Auf Wiedersehen, Berlin

IMG_0002Like our visit to Poland, I found Berlin’s culture to be captivating. The language barrier between our group and the locals helped to solidify our thoughts of this “foreign” country, and remained ever-present on every street sign, menu, and doner-kebap advertisement. The “ß” is the most prominent departure from our English alphabet, and made pronunciation of the street of our hotel, “Stresemannstraße” nearly impossible without Dr. Davidson’s guidance. Another pinnacle of Berlin street signage is the adorable “Amplemann.” This bourgeois figure originated on Eastern German streetlights, but survived the fall of the wall and tells pedestrians when to walk throughout Berlin in present-day. These lights, which are unique to Berlin, are both whimsical and historical—like so                                                                                                  much of the city.



bike festival at dusk

Immediately upon arrival to our hotel, I learned of how bike-friendly the city is. I almost was side-swiped by a bicyclist who rode on the city-mandated bike path that occupied 1/3 of the sidewalk. The bike path was present throughout the entire city, and I was surprised at just how often I heard bells alerting our large group to move out of the way. People of all ages and occupations could be seen commuting to and from work or otherwise taking advantage of the excellent transport option. Visitors are also encouraged to use the bike paths, and can rent bikes per day on various blocks around the city. I was cut off by a never-ending line of bicyclists one night in a remarkable exhibition of Berlin’s many bike riders. Hundreds of locals took charge on their bikes and continued on what must have been a loop around the city. This group, primarily composed of twenty-somethings, toted wagons with speakers, food, and even children during this biking festival. I watched at least a dozen riders impressively juggle steering and drinking beer as they whooshed down the streets of Berlin. This show of bikers inspired both a cacophony of car horns and a hint of spontaneity in the air. If I had not already fallen in love with the food here, I could tell this city-vibe would soon do the trick.




We visited many museums and memorials for our program, but also had a large amount of free time to explore the city. My dinner in the Görlitzer-Park area one night was a heavy contrast from what we had explored near Brandenburg gate. This neighborhood, on the East side of Berlin, was recommended by Dr. Davidson for those looking to be “adventurous.” When my friend Avery and I got off at the U-Bahn stop in this area, I instantly saw what he meant. Every building, and really any surface here, was completelyIMG_0008 covered with graffiti. This excited me, however, as it is exactly what I had hoped I would find in

Berlin. I loved looking at the beautiful and modern buildings in the center-city, but had longed to find a grittier and more colorful section that aligned with the city in my imagination. In the old area of East Kreuzberg, I found it. Every street in this city sported unique shops and restaurants that would make the most minor foodie drool. Signs for fancy burgers, goth bars, and even all-vegetarian plant themed joints were squeezed between vibrant arrays of artistic expression. The young and indieIMG_0004 population also seemed unique amongst the vine and graffiti covered buildings. I felt that I had walked through a time machine when Avery and I wandered through Görlitzer Park and found so many groups scattered through the grassy pit who were picnicking, hula hooping, and even playing guitar. It was dusk by the time we decided to get dinner, and the streets we walked through were much darker than around Potsdamer Platz. Still, eclectic gastro-pubs and greasy diners illuminated the street with a subtle glow. We ate with a view of the U1 train line in sight, and enjoyed the exceptional food and drinks almost as muchIMG_0007 as the diverse night-scene we observed while people watching. Like many of the European cities we’ve visited, the coveted sidewalk seats were in high demand as they provided the perfect viewing platform for the busy streets ahead. A Spanish guitar and piccolo duo performed in front of our restaurant, and we listened as bikers and Saturday night-goers bustled behind. The whole experience was charming, and left me with a youthful yet aged impression of Berlin.




