Remnants of a Divided City

Before beginning our study tour, I was sure that Paris would be more glamorous, and that London would be more comfortable than Berlin. I thought that stereotypical German efficiency would interfere with the city’s charm. Because of its postwar reconstruction, I anticipated it would lack the historical architecture that overflows in other ancient European cities. All of these assumptions could not have been more incorrect. Ironically, it quickly became one of my favorites destinations on our tour (admittedly, after I visit anywhere, it’s typically added to my list of favorite spots), and it did not fall short on the character scale.

Up until our visit to Germany, we’d talked about and seen what happened during World War II, and Berlin was a forum for us to conceptualize what happened after the war. We even visited Cecillienhof, a mansion that hosted the Potsdam Conference after the war. At this conference, the United States, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union divided Germany into four occupied zones. As political divisions increased between the occupiers, so did tension between the West and the East German blocks. The city was once divided into East and West Berlin, occupied by Axis and Allied powers, respectively. Today, the two sides are still distinguishable from one another, although they’re integrated into one free, democratic city and country. Ruins from the Berlin Wall, which was erected in the early 1960’s, and fell in 1989, are still noticeable throughout the city and represent a shift from communism to democracy and the end of Soviet occupation.

Additionally, Berlin is full of World War II museums, exhibits, and notable sites that complimented our pre-departure curriculum. We saw the place where the July 20th assassination plot against Hitler was attempted and visited the Wannsee House, where the “Final Solution” for Europe’s Jewish people was decided. In these places and museums, I noticed a reoccurring apologetic tone. In these exhibits, Germany took full responsibility for its Nazi controlled and genocide-ridden past.

As I reflect on our study tour, Berlin represents the perfect ending place. Our time here allowed me to understand how powerful a dictator’s influence can be and how it can change a country’s fate, even decades into the future. I was wrong about Berlin. The city reminded me how important our decisions are as we decide how history will unfold. Although Berlin is no longer divided, its history represents what division can do to a nation.

Remembering Catastrophe

Before arriving in Poland, we visited sites where most of World War II’s heroic stories unfolded.  In London, the Blitz was devastating. Nonetheless, the allies were victorious, and England’s national identity remained after the war. In France, we visited Normandy and walked the same beaches as those who liberated France. In Western Europe, we saw examples of resilience, perseverance, and triumph over evil. In Krakow, however, the sites and museums did not bear the usual Western European happy ending.

About one-third of Krakow’s pre-World War II population was Jewish. They were intellectuals, doctors, lawyers, and most importantly, people.  Jewish people in Krakow were Polish citizens and were incorporated into life throughout the city just like other citizens. The Nazis quickly occupied Poland and all of this changed. The Nazis treated Jewish people as less than human and made every effort to break the Jewish population. 70,000 Jewish people were relocated to a ghetto with space for 17,000 people; rations were less than three-hundred calories per day; and Nazi terrorized the community as part of their mission to gain living space.  Eventually, Krakow’s Jewish population was nearly exterminated. Outside of Krakow, we visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, one of the largest and most brutal Nazi death camps. Over one million Jews and even Polish citizens were sent here, and most of them never left. These atrocities were unfathomable to me, especially considering that they happened in a modern society.

Amidst my shock and attempts to understand how Nazis created a system that murdered millions of Jews, political prisoners, gypsies, homosexuals, and other outcasts, I realized how important it is to study these catastrophes and visit sites where they took place. Visiting Auschwitz was hard. Gaining a sense of how many lives weren’t lived was even more challenging. The system responsible for nearly seven million Jewish people’s murder was created through a series of societal changes and motivated by hatred in an attempt to portray someone else as the enemy. Visiting these sites is gut wrenching, but if we don’t take time to pay respect to those who were victims of Nazi Germany or attempt to understand why these atrocities happened, we risk accepting a similar fate in the future.

