Over the course of the month we visited many, many museums, each of which had its own narrative of the war to tell. The Churchill War Rooms wanted to show that Churchill was an exceptional man of the people and a crucial asset to the People’s War. The museum did this by showcasing Churchill’s everyday routines and hobbies thus making him more average and relatable. The Caen Memorial Museum in France pushed forward the idea that the French resistance was so effective that the Allies were not really needed to liberate the country… The Schindler museum in Krakow clearly laid out the Polish narrative of collective victimhood; our guide continuously made clear that there were good Polish people and bad Polish people, good Jews and bad Jews, and that overall Poland suffered as a whole. But the German museums I found the most interesting because they did not seem to push any sort of narrative at all. They were all very objective and fact based leaving the visitor to interpret the information as such. This objective perspective also seemed to really embody Germany’s collective memory of remorse – we did it, and we are sorry.
To me the objectivity was their way of taking responsibility. Sticking to the facts leaves no room for twisting the story into something it wasn’t. German museums were much wordier and held many less pictures; pictures tend to evoke more emotion than words do and leave more room for subjective interpretation. The Topography of Terror was probably the most word-heavy of the museums we visited in Berlin and the pictures that it had were often placed in a very calculated way – pictures of tormented Jews were often
The juxtaposition of photos in the Topography of Terror Museum.
placed in close proximity to pictures of Nazi officers doing everyday tasks or having fun and in this placement a sort of tension and discomfort was created. The museum displays were also hanging from the ceiling. If someone touched them or if the air conditioner was blowing, they would begin to sway. This also created feelings of discomfort and even made me feel as though I was going to pass out while reading them.
As I visited more museums in Berlin, I began to notice that many of them seemed to use this method physical discomfort through layout and
One of the void spaces in the Jewish Museum of Berlin that was intended to evoke feelings of isolation that the Jews would’ve felt.
architecture which I found most interesting. The Jewish Museum of Berlin used tilted floors and dark, empty rooms with 24m high ceilings to create feelings of discomfort and loneliness that the Jews may have felt while in isolation and under oppression. These rooms reminded me of the “sunken place” from the movie Get Outif you are familiar with the film.
Overall, I thought that the German’s most effectively conveyed the message of WWII. The factual perspective exuded a sense of honesty and responsibility that none of the other museums in any of the other countries seemed to acknowledge, especially not Poland and France. I so appreciated seeing that the Germans took this viewpoint because, honestly, I was little nervous to see what they’d say.
Only a thin pane of glass stood between me and two tons of human hair. Some of it was still in braids. Most of it had lost its color and I couldn’t handle it. I rushed through this exhibit in the Auschwitz I museum and I thought I was going to vomit. For me, looking at the hair was like looking at someone’s arm or leg. Each piece was once attached to someone’s body, a woman’s body, but was hacked off to inflict hurt, shame, and inhumanity. In that moment I had the privilege to walk away from a place that made me incredibly uncomfortable, but the million people who died at Auschwitz didn’t have that luxury.
You could read a thousand books about concentration camps, but they would never evoke the feeling you get while standing in one. A sentence could never convey what it is to touch the boards women laid on, sick and dying, while they awaited their selection for the gas chambers.
These are the barracks in block 25 where sick and dying women were sent until there were 1000 of them. Then they were sent to the gas chambers.
Learning about military operations is important, yes, and I am eternally grateful to the men who gave their lives to the war against Nazi Germany, but I felt that my classes fell a little short in emphasizing why these men were fighting. But I get it now – it is almost impossible to explain Auschwitz and the emotions that accompany the experience without being there. The power of place is critical to learning; it creates an intense muddle of emotions. We learn from uncomfortable situations and the atrocities that happened there deserve to be remembered with a lingering sense of discomfort. I felt anger, disgust, confusion and overwhelming sadness all at the exact same time. And I think that was Professor Steigerwald’s point: nothing he would’ve given us to read would’ve prepared us for the experience we would have there and so he left it open ended.
I still haven’t quite sorted out how I felt about it all – and I don’t think I ever will. I don’t think anyone will ever understand why the Nazis killed six million people in the ways that they did and visiting sites of human destruction only makes it all less clear. But what I do know is that nothing prepared me for this experience, not one novel or one personal account and it is an experience that I will never forget.
A cattle car on the train tracks at Auschwitz II – Birkineau. It is a replica of the ones used to transport people into the camps.
Paris is an incredibly unique city. From the absurdly built roads to the smells of the subway, everything about it is just uniquely Paris. On the first day while navigating the city, I was struck by Paris’ immense population of homeless people. They seemed to occupy every corner and every nook in the metro. There were people in sleeping bags and on staircases, with dogs and friends or alone. They were young and old, black and white, and all had the same sad look in their eyes. People were rushing right past them without even seeing them, so they sat quietly or slept and went largely unnoticed. And that is the worst part; people don’t want to see them because they make them uncomfortable or they are an obstacle or inconvenience. I know that Paris is a large metropolitan area and that homelessness is to be expected to a certain extent, but the number of homeless people was somewhat alarming to me. Homelessness is an issue that I find especially troubling and have always had a big heart for. So, I did a little digging to see if I could find out why.
According to France’s National Institute of Statistic and Economic Studies (INSEE), there are roughly 463,000 people who live below the poverty line in Paris alone. The INSEE also found that more than 12,000 people are currently homeless in France, and a homelessness census conducted in February 2019 found that more than 3,641 people are currently sleeping on the streets of Paris. The percentage of homeless people has increased by 21% in the last year. Many of the people who make up the homeless population are refugees and migrants coming from Africa and the Middle East. Rising unemployment also forced many other on to the streets. Compared to the entire population of Paris the homeless population only makes up a very small percentage, but 3,641 is no small number, and each of these people deserves a warm, dry and safe place to live. It baffles me here just as much as in the U.S. that a country with so much wealth seemingly does so little to help its homeless population.
A view of the Champs Élysees from the Arc de Triumph.
The lake at Bletchley Park.
The mansion at Bletchley Park.
We spent our first Friday in Bletchley Park, where the weather was perfect for an outside discussion about the British collective memory of the People’s War and more specifically who “the people” were. We came to the conclusion that those who are considered “the people” now may not have been considered as much during the war. The prime example of our conversation was the women who worked at Bletchley. Our guide made sure to emphasize the important work that the women of Bletchley did and how critical they were to success in operations such as Overlord. Of course, during the war women were seen as only temporary assets or assistants to the men who ran the show.
This conversation really resonated with me as we began discussing what it meant to be one of “the people” and what the qualifications were. I began to think about applying what that meant outside of a British framework and to think about the research that I conducted over the semester on the African Imperial Soldiers who fought to liberate France under General Charles de Gaulle. These men made up nearly 50% of the Free French Army, and their families and villages were exploited for labor that supplied the Allied war effort. Women at Bletchley, while seen as inferior, were still considered human. The Africans fought and labored for a national that merely saw them as bodies who were expendable. Hitler, too, saw Jews, Gypsies, and other undesirables” as cogs in his machine; they were less than human and therefore only worth the amount labor they could offer.
The suffering of the victims of the Holocaust is incomparable to the suffering of Africans subjected to colonial oppression – they are two very different sets of circumstances. But what this shows is how tailored the idea of a People’s War was to the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant experience, of which Winston Churchill was the perfect symbol. It is an experience that has only recently been able to account for the work that women did at Bletchley or even Alan Turing, who was gay. The framework, while unifying in Great Britain, has obvious limits that almost undercut the core ideas of what we would consider a People’s War today.