Berlin: Remembrance and Acceptance

Berlin, the heart of Germany. It was the heart of the Nazi Empire and it was a major component of the Cold War. Today the remnants of those dark times are clearly evident in the city. Unlike many of the places I’ve seen, Berlin doesn’t attempt to hide what they did during those times. From looking up at the buildings to looking down at the sidewalk and everything in between, I could see the lingering remains of what happened in Berlin during the 20th century.

Train station that was bombed durring World War II. The front is all that remains.

Train station that was bombed durring World War II. The front is all that remains.

Many of Berlin’s streets have some sort of relic of World War II. Only a few minutes’ walk from where I stayed, the remains of a major train station stand. The main entrance is all that remains, after significant bombing during the war left most of it in pieces. The place where it once stood has now since been turned into a park but there are still some remnants of what once was. Even the sidewalks have small plaques that represent where Jews were forced out of their homes and sent to ghettos and camps. These small reminders cover the city, almost forcing its inhabitants to relive the events of the city’s tragic past.

One of the most important reminders that one can find all over the city is the remains of the Berlin Wall. A line

A portion of the Berlin Wall that remains standing.

A portion of the Berlin Wall that remains standing.

cuts through the city, showing the world where the wall had once stood. Even after 27 years, there is still a sense of a divide between the two sections of the city. Newly rebuilt areas of the city are still struggling to rejuvenate after being part of the no-man’s land that prevented people from going between East and West Berlin. What was once East Berlin seems to be lagging a bit behind West Berlin but despite the divide, Berlin is continuing on as it was meant to, as one city.

The biggest difference between Berlin and the rest of the world is how they have coped with what happened during World War II. Places like France and Poland seemed to glorify all the good they did during the war but completely disregarded anything that makes their nation look bad. Berlin is different.  Even the museums within Berlin show a significantly more objective point of view compared to any other place that I have been to in Europe. They are even teaching their children at a young age about what happened in this city and explaining how things got so bad.

Some buildings still have holes left by bullets during the Battle of Berlin

Some buildings still have holes left by bullets during the Battle of Berlin.

Whether it be the Cold War or World War II, Berliners are constantly reminded of what had transpired there. I believe many cities should take note and follow Berlin’s example. You can’t change history no matter how hard one tries so instead of running from it, confront it and learn from the mistakes of the past. I think because Berlin doesn’t try to cover it up, the city has grown so much more than it would have otherwise. No city, that I can recall, has dealt with their complex history as Berlin and that is what separates this grand city from the rest.

Tears for the Victims

Train entrance into Auschwitz from within the camp.

Entrance into Auschwitz from within the camp.

No words can describe it. Walking the same path as hundreds of thousands of Jews who were sent to their deaths, I felt an eerie calm. Auschwitz is the most notorious concentration camp from World War II, with over a million people systematically eliminated within its electrified fences. I’ve seen people break down in tears just hearing about the atrocities that occurred in this place, but to stand where thousands had before me waiting for death, is a completely different experience. Of the three camps that were in Auschwitz, I had the opportunity to visit two of them: Auschwitz I and Auschwitz-Birkenau II.

Standing before the gates of Auschwitz I, I see the infamous words “Arbeit macht frei,” Work makes you free. The irony of the phrase is sickening. As I went through the brick buildings

The words "Arbeit Macht Frei" above the gates into Auschwtiz I

The words “Arbeit Macht Frei” above the gates into Auschwtiz I

that lined the paths, I realized that I couldn’t even begin to imagine what went on here. Looking at thousands of shoes and realizing each shoe belonged to someone who has long since perished would get to any sensible human, but seeing a room with literally several tons of hair, that was practically ripped out of the heads of innocent people, left me speechless. Belongings that were taken from people are piled up in rooms in building after building. If that wasn’t heart-wrenching enough, walking through Block 11, where they tortured Jews, will be. Claustrophobic spaces, where dozens of Jews suffocated and starved to death, and even the incinerator has been preserved so visitors can get an idea just how inhumane the Nazis’ methods were. Sad as it was, this camp was the smallest of the three and focused mostly on experimentation instead of extermination.

After a short drive from Auschwitz I, lies the largest camp within the complex: Auschwitz II Birkenau. Driving in, I saw the very arches where trains went into the camp. Looking around, there were countless chimneys and remains of

Ruins of Incinerator II

Ruins of Incinerator II

what was once the wooden structures that housed thousands of prisoners. As I looked around, I was informed that I was standing in the very place where people saw their families for the last time. I crossed the tracks that brought the trains right into the camp and walked the very path of those who had been sentenced to death straight towards the ruins of Incinerators II and III. Despite their efforts, the Nazis were unsuccessful in destroying all the evidence and the incinerators’ remains give a glimpse of what occurred. Some might consider those sent to the gas chambers lucky, they faced a quick death. Those who were selected to survive faced something even worse than death.