A Petit Parisian Experience

Paris has a reputation for luxury. Luxembourg Palace, the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, Napoleon’s ornate grave, and the Arc  de’ Triomphe overlooking the Champs-Elysees, are only a few  of the extravagant scenes that meet city visitors. In the Louvre, I was captivated by an exhibit recreating Marie Antoinette’s palace with intricate patterns,  vivid colors, and gold-adorned furniture. The Eiffel Tower was the tallest structure in the world for a time, and its twinkling evening lights still mesmerize spectators. Napoleon’s grave is in a massive domed building, complete with frescos on high ceilings that frame his large marble coffin. On the Champs Elysses, swanky designer brands with high price tags and security guards don’t dissuade lines of shoppers.  In a city where luxury is plentiful, I was surprised to find the word, “petit” before so many restaurant names. As a non-French speaker, I picked out the word as I eavesdropped. Parisians seem to indulge only mildly in desserts, drinks, or fancy meals. Making things seem small felt like a contradiction to Paris’ extravagance.  As I listened to an interview on the Rick Steves Audio Europe app (I’m a sucker for his audio guides and downloadable walking tours. Check it out, future comrades!) entitled, “Stuff Parisians Like,” he talked about this same phenomenon. As Rick interviewed a Parisian wine expert, Oliver Magny, they discussed how Parisians often downplay luxury in their own lives. Instead of saying they’re going away for the weekend, Parisians say they’re going away for a petit weekend. When paying with a credit card, clerks ask for a petit signature, not just a signature. Anything big is bad, which was surprising to me in a city of palaces.

On our last day in Paris, I visited the Conciergerie. This old prison  witnessed thousands of executions, including Marie Antoinette’s beheading during the French Revolution. Her tiny concrete prison cell was definitely petite, unlike her rooms in her palace. Her arrest and execution were products of overindulgence, and I think this created a culture of modesty in Paris. Other events throughout Paris’s history, especially the World Wars, forced Parisians to live in scarcity. A few days in Paris taught me that although Paris abounds in luxury, Parisians are aware of their history—times when luxury has led to one’s demise and times when Nazi occupation made life there far from luxurious. Thus, Parisians naturally understate everyday joys in order to maintain their petite humility and class.


Winning With People

Thousands of allied decoders spent long days at Bletchley Park during World War II.  The job required considerable attention to detail and discipline.  In between twelve-hour shifts, workers had to sit under UV lamps; it was their only chance to encounter sunlight after working in smoky huts adorned with blackout curtains to protect them from axis bombs. In the park’s ornate mansion-turned museum, an exhibit featured recordings of the women who worked there. One woman noted that she wished she was married and having children, but she knew that her country needed her contributions. In the 1940s, the park was full of employees who put their lives on hold to contribute to the war effort. To me, Bletchley Park represents the “People’s War”:  British society mobilized on and off of the battle field, contributing to the war in masses. As our guide walked us past the mansion, through the gardens, and among the primitive huts where the decoders worked, this theme kept returning to my mind. Historians estimate that Ultra intelligence from Bletchley shorted the war by two to three years.

As we learned more about Bletchley, I asked myself—if my country became enmeshed in total war, would I give as much of my time and talent as the British did? The Leon family, British Aristocrats, realized the need for an intelligence epicenter. They rallied other wealthy families behind the cause and funded the property’s purchase. Aristocrats began intelligence operations at Bletchley, so it was natural that aristocratic women were the first to be hired there. Most of the park’s employees were women, and as demand for workers increased, searches were expanded to all reach all social classes. Women were recruited as they completed crossword puzzles in the newspaper and sent them to the government. After completing an interview, they agreed to work for the government without knowing any details about the work they would be doing. Instead, they waited for code words on the radio as their cue to report to their top-secret jobs. It’s estimated that Ultra intelligence, a product of Bletchley Park, shortened the war by two to four years, and the people who worked there made groundbreaking and war-shortening intelligence break throughs possible. Today, the park pays tribute to the allies’ secret weapon, an army of focused workers at Bletchley.

To learn more about Bletchley Park, checkout their website.