 1200 Jews, as well as a general history of the Nazi occupation of Poland. The museum offered a welcome contrast to the many others we had visited in France as it presented history more from a social than military perspective. The Schindler Museum’s design was considerably effective in giving the viewer some idea of the environments that the Polish people had been forced to inhabit. The room that covered the initial Nazi invasion was filled with swastika insignias; the tiles on the floor were even swastika-shaped. This atmosphere served to reinforce how completely the Nazis took over Poland and turned it into an unrecognizable place. Most impacting to me, however, was the exhibit dedicated to the ghettoes. It took you through a dimly lit hallway, and mounted on the wall were written personal accounts from people who had lived in the Warsaw ghetto. It was deeply moving to read descriptions from children as young as five-years-old who had seen their loved ones be killed right in front of them. It was even more devastating to realize that most of those Jewish people would have later been killed in death camps. It is those personal touches that help me to fathom such massive devastation on a smaller scale.

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Looking through the barbed wire at Birkenau

Without a doubt, touring Auschwitz was a deeply moving and important experience. The exhibit that affected me the most emotionally was the room filled with 70,000 shoes belonging to the men, women, and children who had been killed at the camp. Most of them were practical leather, but some were decorative heels, and far too many looked as though they could have belonged to toddler-aged children. Witnessing that sheer scale and looking at the separate types of shoes drove home that every person killed during the Holocaust was a real human being. Even worse was the realization that those shoes belonged to only a tiny percentage of the 1.2 million individuals killed at Auschwitz. Another powerful experience was walking through the last remaining gas chamber and crematorium. It was hard to fathom that so many people had lost their lives in such a relatively small room. The last thing that helped to drive home the reality of the Holocaust was walking along the train tracks at Birkenau toward the remnants of the burnt down gas chambers. It felt surreal to stand in the spot where thousands of Jews were sentenced to death after disembarking from their crowded train cars, especially because I had previously seen so many photographs of it happening. Still, I expected to be more emotionally affected by the tour of Auschwitz. I think a large part of the problem was our tour guide. She was effective in conveying facts and statistics, but she seemed too rehearsed. There was a lack of emotion in her delivery that made it hard for me to connect the sites I was seeing to the atrocities that had been committed there in the past. Because of this, I appreciated Jon and Nicole’s site reports. Hearing the story of Primo Levy personalized the experience of being imprisoned at Auschwitz more than our tour guide was able to. His closing words also served as an important reminder that there is no bright side to the Holocaust and that we should not disrespect its victims by trying to search for a happy ending.

D-Day Everyday in Normandy

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This picture epitomizes Bayeux’s charm

Because of the comments of some of the people who went on this study tour last year, my expectations for Bayeux were relatively low. They made it seem like the town was a boring place with nothing much to do aside from drinking at the hotel. I guess their advice was not necessarily untrue—I spent quite a few fun nights at the hotel pool getting to know everyone a lot better—but last year’s group definitely undersold Bayeux’s charm. Walking through the cobblestone streets, I immediately felt an urge to start singing Beauty and the Beast lyrics. Bayeux honestly looks like something out of a fairytale. It also has plenty of cute shops and delicious restaurants. The meal from my first night there may have been the best one I ate in France altogether. It was four courses, including a perfectly cooked steak and chocolate mousse for dessert. Overall, Bayeux offered a welcome small town contrast to the fast pace of London.

Most our time in Normandy was spent at sites that related to D-day, and the first place we visited was the Caen Memorial Museum. It presented a uniquely French perspective on WWII, and I found myself thinking about When Paris Went Dark, the book that I read for my site report, more than a few times as I wandered through the exhibits. I could not help comparing the way the museum presented France’s role in the Holocaust as opposed to how it was portrayed in my book. Although the Caen Memorial did feature an extensive section devoted to conveying the horrors of the Holocaust, it gave very little space to the Vichy regime. It also made very little mention of how the French police would choose to persecute Jews independently of the Nazis. Further, I noticed that the museum presented the Marshall Plan a bit more critically than the way it is often portrayed in the US. They seemed to imply that America’s aid wasn’t entirely crucial in Europe’s recovery. Conversely, something that stood out to me at all the museums, but particularly during the 360-degree movie at Arromanches was how detrimental the Allied bombing was to Normandy. From an American perspective, the pre-invasion bombing is often glossed over and presented as a necessary measure. We don’t seem to fully acknowledge that it killed thousands of French people. The French, and particularly the Norman perspective on the Allies seems to be incredibly complicated. They were grateful to be free from Nazi occupation, but they had to endure unimaginable losses to achieve that freedom.


