Closing Remarks

Tuesday morning, I boarded a bus from Berlin to Prague with five of my fellow classmates.

Standing on Charles Bridge in Prague

This marked the end of my WWII study tour and while I was excited for Prague, I was sad to be ending the course. Never in my life had I been more upset to finish a class.

However, when I arrived in Prague, I couldn’t help but look at everything as if I was still on the study tour. Obviously, the war affected Prague, but how exactly?

Memorial for the Second Resistance Movement in 1938-1945

Unfortunately, there were no WWII museums on my Czech itinerary. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help myself from looking at the city from a historian’s perspective. What did each statue represent? Who built them? For example, there was a Czech Flag monument near our hostel.

After a closer look, I realized it was a memorial for the second resistance movement to the Nazi Occupation in Czechoslovakia from 1938-1945. Reminders of the war are present almost everywhere you go. My trip made that abundantly clear.

Friends in London

Since I arrived in Dublin, Ireland on May 5th, I have been to 6 countries seen over 15 museums and created 22 close friendships.

View from old bunker at Pointe du Hoc

In London, I explored the city, learned about Churchill and was privileged to hear a first-person account of the war. In Normandy, I stood on the actual beaches where soldiers fought on D-Day.

Today is June 6th, 2017 and it is insane that exactly seventy-three years ago, men stormed Utah and Omaha beach and climbed Pointe du Hoc to liberate France from Germany.

Sitting outside the Louvre

Next I went to Paris, saw the Mona Lisa and learned about Charles de Gaulle from the French perspective.

In France, he is placed on a pedestal. It’s no wonder they named an airport after him. Then in Kraków, I had my eyes opened at Auschwitz.

Me and Dr. Steigerwald

I visited a camp where 1.1 million innocent people were murdered. No book is the same as walking through the actual place. Lastly, the trip ended in Berlin. I never made it to Checkpoint Charlie, but I did enjoy time with my close friends.

I learned a lot about WWII, as well as my capacity for bus travel and my tolerance for hotel packed lunches.

Most importantly, I learned about myself. I love history and I love to travel. There is still so much out there to see and this study tour was the best possible introduction to Europe I could have had. Thank you to everyone who made this trip so amazing. It was a life changing experience.



Everyone at the Olympic Stadium!

The Woman I Met on the Plane

On my flight to Europe I met a woman. I don’t know her name, but she was approximately forty or so and she loved conversation. She grew up around Manchester and was visiting her family. Her parents moved to Greenwich in 2005. I told her I was going on a study tour and visiting Europe for the first time. Her excitement was obvious. She was genuinely happy that a stranger was about to experience all these new countries. Naturally, I enjoyed talking to someone so welcoming and when I told her I was going to Berlin, she was even more enthusiastic. After living in Germany for over 10 years and marrying a German banker, this place was her home. She was flying from Newark, New Jersey because she had some sort of business trip prior to seeing her family. Unfortunately, her reaction to my program was less positive. I told her that this study tour was related to WWII and before I had the chance to speak about all the different museums on our itinerary and the fascinating memorials we were visiting, she started to rant. Ranting to me, a stranger! One who was completely unprepared for a kind woman on a British Airways flight to air her frustration regarding Germany and the Second World War. I suppose that while growing up in England, she learned about the war the same way I had. Germany was the enemy. Hitler was German, as were the Nazis and the people who murdered over one million Jews at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the death camp I visited in Poland a few days ago. But then she moved to the country and fell in love. “Berlin is beautiful” she told me, “as is the rest of the country. There’s a culture that extends far beyond this war that people can’t stop talking about and how the hell can we move on if a war from seventy something years ago is still holding us back?” Bear in mind that we were three hours into the flight, it was approximately midnight in New Jersey and I was tired. I clammed up. I wasn’t ready for her outburst and it did not stop there. While impatiently waving her hands around she said, “Germany did this and that et cetera et cetera! Not every single German was guilty! My husband didn’t do anything, our friends didn’t fight anyone. How can we move on if this damn war is still hanging over our heads?” Of course, I didn’t have an answer ready. She wasn’t angry with me, rather she was frustrated with the German reputation.

