A Stark Reminder

After traversing the cities of Bayeux and Paris in France, The Ohio State World War II program travelled to Kraków, Poland. The purpose of our expedition to Kraków was to further explore the Holocaust with Auschwitz, the infamous concentration camp where at least 1.3 million people were systematically murdered, being an important stop. Poland recently passed a bill that outlaws blaming Poland for complicity in any crimes during the Holocaust with varying penalties based on the severity of the condemnation. I was eager to witness how the passing of the law shaped my experiences in Kraków.

Arbeit Macht Frei, or “work sets you free”, sadistically stretches across the entrance to Auschwitz 1, the section of Auschwitz that served as a labor site. For prisoners, the only freedom from Nazi terror was in death through labor or murder. Worn brick barracks lined each side of the uneven dirt streets. There was an immediate, overwhelming presence of sadness upon entering the gates of Auschwitz. We toured several of the barracks, seeing prisoner’s belongings and representations of living conditions. One of the most powerful moments was walking down a narrow hallway filled with prisoner photos taken upon their arrival to camp. The sense of fear and hopelessness was palpable from their gazes. Towards the end of the hallway, shoes taken from prisoners filled glass cases. Seeing the large quantity of shoes and knowing each pair represented a person was a jarring reminder of the death and inhumanity at Auschwitz.

In addition to visiting Auschwitz 1, we went to Auschwitz II Birkenau, the location of the infamous railroad station where prisoners were selected for labor or death by gassing upon arriving to Auschwitz. There is an example of a train car in the spot where selection occurred along with an image of a selection taking place. It is eerie to stand in the same location where someone’s fate was determined with a point of a finger. As we walked the grounds, we followed the same path as those who were condemned to death in the gas chambers. It was difficult to imagine human beings being ruthlessly herded to their deaths. The gas chambers were destroyed by the Nazis once the outcome of the war was determined in an effort to erase any evidence of these horrific war crimes. The remains rest in their same state as a reminder to the atrocities at Auschwitz.

I did not see the Polish law altering my experience in Poland. The exhibits at Auschwitz made clear that the atrocities occurred at the hands of the Nazis and Poland was not responsible, but I would imagine this has been the case for years. Our tour guide at Auschwitz did not hide any history but did reiterate that Auschwitz was a German death camp built for German use. The murder at Auschwitz was directed at Jews but I detected a Polish narrative reminding visitors that Poles were affected too. The systematic dehumanization and murder that occurred during the Holocaust must never be forgotten so history is not repeated.

Accepting Responsibility

The final stop on The Ohio State World War II study tour was Berlin, Germany. While in Berlin, we explored Germany’s perspective of World War II focusing on how Germans have accepted responsibility for their fault in the war and the Holocaust. The American perspective of World War II explains the war from the side of the victors, condemning the Nazis for their atrocities, but not involving the same amount of national reflection as Germany. I expected Germany to display remorse for their actions in World War II but did not know if responsibility for the war would be placed on the Nazis or the public. The conversation around the rise of the Nazis and their reign of terror was more open than anticipated with blame placed on the entire country.

Our first visit in Berlin was the German Historical Museum where we explored their World War II exhibit. The exhibit began by discussing the Nazi rise to power, explaining the German public’s attraction to Adolf Hitler and culminating factors that assisted the Nazi rise. As an American, I expected Germany to display bias in how the war was recounted similar to what we had seen in other countries. As the exhibit progressed, I did not detect German bias. Instead, the war was retold in a very straightforward, matter of fact way. For example, Nazi atrocities against Jews and the public’s lack of outcry was admitted, but no excuses were made as to how this occurred. The museum made it clear all of Germany was responsible for allowing the Nazis to rise to power and execute the Holocaust. Although Germany was defeated and in shambles after the war, there was not any request for pity. This contradicted the French museums we visited where many of the sites promoted a “look at our suffering” mentality.

The German Resistance Museum was one of the more interesting museums we visited because of how resistance was portrayed. My previous World War II studies have examined resistance in France and Poland, with the only German resistance discussed mainly the infamous Valkyrie assassination attempt on Hitler. The museum explored several avenues of German resistance such as efforts organized by university students who became known as the White Rose group. The sacrifice and bravery displayed by German resistors was acknowledged but not exaggerated. This was done to cement the reality that resistance in Germany was not widespread or effective on a large scale. This contradicts the France’s overstated portrayal of their resistance which suggested that with or without the allies the French would have liberated themselves. The honesty in how Germany displayed resistance is reflective of German efforts to accept full responsibility for World War II and the Holocaust.

The Reichstag Building

Murdered to the Murdered Jews of Europe

The longest continuous stretch of the Berlin Wall still standing

Resisting Reality

France was the second country The Ohio State World War II study abroad program visited. While in France we explored World War II sites and monuments near Bayeux, a small city located close to several D-Day museums and the Utah and Omaha Beaches, and Paris, the infamous capital city. The culture in France revealed pride in the country’s elegant language, incredible food, and rich history. Although France certainly has historical moments that deserve praise and recognition, their contributions to the allied World War II effort certainly should not be applauded as much as they were. Three pieces of French World War II history were inaccurately portrayed: Charles De Gaulle, a general who became France’s symbol of freedom was made out to be a hero on a scale he was not; the French resistance was characterized as a tide changing force; and the French role as collaborators was glossed over or completely ignored at many sites.