IMG_0012The next night, I returned to the area to view the East Side Gallery. I walked across the bridge above the Spree river, and quickly found the 1.3 km section of the Berlin Wall (painted in 1990 and restored in 2010.) The gallery, which is a section of the wall, can be viewed from the sidewalk. The murals of peace, political activism, and contempt for the wall itself were stunning in the yellow glow of the streetlights. It surprised me how quiet and accessible the wall was, although the occasional graffiti are combatted by rented guard rails in front of the art. When I viewed the gallery in the day, I noticed slightly more traffic to the wall and how vivid the colors and messages really were. My favorite quote from the gallery is “Wer will dass die welt so bleibt wie sie ist der will nicht dass sie bleibt,” [Erich Fried] which was kindly translated by the artist and reads: “He who wants the world to remain as it is doesn’t want it to remain at all.” This is clearly aimed at

Picasso's "Guernica" (devastating fire-bombing of the town during the Spanish Civil War) reimagined in terms of Berlin

Picasso’s “Guernica” (which depicts the devastating fire-bombing of the named town during the Spanish Civil War) reimagined in terms of Berlin

the communist occupiers of Berlin during the wall era, but it reminded me of lessons we’ve learned about the lead up to WWII. Indifference can be just as horrible of a culprit as aggression, and utter control at the expense of individuality and progress is detrimental to the human experience. After WWII, the German people’s change towards utter democracy (on the West End) was embraced much more fervently than during the period of the Weimar Republic. People sought more freedom and power, and their devotion to democracy can even be seen in the architecture of the renovated Reichstag building. The transparency of their government is mimicked in the glass designs, and care was taken to ensure the “people” would be on the same leIMG_0013vel of their representatives. The generation after the war wanted their world to change, and saw through that it happened. This is starkly different from Soviet occupied Berlin, which switched from one totalitarian state to another. In Fried’s quote I found a warning that can be followed even in the present day. Future generations must be willing to accept and contribute to social change in the name of what is right, and cannot stand idly by to accept what is comfortable.





I was sad to say Auf Wiedersehen to my friends and professors last night, but found Berlin to be a beautiful place for such goodbyes. I’ve enjoyed every minute of the past month, and am incredibly grateful for this opportunity. I’m writing now on my bus to Prague, where I hope to begin my next adventure.

My visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau

Throughout this Spring semester, we’ve done an incredible amount of preparation for this trip. Our three classes have provided us with extensive background on history and culture before, during, and after the war. In our seminar class alone, we’ve read countless stories about the victims of bombing raids, life in occupied countries, fallen soldiers, and even displaced people after the war. I mistakenly thought that after spending so much time looking at the war’s victims, I would be desensitized enough to handle Auschwitz.

I was wrong.

It felt odd to me how intense the traffic was around the visitor’s center, I had always imagined the camp as dead, silent, and black and white—even in the present day. Our tour guide led us through the infamous gates that read “Work will set you free,” and I instantly felt ill. I looked back at the gates from the inside and realized how many people must have looked back at those gates without any hope of escaping them.


The camp was oddly colorful and open. Little red brick buildings, named in blocks, sat facing each other, quite un-assuming of the horrors that occurred within them. The stillness of the site was disturbed only by the occasional breeze, and throughout the day I found the sunshine and gorgeous weather to be so wrong in this murderous place.

Before my visit, I had heard of the room filled with shoes taken from the prisoners and somewhat mentally prepared myself to view it. What I had not been aware of was the dark room which housed two tons of sheared hair, mostly women’s, that sat on the second floor of the “material evidence” room. Any of the artifacts taken from the prisoners were enough to sicken the stomach, but what utterly broke me were these physical remnants of the prisoners. This hair, only a fraction of the seven tons found, was a very visual representation of how disgusting this camp was, and how many lives it completely destroyed. We all toured the room in silence, and blinked away our tears before emerging into the ill-placed sunlight outside.

In our German culture and Democracy class, we read “The Investigation” by Peter Weiss. In this book, the author used actual transcripts of a trial of the Nazi guards/associates from Auschwitz Birkenau in the form of a play split into 11 cantos. Without punctuation, additional analysis, or even any mention of the camp name or the word “Jew,” he is able to convey they evil of the camp through only the words provided by the guards and witnesses. One particularly intense part of the book was the description of the the “Black Wall,” which was used to execute prisoners by gunshots. The Investigation divulges its horror through the stories of the routine: undressing in the washrooms is followed by guidance to the wall, execution, and transport to the crematorium or mass grave. One witness even recounts an instance when he watched a little girl who was led to the wall by a guard just after her parents were killed. When she turned around the guard instructed her to look at the wall, and she was promptly shot in the head. I kept all of this in mind as we too walked out to the wall, which stood quietly between block 10 and 11. I looked around at the red brick towards the entrance and then turned around to see the last sight the little girl in the book and so many others would ever see.