Reichstag Building

After seeing Berlin, I understand what she meant by all this. The war is still visible in the city. Buildings with bullet holes are standing and functional.

The Reichstag, the building for the German parliament, has graffiti from the Russians on its walls. When the Red Army captured the city in the Battle of Berlin, the soldiers wrote their names on the walls as well as vulgar statements. The crude comments have been concealed, but the signatures are visible.

Reichstag walls with Russian graffiti

And unlike the Paris WWII museums, nothing is left out. In Paris, the Musée de l’Armée jumped from 1941 to 1944 completely passing Vichy France, a period in their past that reflects poorly on the French reputation. However, in Germany, it was all there.

Soviet War Memorial

Memorials to the Soviet Union still stand, as well as the Wannsee House, the building where Hitler possibly gave the order for the Final Solution to exterminate all Jewish people. It now functions as a museum which I had the privilege to walk through.

View of the lake from the Wannsee house

The scars from the war are still visible in Germany. WWII is part of their identity now. Anti-Semitism still exists, as does a small Nazi party. In the British schools that this woman attended, Germany will always be their enemy in WWI and WWII. These things are hard to forget.

Fortunately, I was able to walk through the city and gain a new perspective. Berlin is beautiful.

Berlin Cathedral

I sat in front of their cathedral at night and walked by Brandenburg Tor during the day. The bratwurst is delicious as was the Prater Garden we went to as a group.

Friends enjoying a meal at the Prater Garden

Personally, I don’t think the world will be able to let go of what happened in WWII. At least not while there are still people alive who endured it. My grandmother lived in the Philippines and she was there when her father, a doctor, was taken from her home and forced to work for the Axis Powers. She never saw him again. While these people remember the war, Germany will not be able to completely move past it.

Perhaps this is necessary. If we forget the past, it will repeat itself. That is why museums exist and buildings are preserved. However, it is unfair for innocent people to suffer due to the actions of someone else decades ago. I wish I could speak one more time to the woman I met on the plane. After spending time in Berlin, I believe we could have a more in depth conversation and hopefully, I would be more coherent rather than groggy halfway through a seven-hour flight. Overall, I really enjoyed the city. I feel as though I gained a whole new perspective on WWII and the German identity after seeing it.

Kraków and Auschwitz-Birkenau

We arrived in Kraków, Poland on May 22nd (after a brief stop in Brussels for Belgium chocolate). Kraków reminded me of Bayeux. The same older buildings and small streets, but there were tons of people. I would not say that it moved at the same pace as Paris or London, but it was not as slow as Bayeux. This was a city! A beautiful one, with history and a lot to see.

Me in the town square of Kraków, Poland

I visited the Jewish Quarter for food and the market, passed by the castle and walked through the town square. As a group, we went to the Schindler museum and on the last day we drove out to Auschwitz-Birkenau. I have a lot to cover on that, but I’ll start with my initial thoughts on Kraków.

My first thought was how upbeat the city was. It was classic and clean. I liked that it was not super slow, but that I also did not have to deal with the hustle and bustle of the average Parisian.

Busy street in Kraków, Poland

Strolling through the markets and trying pierogis in restaurants made me forget that this country endured the German occupation. That was until we went to the Jewish Quarter. Vendors were selling Nazi and Soviet war memorabilia. Its authenticity was questionable, but I found it strange. Why would the Jewish area of Kraków be selling swastika pins? And in the Schindler museum, we saw how Kraków changed dramatically when Germany took over. The country had its culture taken from it and for the past few decades it has been trying to rediscover itself. I did not realize the damage that Poland suffered until looking at Poland from the start of the German occupation.


On the last day, we went to Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was terribly depressing, but I wanted to experience it. It is part of the reason I decided to apply for this program. Still, I struggle to explain why I wanted to go to Auschwitz. Approximately, 1.1 million people were murdered here. They were starved and enslaved. Some were beaten and shot. Most were gassed as part of the “Final Solution” to annihilate all Jewish people using a chemical called Zyklon B.

Label for Zyklon B

The people in the camps were brought into gas chambers after being told that they were about to take a shower, then stripped and locked in the room. The gas was released and within fifteen to twenty minutes, every victim would be dead.

