Rebuilding and Remembering

We have had a very unique opportunity to compare how different countries present and memorialize their own national history. Traveling from London to France to Poland to finally ending our excursion in Germany, we have grown beyond simply taking in knowledge and began to criticize and compare how a nation grapples with their own – often complicated, morbid, and cruel – history when the eyes of the world are watching.

I found Berlin’s presentation their World War II involvement especially unique. The city is a cultural mecca of music, art, and history, whose most recent decades are characterized by the Berlin wall’s separation of Germany. However, unlike many nations we have seen, Berlin has not swept aside their past, but embraced it as they created and rebuilt the city after the war. The city is distinctly modern in its architecture; however, its WWII and Cold War past are still apparent and noticeably reminiscent. Berlin, above all, has gone further than any other city we have visited to keep national memory at the forefront of its architecture, culture, and politics.

The Bundestag tour we went on showcased this concept prominently. The parliamentary building acts more as a museum than a government building. Our tour guide pointed out how the space is drenched in purposeful symbolism following its reconstruction – the placement of the public viewers above parliament members, the transparency of the dome on top, the juxtaposition of the old Reichstag’s architectural style and the modern art that currently hangs on the walls. Instead of erasing the nation’s more shameful memories, the building memorializes its past and uses these physical features as an opportunity to remember. The names of Soviet soldiers who stormed the Reichstag are preserved along one hallway in the Bundestag and the original architecture commemorating Germany’s three emperors is kept lining the stone arch entryway.

Soviet soldiers’ names inscribed on a wall from the storming of the Reichstag in May 1945.

Seeing the Bundestag from the public’s point of view. The chairs are a specially made blue color that no German party is allowed to use as their own.












This building is, in many ways, emblematic of what it feels like to walk around Berlin; the city itself is a living testament to the nation’s past. The presence of the wall and division between East and West Berlin is unavoidable. While there is a central museum hub, many museums are outside these boundaries and littered throughout the city making surprise and unintentional run-ins with history inevitable while walking through Berlin. The Topography of Terror Museum and the Resistance Museum are deliberately placed where the SS and Wehrmacht Headquarters once stood. The city’s integration of its history into the natural landscape reminds visitors and locals alike that national memory is not an afterthought.

I Didn’t Have To Imagine

As a Jew, an American, and the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, I understood that Poland, and more specifically Auschwitz-Birkenau, would be an incredibly difficult experience in the course of this trip. I couldn’t predict how I would react, but having visited the Dachau concentration camp on a trip in high school, I assumed I would be similarly saddened and mournful. However, the emotions at the German camp came through clearly and more digestible than at Auschwitz. I felt a wave of complicated emotions and an indescribable frustration while visiting the camp where over one million prisoners, mostly Jews, were killed.

Viewing this site visit with hindsight, I am finding it surprisingly difficult to group this visit in with the rest of our itinerary. Our trip as a whole has been incredibly academically motivated and informative about many points in the war’s trajectory, but I don’t believe this site quite fits in with that description. I understand the visit’s importance to establish memory and by no means would I advocate for eliminating it; but in comparing the camp to the Schindler Museum, I personally did not wish to view Auschwitz as another opportunity to learn about the atrocities of the Holocaust. I hoped to go through the site on my own terms and feel whatever came over me and this was not the case. The site is widely presented as a museum, rather than a memorial or a place of mourning and the required guide and audio tour made it difficult to have a personalized experience. The presentation of the site only furthered the touristy and attraction-like feeling I was left with.

While we were walking through the camp, the main point that prompted my frustration was a somewhat predictable one – the wealth of indescribable inhumanity the camp reeked of. The entire site lacks compassion or sympathy; survival was based on luck and those sent to the camp were stripped of their status as a human being long before their arrival. There have been centuries of historians and psychologists whose job is to analyze the complacency and trajectory of how the Holocaust came to be. But as I was standing within the gates of the camp, I was continuously reminded of how incomprehensible the camps are on an individual level. We walked through rooms of shoes, of suitcases, of human hair and our guide told us to “imagine an individual occupying that space,” but those responsible for keeping the camps running and efficient did not have to imagine. And for me, I didn’t have to create a fictional character; I thought of my grandmother. I thought of how guards looked mothers and fathers and children in the eye and sent them to their death every day.

I have studied the Holocaust in school and my Jewish learning practically every year since I can remember and never had this thought until walking through Auschwitz. The Nazi Party were not responsible for committing the daily atrocities, individuals were. Individuals who in some capacity could have objected and prevented this from occurring. It’s easy to forget that even the most grandiose operations such as the Holocaust, are on a fundamental level, singular individuals making choices.