The Crematorium One was the last stop of our base camp tour. The gas chamber/crematorium is situated under the earth, and is the most lifeless place I’ve ever been. Dark, damp, and crowded, our group entered silently into the surreal chamber where millions were murdered in a cloud of fear, pain and desperation. I simply don’t have the words to describe the emptiness and sadness I felt, with each second adding to the enormity of this death-hall. The tiny squares in the ceilings, which I originally thought were skylights to help aid visitors, were explained to be the openings from which the poison would be added to the room. The panic the victims must have felt is unbearable to imagine, and I felt so much anger at how any of this was possible. The crematorium in the adjoining room was equally crushing, and I felt such a sense of loss to imagine how the freshly dead, so alive just minutes before, would quickly become nothing more than ashes. One human life, now just a handful of ash, for stupid hatred. The Nazis turned the crematorium into a bomb shelter after the establishment of the other killing facilities, but this disregard for respect or human life shouldn’t have surprised me.

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We moved on to the second camp, Auschwitz Birkenau, which we were told made base camp look “like a holiday home.” We followed alongside the railroad tracks to the same selection point which would decide whether you were to die immediately or soon after. No human should have the power to choose life or death like that. I imagined what it would have been like to see my family for the last time, but had to stop myself before I cried again. Our group moved along somberly to buildings 2 and 3, which are the ruins of the identical crematoriums/gas chambers that mirrored across the train tracks that disappear into the forest. I stood outside building two and saw the rubble created when the Nazis attempted to cover their tracks of mass extermination. I looked first to the undressing rooms, which were used to further trick the prisoners into thinking they were being de-sanitized, but also as means to eliminate the need for Sonderkomando to undress the corpses. I looked into the gas chamber and again felt sick to my stomach as I remembered another story from The Investigation. The twenty-minute extermination process would not happen peacefully in this chamber, but rather, would be 20 minutes of excruciating pain and terror. The naked prisoners would often claw and climb on top of each other in hopes of escaping, which would result in the Sonderkommandos finding a tangled mess of humans covered in vomit, blood, and tears before they removed the corpses. I saw the big chimney where the dead would finally reach some escape, and paused for a long while in front of the small pond memorial where many of these ashes were discarded. Maybe the people in Germany, who did little to stop the Holocaust, thought “it doesn’t affect me.” The horrible events of this camp were very, very real for the victims of this camp, and losing a mother, father, siblings, or children was an absolute reality for them. In my previous blog post, I questioned how “worth it” this war was. The impersonality of GI uniformity is not even comparable to the inhumanity of Auschwitz Birkenau. In the base camp, we learned that Auschwitz was the only camp to tattoo prisoners with their identification number. As if the prisoner living conditions, terror punishments, and mass murder wasn’t horrible enough, the Nazis found a way to further dehumanize the Jews, gypsies, and other “undesirables” crammed into the camp by the reduction of names into numbers. Even more gruesome, this practice was started because the prisoners became so gaunt by the time of their deaths that the Nazi’s needed an easier way to identify the dead than from looking at photo records. . I feel the Allied effort in the war can be justified by the Holocaust alone.

American Cemetery in Normandy

I’m not ashamed to tell you that I cried here in France. We visited the American cemetery in Normandy, which is an experience I won’t soon forget. By the time of my writing, we’ve visited the American, British, and German cemeteries, but as an Ohioan the American hit especially close to my heart. I wrote my final paper for our study-abroad prep class on whether World War II was “A ”good” war, or a bad one. ” Of course war is never “good,” but I argued the ends justified the means, although military bureaucracy sometimes forgot individuals in a sea of numbers.

"Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves" bronze statue at the American Military Cemetery, Normandy.

“Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves” bronze statue at the American Military Cemetery, Normandy.