Their bodies were cremated and their ashes were used as fertilizer. Nothing was wasted. When John gave his report here, he said that while some of the people physically survived the camp, they died inside before they were liberated. Why would I want to see the site of all this tragedy? I still do not really know the answer. I believe that preserving Auschwitz is important so that people are reminded of the atrocities that occurred there and know to never repeat them. Studying this camp is nothing like going to the actual place. I walked on the same platform where families were separated and it was determined if a prisoner would live or die.


Old electric fence at Auschwitz-Birkenau

It was a somber day and a powerful experience. There was a room filled with the shoes that were taken from the prisoners. Tiny shoes that belonged to children were in those cases. I think that affected me the most. If not that, then it was the room full of human hair that was the most painful. It was taken from the prisoners upon entering the camp and it made me sick to my stomach. The overt cruelty in the camp is unbelievable. Yet, it happened. There is no positive spin on the Holocaust. Americans love a happy ending. It is a cliché in most popular WWII films, especially since we won the war. Poland did not come out on top. It is impossible to find a bright side here. Nearly 6 million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust. Families were broken and displaced from their homes. Poland lost its culture and the number of Jews living in Kraków went from 60,000 pre-war to under 200 identified Jews today. My initial thought about Poland was how beautiful it was and how lively the town square in Kraków felt. Unfortunately, the country has deep scars which were very visible on my tour through Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Bayeux and the Boys of D-Day

Our next stop on this study tour was Bayeux, France. This is a small, quaint town in Normandy. A place where crime is nonexistent, laundry is eighty-five cents for every five minutes and it is impossible to find an open restaurant at 4 pm on a Sunday. Despite my laundry meltdown and lack of bread and cheese for a few short hours, I really liked this location.

As a group, we visited the Bayeux tapestry. It was wonderful. The tapestry is 230 feet long and 20 inches wide. When you walk alongside it while listening to the audio device they provide, you get to hear the story of Harold and William fighting to be King of England. Each scene is numbered so you follow in order as the audio narrates the story and points out specific images to look at. It would say, “Notice how Harold has his hands on different holy relics while he swears his allegiance to William. William was concerned that Harold might betray him so he wanted to ensure that the oath was binding.” Pointing out these specific images was helpful when we reached the end of the story.

Harold swearing his allegiance to William

Harold promised to recognize William as King of England in front of God and when he betrayed William, he suffered the consequences in the battle for England.

Another reason I enjoyed the tapestry was that I understood some of the language written on it. I studied Latin for four years in high school and that helped me translate some simple words before the audio explained what was happening. That’s part of why I loved the tapestry so much. I felt connected to it since I could translate the language when in Bayeux I did not understood what people said in French.

On our second day in France, I had to give a site report on a specific book I read which covered a topic in WWII. I decided to read Pegasus Bridge by Stephen Ambrose.

Pegasus Bridge

It follows Major John Howard and his team as they execute Operation Deadstick. My report was nerve-racking. While I was excited to share their story, it was intimidating to talk in front of my peers about a topic I cared so much about. I stood in the exact location that Major John Howard and his team landed three Horsa gliders to capture the Bénouville Bridge (later renamed Pegasus Bridge in honor of the 6th Airborne Division) on June 6th, 1944. Their story is incredible. The timing of their landings was so exact and they overcame the Germans guarding the bridge within ten minutes of their arrival. How could I do the story justice? I was standing next to the bridge, across the river from Café Gondrée and it was as if the pages of the book came to life.

Café Gondrée

I’m mentioning the café, which might seem unrelated to a military operation, because the Gondrée family did reconnaissance for the Allies before they landed the gliders on D-Day. That café has been around for over seventy years.  According to Ambrose, the Gondrées were the first people liberated in France. Seeing the café made me feel more connected to the site than seeing the bridge. It truly was an amazing experience.

During our stay in Bayeux, we visited three cemeteries. One honoring the German soldiers who died in battle, another honoring American soldiers, and the last one which honored British soldiers. They all differed from each other.