“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” — Elie Wiesel



Scrutinizing National Memory

Grappling with history is a difficult task, and the gift of hindsight allows one the privilege to view the experience through multiple perspectives – whether that be the Jews facing persecution, the British citizens affected by area bombing, or the French civilians living under German occupation. But as we grow away from the event itself it is easier to disassociate and create false narratives of something we did not personally experience. In France, it was especially apparent to me that the French museums were meant to appeal to the French people. They presented their history in a format that focused on French victimhood above all else.

It is fair to acknowledge the struggles French citizens faced during the war – such as the destruction caused by preparatory bombing in Normandy – while balancing it with the not-so-glorified parts of France’s collaborative role during WWII. French museums’ focus was entirely different in sites we visited in Bayeux and Paris when compared to England. While the Imperial War Museum in London had a Holocaust exhibit that was emotional, thoughtful, and comprehensive, the Caen Memorial Museum gave immense attention to the civilian victims in Normandy, rather than focusing on anything related to the Holocaust.

Additionally, the Caen Museum overshadowed possible collaboration with passive and active resistance efforts. Where there was one descriptive panel delving into the complicated purpose and goals behind Vichy France, there were four panels dedicated to resistance efforts. The disproportion between how the museum presented an established and organized government system with an unorganized and disconnected network of resistors is possibly one of the more extreme examples, but I found it emblematic of the ways in which French public history systematically presented the effects on French citizens above everyone else. While I understand that resistance efforts did occur under Nazi occupation and that French citizens indeed suffered during the war, the imbalance in how the French museums presented collaboration versus confrontation of Nazi occupiers caused me to harshly criticize and more quickly discount the information presented.

It is an overly simplistic thing to waltz into French museums and claim their public history entirely omits the systematic extermination of Jews or group the whole nation together as willing collaborators. The United States education system frequently makes similar mistakes in grossly glossing over and simplifying large portions of its own history – from American slavery to treatment of native populations – to students’ detriment. I would be evading the real issue if I were to say that the French are the only people to present their country and people’s suffering through a rose-colored and more victimizing lens. However, as a history student, I find public history entirely more compelling when there is active effort to acknowledge and analyze possible wrongdoings alongside the nationwide sorrow and grief. Rather than presenting France as passive collaborators or as actively resisting victors, a truly comprehensive history would attempt to dissect and scrutinize the narrative.

Hôtel des Invalides

Arc de Triomphe

British Imperialism’s Reverberating and Unexpected Presence

As our World War II Study Abroad group explored London, many site visits prompted us to discuss the push and pull between old English customs and newer, modern-day influences. I noticed the juxtapositions in simplicities such as the food, which ranged from Thai and Indian cuisine to full English roasts and high tea, to the museum content, where British imperialism’s impact resonated through almost every piece of the nation’s cultural history. Throughout our studies to prepare for this trip, we discussed how the People’s War affected the British citizenry and the English mentality. Practically every site we visited explored this sense of British perseverance reminiscent of the wartime mindset; however, the persistence of the citizenry seemed inextricably entwined with the troubling sources of the new. I was surprised to see the prominence of Churchill’s imperialistic mindset and be reminded repeatedly that colonialism’s effects are still distinctly present in English society today.

The Churchill Museum presented a comprehensive view of the focus of British political influence outside of the war effort. As an individual, Churchill not only gave the British people someone to believe in and look towards for leadership; he kept a nation that was fading in their influence relevant in the global sphere. But the museum went beyond these leadership qualities and acknowledged his influence outside the war and his policy programs in England, showing that Churchill impacted the Middle East. An entire room in the museum explored Churchill’s unwavering commitment to expanding the British Empire. Among all of his accomplishments during WWII, this room alluded to the negative consequences of Churchill’s decision making. His failure to grant Indian independence and view of colonial people as inferior was a sharp contrast to his commitment to social welfare and the working class of English society.

The Imperial War Museum addressed the impact of British colonialism from the wartime era. The current rotating exhibit explored modern terrorism in the UK and we had the opportunity to speak with survivors of terrorist attacks, hospital workers, and first responders in a roundtable discussion. At first thought English imperialism may seem contained in earlier centuries, strictly within the stolen artifacts of the British Museum and the V&A; however, the Churchill War Rooms and IWM made the effects of the expansive British Empire in the modern era unavoidably apparent. Visiting these museums allows one to trace actions from decades ago to reactions that are ongoing today.

Each site visit presented Churchill’s maintenance Britain’s relevance as a Western world power and the persistence of the British people throughout the war as an important takeaway, but when one visits the sources first-hand, the lasting effects of Britain’s troubling past and commitment to colonialism are increasingly interwoven into the historical narrative. Churchill’s influence not only emerged through his special relationship with Roosevelt and presence in the “Big Three,” but in his dedication to expanding the British Empire and reluctance to grant independence to occupied nations. While colonialism at first thought may not directly connect to World War II, it was a clear stain on every site and museum we visited. Seeing the sites first hand allowed me to create a more comprehensive