As I walked down the steps of the main monument, that’s what I saw: a sea of numbers. These numbers, however, were not numbers. They were men, but they were also boys with hopes, dreams, fears; sometimes they were letters hand delivered by a solemn man dressed in uniform, and countless lives with potential ended too short and often in loneliness. I walked down countless rows of white crosses and Stars of David, my sadness growing heavier the further I trekked in. What struck me incredibly hard were the countless graves dedicated to unidentified soldiers. The gravity of a nameless grave deprives the soldier of proper remembrance and leaves the family with a painful lack of closure. I wanted to pay my respects to each one of these, but I don’t think all the time in the world would be enough.


It took me 614 steps, almost seven minutes, to walk from the last grave row back to the first. I know this, because I was surprised at the size of the cemetery that I decided to walk it and count. Seven minutes of markers and seven minutes of lost lives. The 9,000+ graves made me question whether it all had been worth it. I cried as I saw each grave as a family mourning the loss of their son, and as a son losing his life thousands of miles away from his family. The pain they must have felt clouds an argument of WWII being a “good war.”


Omaha Beach

This illustrated something described to me, but that I’ll never see. As we walked the beaches of Omaha, I remembered the piece by Ernie Pyle, “A Long, Thin Personal Line of Anguish.” In this, Pyle describes the beach shortly after the invasion by noting the personal artifacts (a Bible, tennis racquet, writing paper, among other things) of the soldiers who died there. He speaks of the human wreckage directly, too, and even mentions an instance when he mistakes a man’s feet in the sand for driftwood. We had discussed the intention of Pyle’s essay in class, but I struggled to see the poignant details across what is now such a peaceful beach. I had to imagine bodies that would have been strewn about along the coastline, with their personal artifacts as remnants of individual memories. Remembrance in this way makes war seem like such a waste, no matter how just the cause. The American cemetery to treats the fallen soldiers with honor, and yet, the uniformity of the headstones suggests the treatment of soldiers as simply cogs in a bigger machine. In contrast, the headstones of the British cemetery we visited displayed the age, name, and division of each soldier, and even included a short inscription written by their loved ones. I found one in particular that exemplified anguish that comes with individual recognition: “To the world, he was but one of many. But to us, he was the world. ” Still, I could see the individual GI’s in the names carved in the alabaster headstones.



American Military Cemetery, Normandy

In a place that is meant to be sacred, we found the noisy French schoolchildren to be a nuisance. As I thought about it more, however, it dawned on me that had these men not fought in this “terrible” war, these children, would not be standing here today. It was their sacrifice that ensured the continuation of our values, and as the sea of visitors suggests, their efforts are appreciated and not forgotten. Even this disrespectful school group represents continuing gratitude towards these soldiers. I think the French acknowledgement of these events is not only touching, but is a testament to the impact of the American effort. Certainly, it comforts me to know that the ho efforts of our honored dead were not in vain. I feel more grateful to these heroes than ever before.


I’m writing from my hotel room in London on the eve of our first group travel day. My roommate Ale and I agreed to pull an all-nighter sleep on the 7-hour ferry ride instead of taking a 3 hour nap before our 4am departure time.


I arrived in London this Monday a couple of hours before our first official group outing. We spent time familiarizing ourselves with the underground system and eventually made our way to Trafalgar Square (most of us were on time… I’m looking at you Ben.) After outlining the activities for the next day, we were set loose into the city and were free to explore. After a quick glaze past Big Ben, Westminster Abby, the London Eye, and the other stereotypical tourist sites, we wearily travelled back to our hotel to rally before dinner at the local pub.


Tuesday began somewhat less groggily, and we met next to the Winston Churchill statue in Parliament Square in cliché London rain and fog. After marching towards St. James Park, we shook off our umbrellas and climbed down into the Churchill War Rooms. I found the museum set up somewhat disorganized, but I prefer the notion of original construction to the re-imagined spaces we later saw in Bletchley Park. I was intrigued by the extensive museum dedicated to Churchill himself, but amongst the sound bytes, photographs, letters to his sweetheart and velvet jumpsuits, what I really took away from the exhibit is how extensively the British revere their former prime-minister. The entire museum spoke of utter adoration, and expressed how grateful the British people (or at least, the Imperial War Museum,) felt for Churchill’s guidance and execution during the war.