The allied war effort consisted mainly of the involvement of the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union. Together, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin participated in an alliance that became known as the “Big 3.” According to the French perspective, however, Charles De Gaulle played a large role in the alliance and supplanted Stalin. De Gaulle was portrayed as a military genius who guided the Free French Forces valiantly in critical battles against the Nazis. In almost every museum, De Gaulle was deified. For example, the French military history museum explained that De Gaulle became the leader of the Free French Forces by disobeying all authority and leaving for England to continue fighting the war on behalf of France. Perhaps the French glorify De Gaulle to create a figurehead similar to FDR for Americans or Churchill for the British.

Every country under Nazi occupation participated in resistance. Resistance mostly consisted of small scale efforts by occupied citizens or organizations to disrupt Nazi war efforts and create unrest. However, although welcomed by the allies, resistance was not necessary to liberate countries or win the war. In France, the resistance was given sole credit for their liberation. The Caen World War II memorial museum directly suggested that the liberation of France would have occurred with or without allied assistance because of the French resistance efforts. One reason the French resistance’s impact is embellished could be to establish the idea that the French participated in their own liberation and were therefore victors of World War II. This aligns with the proud narrative of French history and allows the French to comfort themselves in saying their resistance was tide changing in the war.

In addition to resistance to Nazi occupation, collaboration existed within occupied countries. France is no exception to being involved in collaboration. For example, French leadership in Nazi occupied France willingly implemented anti-Semitic laws by choice, deported Jews to death and labor camps, and sent French citizens to work for Germany. Nevertheless, French collaboration to the Nazi war effort was downplayed or simply ignored in the museums we visited. In one instance, collaboration in France was described as the only option citizens had if they wanted to be in good favor with the Nazis who seemed to be on the brink of victory.  It seems clear that French collaboration generates a sense of shame among the French when it is acknowledged.

An image of the Eiffel Tower illuminated at night.

A statue near Utah Beach honoring Dick Winter’s and the 101st Airborne Division.

The grave of Max Clark, a fellow Buckeye who perished one day after the D-Day invasion.


Duty and Sacrifice in the People’s War

The Ohio State World War II Study Abroad Program explores World War II in the countries of England, France, Poland, and Berlin. The program’s first destination was London, England. World War II as seen through British eyes is the “People’s War” meaning citizens, not just soldiers, participated and all aspects of society were impacted. During the war British citizens rallied behind Churchill, engaging in the war effort in any way possible, sacrificing for the greater good of the country. Our three main stops in London were the Churchill War Rooms, Bletchley Park, and the Imperial War Museum. Each site promoted the theme of the British taking great pride in the collective sacrifice and duty as a nation.

The Churchill War Rooms were a system of underground bunkers where Winston Churchill and the British military made some of the most critical decisions in the war. As I entered the War Rooms, I was struck by the tight, musty environment some people spent the majority of their wartime lives. The narrow, pale yellow hallways guide one through different chambers, each remaining in their former war state. I found it difficult to imagine many people working in cramped, poorly ventilated, smoky conditions for hours on end. For some, the war rooms would become their second home, working tirelessly around the clock. Women played a significant role in the daily operations of the war rooms and were recognized for their ability to step into roles occupied by men who went to war and perform well. While the exhibits at this museum certainly lauded Churchill for his leadership throughout the war, the sacrifices of the people who worked within the war rooms stood out.

Bletchley Park, located about forty minutes outside of London by train, was the center of British codebreaking operations. Bletchley Park played a critical role in breaking the German Enigma code, which gave the allies important information on the German military. The dimly lit huts, the buildings where different codebreaking operations were conducted at Bletchley, were smaller than anticipated. The park’s exhibits emphasized the duty and secrecy workers operated under at the park played into the “People’s War” theme. Each day approximately 9,000 workers came and went from Bletchley Park, working in small, dimly lit, hot conditions for up to eighteen hours. Yet there was no complaining. Instead workers performed their duties, ranging from intercepting German telegraphs to operating Bombe machines, the large codebreaking machines developed by the famous Alan Turing. The secret of Bletchley Park’s operations existed until 1974, when it was revealed by the British government. The dedication and secrecy displayed by British citizens who worked at Bletchley Park reflected the desire to assist the allies in winning the “People’s War” through any necessary action.

Our final stop in London was the Imperial War Museum. Its World War II exhibit guides one through the war, highlighting the efforts of British soldiers and citizens. The concept of perseverance recurred throughout the exhibit of the “People’s War”. In class we had discussed the destruction the German bombing efforts had on the people of London. The displays of the German five-hundred-pound bomb, the V1, and the further enhanced V2 rocket illustrated the destructive capabilities of German weaponry. Seeing the bombs in person and imagining their destructive capabilities magnified my appreciation for the resilience of the British considering hundreds-of-thousands of bombs were dropped on London and the surrounding areas throughout the war.

The smaller rocket hanging on the left is an example of a V1 rocket. On the right, an enhanced V2 stands tall.

This is an image of Churchill’s living quarters as it was during the war. Here, Churchill delivered several speeches over radio.