History is Alive in Berlin

Our last stop on our European tour was Berlin, Germany. Germany has always been a country that I have wanted to visit. Many of my ancestors come from Germany. Not only that, but throughout my study of history Germany has always been a country that has shown up frequently, and after being in Berlin it’s easy to see why. There is history engrained everywhere into the city, just like every other city we visited in our tour across Europe. However, there was something different about the way history could be found in Berlin. In London and Paris the historical sites were more noticeable. It was easy to see the difference between the historical buildings and sites in these cities. The pieces of history found throughout Berlin were more embedded.

One of the most unexpected places where historical significance can be found is in the crosswalk lights. It’s a little man in a hat, referred to as ampelmann. He was originally from East Berlin back when the city was divided in two by the Berlin Wall. When the wall came down West Berlin also decided to adopt ampelmann as their crosswalk lights. Ampelmann has grown into such a phenomenon that stores can be found throughout the city selling ampelmann merchandise. It’s a simple reference to Berlin’s history but it is everywhere in the city and serves as a good reminder of the combining of East and West Berlin.


Graffiti found on the side of the Berlin Wall.

Another place where history is engrained into the city of Berlin is in the graffiti and street art the visitors and locals alike can see everyday when walking around. This first most obvious place where street art and graffiti can be found is on the Berlin Wall. Throughout our time in Berlin we saw several different sections of the Berlin Wall. The first was one of the largest pieces of the wall that was still standing. Located in front of the Topography of Terror Museum. There were large amounts of graffiti on this piece of the wall but one of the most prominent declared “Save our Planet.” The Berlin Wall is obviously a significant part of the city’s history but the art and the graffiti found on it shows how popular culture can be combined with places of historical significance.

Berlin is a city that doesn’t try and draw attention to its history. Instead, it integrates the history and makes sure to integrate it into the modern scene. This is why I loved stopping here. It didn’t take very long to begin exploring the rich history of Berlin.

The Importance of Auschwitz


Building at the entrance to Auschwitz I.

Ever since getting the itinerary of all of the stops we would be making on our World War II Study Tour, I had been waiting to visit Auschwitz with much anticipation. As the largest concentration camp, it is a site that most people recognized when I told them where I would be going over the course of my travels across Europe, probably because when most people first begin learning about World War II in grade school Auschwitz is always mentioned. Because I had first learned about Auschwitz several years ago, I had quite naively set expectations for what I was about to be seeing at the site. I imagined it would look exactly how it looked in the pictures taken over seventy years ago during the 1940s: a miserable looking camp located in the middle of nowhere. It would be intense, and at times hard to handle. I didn’t really expect many tourists, and the tourists who would be visiting during the same time as us would be visiting would be subdued and respectful. However, when we pulled into the camp, almost every expectation I had was completely shattered. The area surrounding Auschwitz has been built up. There are now businesses, including a KFC and a McDonalds. I wasn’t even aware that we were pulling into Auschwitz until I saw a sign directing our bus where to park.

Aside from the urbanization of the surrounding area the thing that took me most by surprise was the sheer number of people that were there to visit Auschwitz. There were just groups of people everywhere, many of whom seemed to be laughing and joking around. Not only that, but there was a gift shop for people to poke around in while they waited, along with several places to buy food. It made me feel like we were about to visit a Disney World rather than the site of where 1.1 million innocent people lost their lives. It was upon seeing all of these people that I began to question whether or not a site like Auschwitz should even be open for public consumption.

The masses of people did not seem to diminish when we entered into the camp. Just before we made our way to the main gates we met with our tour guide and were given headsets so we could have an easier time listening to him. The tour guide was another area where my expectations didn’t coincide with what we actually experienced. In Professor Steigerwald’s class we read a piece by Frederick Kuh who visited Auschwitz in the early 1950s with a tour guide who seemed to get exhilarated talking about all the horrors that took place at Auschwitz. To my surprise though, our tour guide spoke about Auschwitz with very little emotion. Combined with headsets that made you feel a little cut off from the rest of your group, his emotionless voice allowed visitors to really take on their own interpretation of the things that we were seeing.