Another seed of Churchill flowered later Tuesday night, when our group had the privilege of having dinner with Mr. Michael Handscomb, who  lived in London during the Battle of Britain, and had wonderful stories of his youth and the hardship Londoners faced at the time. When I asked  Mr. Handscomb if he felt any fear, or if he worried that Britain might lose the war, he adamantly insisted, “no, never.” He continued to explain that this was because of one man—Churchill. Throughout the air raids, “doodlebombs,” and rationing, Londoners  were inspired to continue to push towards victory and never give up hope. From excerpts of his speeches at the CWR, it is easy to see how Churchill’s words and enthusiasm inspired victorious morale and perseverance amongst the civilians.



Another issue that attracted my attention deals with Britain’s view of herself and the war. More so, how she views others. After visiting the War Rooms, our group travelled to the R.A.F. Bomber Command Memorial, which was revealed during the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012. One of the members of our group explained some of the controversy surrounding  the  memorial. (for but what really struck me was the line near the top that read: “ALSO dedicated to those of all nations who lost their lives in the bombings.” The “also” was a little unnerving, but I respected the fact that an effort was made to acknowledge the victims of the war, and not just the “heroes.”

I had a similar feeling about the HMS Belfast. The cabins inside stayed dry yet aged as rained poured onto the deck, and amidst models of  sailors and antique equipment, a few videos and exhibits were safely tucked away. Aside from her participation in D-Day, the Belfast  famously helped sink and defeat the German Scharnhorst. 36 of the 1200-or so men aboard the battleship were taken prisoner by the British in an impressive example of Allied victory. A short film in the former gun turret portion of the ship told a different account: “We fought the ship, not the sailors. Although mislead they put up a great fight until the end—just like we have done.” Again, I saw British homage to others—their enemies! Granted, this statement was made from a single young man who was independent from the IWMs and the video was hidden in a tiny turret room, but the acknowledgement of others and their hardships (along with intact humanity) was still there. I don’t often find such odes to others in American museums/remembrance, so I found such instances refreshing and thoughtful. Even the privately owned Bletchley Park housed a memorial to the Polish code breakers who paved the way for Ultra success  in a gratuitous and self-aware manner. Less attention was given to the Americans, but it’s possible that I’m simply being hypersensitive because of my nationality.


I’m interested to see if this recognition of other  nations’ war experiences will continue in France, Poland, and Germany, and will definitely take a closer look at American retellings of the war when I get back home.


That’s all for now,



Hello! My name is Gigi deBourbon, and I’m incredibly excited to be traveling to Europe this summer. I’m 18, and a Junior Biology major/History Minor here at OSU. Although Biology and World War II seem to be worlds apart, I hope to attend medical school and eventually use what I’ve learned through history and my travels to better understand and communicate with the people I’ll encounter.

I love traveling, taking photos, and making memories. This isn’t my first time overseas, but I have an inkling that it will likely be my favorite trip. I will continue exploring with some of my friends from the trip for a while after our study abroad concludes.

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As far as a personal connection to the war, my great-grandmother emigrated from Bristol after marrying her GI American husband (of Polish descent.) I grew up listening to her retelling stories of the blackouts, air raids, and her nights out dancing with American soldiers stationed in Britain! My great-grandfather fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and although I was never able to meet him, it will be so special to me to revisit these memories of the war from their youth.

History has remained a curious interest throughout my life, and I’m grateful for this chance in my academic career to learn about and experience so much of WWII firsthand. What I find so incredibly special about this program is how full my knowledge of the war has become.  The classes I’ve taken in preparation for this trip have given me so much more subtext for the war, which I believe will make my experience immensely more fulfilling. I’m glad for the better understanding of circumstances and culture because I know I’ll be able to appreciate what I’m seeing so much more than I would have on a simple vacation. 

Professor Steigerwald, Professor Davidson, and Dr.Guilmartin– thank you for all you have done in preparing me for this– I can’t wait to start our travels in London!