German Cemetery

In the case of the Germans, they lost the war. I felt as though their cemetery centered on respecting and honoring the dead. There was no focus on glory or success. German graves were very simple. Several young men would be listed on the same stone. The only information was their names and their date of birth to the day they died. It was terrible that so many teenagers were in those graves. Despite the terrible actions of the Nazis, I still value life and the young men were barely able to live theirs. I was most affected by the soldiers who died between the ages of fifteen and seventeen. I have two brothers in that age range. I hate to think what would have happened to them if we lived during the war.

The following day we visited the American cemetery. Unlike the German graves, these were large and honored each individual soldier. Even the unidentified men received a tombstone. The cemetery was packed with people paying their respects whereas the German cemetery was rather empty. For America, WWII was labeled “The Good War” and as a result, soldiers were honored for their glory and bravery. We won so our soldiers were our champions. There’s a quote I found about this cemetery that I want to share:

“There’s a graveyard in northern France where all the dead boys from D-Day are buried. The white crosses reach from one horizon to the other. I remember looking it over and thinking it was a forest of graves. But the rows were like this, dizzying, diagonal, perfectly straight, so after all it wasn’t a forest but an orchard of graves. Nothing to do with nature, unless you count human nature.” -Barbara Kingsolver

I believe it does a great job of describing the graves while also emphasizing the tragedy that comes with war. Young, brave soldiers died. This included several Ohio State students. I placed a flag on the grave of one. It is crazy to think that he had gone to the same school I attend currently, but he never made it home.

The Ohio State University flag next to the grave of a fallen Buckeye

Graves of American soldiers including the grave of Theodore Roosevelt Jr.

British graves commemorating the lives of three soldiers who practiced different religions

Lastly, we visited the British Cemetery. For the British, WWII was “The People’s War.” The graves reflected this sentiment in the sense that they were all individualized. For the American graves, they were all the same. The only differences were that the headstones either had a cross or star of David on them. The British cemetery recognized all religions. Family members could customize what they wanted the graves to say. The focus was on each soldier which was something that we did not see in the American or German cemeteries.

Next stop, Paris.

London 5/7 – 5/12

On May 7th, 2017, I landed in London, England to begin my study tour across Europe. I was thrilled. Four countries, three weeks, one subject: U.S., Europe and the Second World War. My initial thought was how can I possibly imagine what the war was like in London, when it has been over seventy years since it first began? Cities change, but remarkably, many locations have been preserved so that students like me can learn from them and imagine what London, was like hundreds of years ago. I went to Westminster Abbey and it was breathtaking. It opened in 1065 and the first coronation was in 1066. The fact that it is still so beautiful and intact after such a long time made me realize how much older London is in comparison to America.

Front entrance to Westminster Abbey

It is even more astounding that London endured the Blitz and looks the way it does now. The Blitz, a shortened version of Blitzkrieg which translates to ‘lightening war’, was the term used to describe the heavy air raids in Britain from 1940 to 1941. During that time, citizens slept in the tube to stay safe. I struggled to imagine people sleeping in the cement underground when I took the tube around the city. We even had a speaker come in to share his experiences from 1940-41. His name was Michael Hanscomb and his story was exciting. He was only an early teen when the air raids began. I have never experienced anything remotely similar to what he spoke about and I’m nearly twenty. Michael endured the same daily routine and small rations for a year. During this time, some of his neighbors died from the bombings. He lived through the war and it is crazy to think that in the next few years, there will be no one left to share their stories from WWII. I had the privilege of hearing him speak, but will my little sister ever meet anyone who remembers the war? Will my children?

Another experience I had in London was visiting Bletchley Park. This was where majority of the code-breaking by the Allies took place. Here they cracked the enigma which was the device that the Germans used to code their information. The information was not released until years after the war ended in 1974. Nearly 12,000 men and women worked there and the location was never discovered. Keeping something as big as that secret from the enemy for the entire war seems near impossible to me. I was very impressed that the Allies accomplished this and really enjoyed the tour through the grounds.

Bletchley Park main building

Crossing the Pond

My name is Charlie O’Brien. I am a rising junior majoring in Strategic Communications and minoring in Business and History. Follow me as I travel across Europe to learn about WWII history and experience the diverse cultures in each new location. Wish me luck as I embark on this exciting journey!