Because of the isolation inherent in the setup of the tour it was easy to ignore the masses of people that surrounded us, except for when their behavior didn’t match the somber tone of the rest of the camp. One such case was when we entered into the room full of human hair. In the display case was two tons of human hair that the Nazis took from the prisoners of the camps. The display seemed to go one forever, but what was most unnerving was the Nazis accumulated an estimated seven tons of hair, over three times what was being shown to visitors. This room was one of the most unnerving parts of the whole tour. Also included in the display was a blanket made out of human hair. As our tour guide put it the Nazis “made killing an industry.” A few of the guests in front of us in line decided it would be appropriate to take pictures in this room despite being told repeatedly not to. Despite the powerful display we were seeing it was hard not to question again whether or not Auschwitz should be open for the general public to see.

Once we moved on from the hair room we made our way to a room containing displays with shoes from the victims, glasses from the victims and other personal items that the Nazis stole. I had been aware of the shoe display before even visiting Auschwitz, but the display of glasses really hit me hard. Up until this point in the tour it was easy to think of the victims in large chunks. Our tour guide had put such an emphasis in the beginning about the amount of people killed that it was hard to really wrap your head around the victims as individuals. Seeing the individual glasses really brought this into perspective for me. In the hair room it was hard to see individual people, but glasses are such an individualized thing. Each person has their own pair, made especially for them and their needs. Not only that, but it was easy to begin counting the number of glasses in the display case causing the visitor to focus even more acutely on the individual people.


View of the train tracks from the entrance to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

When we made our way over to Auschwitz-Birkenau my original expectations were met a little more. Most of the Auschwitz pictures I had seen had come from Auschwitz-Birkenau, and the surrounding area wasn’t nearly as built up as the surroundings of Auschwitz I. That didn’t make the experience any less powerful. We got to see the train tracks and the gate that the prisoners had to pass through. Many of these people didn’t realize that they were headed towards their unavoidable death, thanks in large part to the Nazi propaganda. We saw the tiny train cars that these people were packed in to along with all of their belongings. After touring the grounds we stopped by a holding cell where prisoners were taken shortly before they were sent off to be killed. The room itself was dark and miserable, and it’s incredibly upsetting knowing that so many people spent their last days starving, cramped together with other dying or dead people. In such a depressing room, it was surprising to find graffiti left behind by past visitors on the walls of the building, showing a complete disrespect for those people who had suffered at the hands of the Nazis.

Obviously, visiting Auschwitz is an intense and powerful experience, yet having people vandalize and show a complete disrespect for the people who died there could serve as proof that Auschwitz shouldn’t be open for people to visit. However, I believe it shows the opposite. Visiting and studying places Auschwitz, and to a greater extent studying history as a whole, propels society forward because we are able to learn from our mistakes in the past. There are always going to be people who don’t “get it.” But in a society dictated by majorities, as long as the vast majority of visitors respect and understand the importance of Auschwitz, it should remain open as a reminder to everyone of what could happen when there is a complete break down in public morality.

The French: Celebrators and Criticizers of the French Liberators

Post card featuring the "Welcome our Liberators" phrase.

Post card featuring the “Welcome our Liberators” phrase.

World War II began on September 1,1939; about a year later one of the major global powers, France, fell to the powerful German forces. In almost every history class I have taken, my teacher has found a way to make the French the punch line of a joke because of France’s fall in 1940. Four years passed before Allied forces finally liberated the French. Between its fall in 1940 and its liberation in 1944 there has been a debate about whether there was predominate French collaboration with the Germans or predominate French resistance. The impression I have always been under is that for the most part, the French could be considered collaborators. The Germans seemed to be well on their way to taking over the entirety of Europe, and the French needed to figure out how they would fit into Germany’s new empire. Or so the story goes in the American narrative I grew up learning. The French narrative is a bit messier. This was extremely evident when comparing the town of Bayeux to the Caen Memorial Museum we visited.