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At Omaha Beach

Being able to stand on the beaches and cliffs where the battles of D-day took place made World War II, which always felt very distant from my reality when learning about it in class, seem tangible. Particularly Pointe du Hoc because there were still German bunkers set up and craters pitted in the ground. It was far easier to imagine the 2nd Ranger Battalion climbing those cliffs than it was to associate the Omaha Beach that we saw with its “Bloody Omaha” moniker. The area has been developed and is surrounded by beach houses. My initial reaction to this was a bit negative. I had thought that Omaha would have looked more like Utah Beach, which is isolated and features a museum. I also understand, however, that France has mostly moved on from the war and it would be impossible for all of Normandy to stay permanently frozen on D-day.


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Robert Forrest’s gravesite at the American cemetery

Touring the British, American, and German cemeteries was another experience that helped me to visualize the mass devastation of the war. I was struck by the fact that every one of those tombstones represented an individual life, many of whom were men my age or younger. This was especially true in the British cemetery, where each of the graves was personized with messages from the families. It was difficult, but moving to see how so many people had lost their only sons and the fathers of their children. The American cemetery, while breathtakingly gorgeous, was also more uniform and lacked that sense of intimacy. Because of this, it was extremely special that we could learn about an Ohio State student who was buried there and place a flag at his grave. Robert Forrest was a year younger than me when his bomber plane was shot down over France, but at only nineteen he had managed to become a pilot. It was a privilege to be able to learn about his and so many other personal stories throughout the week in Normandy.

Minding the Gap in London

As our plane descended into London, I searched the ground for any obvious signs that I had arrived in a foreign country. For the most part, the outskirts of the city looked green and nondescript, but then I caught a glimpse of a castle that made it cleImage may contain: sky, aeroplane and outdoorar that we were in Britain.

While Beau (who ended up being on both of my flights) and I worked our way through the long passport line at Heathrow, we ran into a few different people from our group. My first introduction to the city of London was the somewhat harrowing experience of dragging my heavy suitcase, now missing a wheel, up and down the escalators and staircases of the tube system. After getting situated in the hotel, we convened in the lobby at 2:00 and were led on the train to Westminster. Emerging from that tube station, you immediately

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Westminster Abbey! (No pictures allowed inside.)

come upon a perfect view of Big Ben; presenting a proper welcome to London. Once we had been debriefed on our itinerary for the next day, my group immediately made our way to Westminster Abbey. I was blown away by the detail on the ceilings and stained glass windows as we wandered through each room of the mazelike structure. I had trouble fathoming how almost every one of these legendary historical figures could be buried in one location. It was amazing to be able to walk through the room where so many coronations and royal weddings had taken place. Some of the stairs were dramatically grooved from the massive amounts of people who had passed through before us.

After Westminster, we wandered around and into Trafalgar Square, stopping in at a pub that was most likely geared toward tourists, judging by the price to quality ratio. Still, it was a good place to sit, compare travel stories, and get to know everyone a little better. The first day overall was a blast, aside from my debit card woes. After it was consecutively rejected at the tube station and in a Pret a Manger, I started to freak out at the thought that it might not work in Europe at all. I was worried enough to call both of my parents as well as my local bank, but I didn’t get any feedback aside from “there’s no real reason why it shouldn’t be working.” Thankfully, my debit card worked perfectly at the ATM, and I finally felt at ease enough to enjoy the trip.

On Tuesday, we headed to Churchill’s war rooms which presented a highly interactive exhibit that drove home how integral the Prime Minister’s presence was in raising the morale of the British people during the torment of the Blitz and then for the remainder of World War II. What stood out to me the most about the exhibit was Churchill’s unique personality. He famously referred to himself as a “glow worm” among worms. He directed several cutting, clever insults to fellow politicians and world leaders. I think I especially enjoyed learning more about Churchill’s eccentricities and who he was as a human being outside of politics. His extensive history of paintings and the menagerie of animals that he accrued later in life were details that humanized him for me.

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At the Tower of London in front of an amazing view of the London Bridge!

Wednesday, our free day, was possibly my busiest twenty-four-hour period yet. My group set out to the Tower of London that morning. Although I thought it would look more like an actual tower, that site fully lived up to my expectations. We got a chance to see the crown jewels, the armory, and a lovely collection of torture devices that were used to confine, stretch, and suspend the Tower’s worst prisoners. The portions of the crown jewel exhibit that impressed me the most were the two giant display cases filled with a multitude of pure gold objects, most of which were from the 17th Century. We also got to check out the chamber pot set up from when the castle was originally built in the 1000s. The magnitude of the history in that building struck me in every room. We decided not to go into the Tower Bridge so that we could make it to the British Museum, but we were still able to witness it opening to let a cruise ship through. That was exciting because it only happens at certain times in the week.

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A beautiful classical statue

From there, we rode the train to the British Museum. That was another mind-blowing experience, and the massive amount of historically significant objects was impossible to imagine without seeing them all in person. The first thing we laid eyes on as we walked into the Egyptian wing was the Rosetta Stone, and I got a close look at all of the individual hieroglyphics. What impressed me most at the museum were some of the statues in the Greek and Roman section, especially how the artists could achieve such specific detail. I am definitely looking forward to seeing more of that type of artwork at the Louvre when we go to Paris.