On Saturday May 14 we made the transition from the fast-paced city of London to the quieter, slower-paced Bayeux. Bayeux is about forty minutes away from the beaches where the Normandy Invasion took place. Even though D-Day occurred on June 6, 1944, almost 71 years ago, the events of the invasion still seem to be fresh in the minds of the people of the surrounding area.

Bayeux itself is not very big. Therefore, it was very easy to walk around and get a good sense of the city. The more I explored the city, the more I began to notice the same phrase. It read, “Welcome to our Liberators.” I saw this phrase in the windows of several restaurants scattered throughout the city, on the doors to the Welcome Center of the British cemetery, and even on postcards at a souvenir shop. Obviously the liberators this phrase is referring to are the Americans, the British and the Canadians.

The phrase “Welcome to our Liberators” seems to contradict what I was presented with about the French national narrative of World War II that was present in the Caen Memorial Museum. There were several things I liked about this museum, the first being the overall setup. I liked that the pre-war exhibit made visitors feel like they were descending into hell gradually. The flooring changed, the walls went from smooth to rough, but the changes were subtle enough so you didn’t really notice the changes until you had descended quite a ways. To me, this helped the visitors get a visually accurate representation to how the war started. There were seemingly small, insignificant things happening that led to WWII rather than the abrupt beginning that many histories of the war still seem to have.


The plaque talking about French liberation.

However, what I found frustrating in the museum was that it celebrated the French resistance too much and seemed to downplay the role of the other Allies, especially in regards to D-Day. In the museum’s section on D-Day there was a phrase that stuck out to me in particular, it was on one of the plaques hanging on the wall. It read: “With or without the help of the Allied forces, most of France had been liberated by August and September 1944.” This phrase downplays the significance the Americans, British and Canadians had in the French liberation and gives much of the credit to the French resistance. While there was French resistance it was not so significant as the Caen museum would lead you to believe.

The juxtaposition between what I saw in the museum and what I saw around Bayeux leads me to believe that the French still are struggling with how they want to remember World War II. While on one hand its difficult for such a large global power to admit that it needed help


“Welcome to our Liberators” as seen in the window of a local restaurant.

liberating itself, it still needs to be acknowledged. This is why I feel like I saw so many “We welcome our Liberators” throughout Bayeux. The phrase was found in random places, almost seeming to blend in to the surroundings. This is the French way of saying that they know how big of a role others played in their liberation without having to completely admit it in their national narrative.


British Parliament: Combining the Old with the New

Historical landmarks, such as the HMS Belfast, were often seen surrounded by modern buildings.

Historical landmarks, such as the HMS Belfast, were often seen surrounded by modern buildings.

As I mentioned in my last blog post, this trip will be my first time out of the country. London has always been a city I have wanted to see, and this trip did not disappoint. In a lot of ways London reminded me of a large US city, specifically New York. However, London has a longer history and it was evident everywhere you looked. Modern day shops and conveniences seemed seamlessly built into the skyline, paired nicely with the historic landmarks. The skyline was not the only thing that seemed to combine the old with the new. On my first day in London a few of us had the opportunity to go to the British Parliament. Unfortunately, we were not able to get an actual tour of Parliament. Instead we got to watch Parliament in session, which was an interesting experience.


Traditional tourist shot of Big Ben. Big Ben is attached to the Parliament building.

Traditional tourist shot of Big Ben. Big Ben is attached to the Parliament building.

After making our way through security we found our way inside of the Parliament building. As the center of the British government it should come to no surprise when I say that the building itself is massive and beautifully decorated. With the high ceilings, stained glass windows, and regal statues, it reminded me of several cathedrals I have been in. Once we had traversed through the front entrance of Parliament we found our way to the House of Commons. The House of Commons was already in session. They were in the middle of what they called “Urgent Questions.” The question we walked in on was concerning safety in British Prisons. This particular “Urgent Question” did not seem to inspire very much debate. Most of the people who were talking seemed to be in agreement, and the people who talked spent their time making statements rather than challenging the proposed improvements to the prison system. They addressed each other as the “honorable gentleman” or “honorable lady” and seemed to fit my overall assumption of what British politics would be like, polite and functional.

The next “Urgent Question” was where things got interesting. The Secretary of Education was proposing a new protocol for British education. This new proposal would require all schools to become academies by 2020 in effort to improve the British educational standard. The proposal in question was met with stiff backlash from those who opposed it, which included teachers, parents and students. We were able to gather from the statements prepared by the Secretary of State that this proposal had been introduced on Friday, May 6th already and many people had already voiced their displeasure for it. The Secretary of State had been notified that making all schools into academies would be brought up again so she had a response to the Secretary of Education’s statement already prepared and things began to escalate. The Secretary of State scolded the Secretary of Education for even bringing the topic back up as the majority of people had already voiced their opposition for it the previous Friday. She said, “I fear that the Secretary of Education has put her fingers in her ears and refuses to listen.” Gone were the pleasantries and social order that were present in the previous “Urgent Question.” They were replaced with people talking over one another, accusations being thrown around and the Prime Minister having to call for order on more than one occasion.

We left about halfway through this discussion, as we had been sitting in the public gallery for over an hour by that point. As we were leaving one of the government officials directed us to the House of Lords. When compared to the House of Commons a few things stood out. The first were the signs directing visitors where to go. The signs leading to the House of Commons read “Visitors Entrance” whereas the signs pointing to the House of Lords read “Strangers Entrance.” These signs indicated the fact that the general public was more welcome to watch the House of Commons at work than the House of Lords. Next, the galleries where the public could sit had some obvious differences. The House of Commons had relatively comfortable seating and plenty of it. In addition, there were TV screens set up so that visitors could see who was talking on the floor. In the House of Lords, there were no TVs, and the seating provided was on stiff, wooden pews. Pretty to look at, not so comfortable to sit in. The House of Lords was also more lavishly decorated. With a beautiful golden throne being the centerpiece of the room. We were informed that next week the queen would be addressing all of Parliament from


Statue of Oliver Cromwell that we saw in the courtyard on our way inside Parliament. Oliver Cromwell was an English military and political leader who lived from 1599 until 1658.

this throne. The final difference between the House of Commons and the House of Lords were the people who were a part of their respective House of Parliament. In the House of Commons there was more diversity. There were men and women spanning various age groups and ethnicities at work. In the House of Lords most of the people working were old and white. There were both men and women, but the men outnumbered the women.

In comparing the two Houses of Parliament it is obvious that the House of Commons represents the new, and more updated traditions of the British government and by extension, the British people. The House of Lords on the other hand seems to represent the old British tradition. Much like the skyline of London incorporates old, traditional buildings, in addition to the new modern buildings, the British government also unites the old and the new, creating one whole unit.

Europe here I come!

Hello! My name is Katie Holman and I am heading into my senior year at The Ohio State University. I am currently pursuing a History major, along with minors in Political Science and Psychology. Growing up, history was always my favorite subject and I particularly enjoyed studying the American Revolution and WWII.

Throughout my academic career everything I learned about history was through a textbook or a teacher/professor. I am really excited to be able to fully immerse myself into the study of World War II. I actually get to experience all of the locations I have been learning about in person. This will be my first time traveling outside of the United States and I could not be more excited! I am probably most looking forward to visiting London and France.

I am extremely grateful for the support I have received from my professors, my parents and the scholarship donors that have made this trip possible. Thanks for following along with me on the adventure of a lifetime!