A portion of the barracks that housed thousands of Jews.

A portion of the buildings that housed thousands of Jews.

It’s hard to grasp just what transpired within the camp. The bitterness and hatred can still be felt within the camp after all these years. But the most tragic thing to me is the fact that it’s unknown exactly how many have died in the camps. The majority of the records were destroyed, and many Jews weren’t even accounted for before they perished. With keeping this in mind and after all I was exposed to at the camps, I was going into sensory overload. I found it fitting that at the end of my time at Auschwitz, it began to rain. It seemed as if even the skies above were shedding tears for the victims of the monstrosities that occurred at Auschwitz.




Faint Memory of Blood and Triumph

One can’t talk about Normandy without mentioning D-day, and one of the first things that pops into my mind when I hear Normandy are the beach invasions. We’ve seen it in “Saving Private Ryan”, in all the reenactments, and in documentaries, but nothing compares to standing on the beaches themselves: the same beaches where thousands of soldiers died. Looking around, they might seem like ordinary beaches, except for the remnants of German bunkers scattered across the beaches. Each beach was significantly different from the other and tell different stories of sacrifice and success.

Looking down Utah Beach during low tide

Utah Beach during low tide.

Utah Beach, the place where even when things did go wrong, it still ended in favor of the Allies’ success. Utah reminded me a lot of beaches seen in places like the North Carolina coast, with sand dunes blocking the ocean from moving in further. Seashells littered the beach and even with the tide out, it didn’t seem like a large beach to begin with. At Utah Beach, the only thing that signified what had occurred was the museum that had been built on top of a Nazi bunker used during the war. The rest of the beach looked as though the sea had taken most, if not all, the evidence of the Normandy Invasion.

Looking down Omaha Beach while the tide recedes.

Omaha Beach where the 29th infantry division landed,  tide receding.

Not too far from Utah Beach is the infamous Omaha Beach. Omaha was completely different from Utah. Some of the larger differences between the two were Omaha didn’t have sand dunes like Utah, it met enormous bluffs right on the coastline, and it wasn’t hard to spot the remnants of the Atlantic Wall. The beach wasn’t at low tide, but it seemed significantly farther than Utah and to run from the beach to the bluff, with all the obstacles that were in the way, would have most definitely been nearly impossible. Two slots in the cliffs showed where the Germans had kept the machine guns that completely slaughtered the American soldiers that were on the beaches. There had to have been more than those two on that beach but they were well hidden by the shrubbery growing on the bluffs.

Looking down Omaha Beach in the direction of Pointe Du Hoc.

Omaha Beach, looking in the direction of Pointe Du Hoc.

The last beach I had the opportunity to see, although from a distance, was Gold beach. Gold was similar to Omaha with the bluffs but Gold has a town that runs right onto the beach. The presence of the Atlantic Wall was there but more hidden and overshadowed by the remains of the Mulberry Harbour that was used to transport most of the supplies for the Allied forces into France until months later when ports under German control are finally liberated. Seeing those slabs of one of the most amazing engineering feats of the invasion was mind boggling.


Arromanches and Gold Beach with remnants of the Mulberry Harbour.

Arromanches and Gold Beach with remnants of the Mulberry Harbour.

Each beach had an important role in bringing the Allies towards success in the Normandy invasion. Sadly walking around on the beaches doesn’t even begin to describe what had occurred over 70 years ago. The only way someone could truly grasp what happened was to be there on D-day. With the passage of time, the remnants of that bloody day are few and far. The Nazis are gone, and the tides have long since washed away the blood but the memories will forever remain. Today Utah, Omaha, and Gold appear nothing more than ordinary beaches; beaches with the faint memory of blood and triumph.


When Two Worlds Collide

With an old city like London, it’s to be expected that there would be at least remnants of what used to be but knowing that doesn’t make it any less impressive. It’s amazing to see structures such as the Tower of London, with some portions built during the Roman Empire, next to modern architectural achievements like the Shard. Seeing this, I can’t help but think two entirely different worlds reside in London: one being a world full of technological advances and conveniences but fragile; and another of empires and conflicts but perseverance.

Looking at the Shard from across the Thames River.

Looking at the Shard from across the Thames River.

The Shard stands well above the majority of the surrounding buildings. It’s an extraordinary engineering feat to have built anything like the Shard. Looking at it on a cloudy day it seems it goes on and on, but when the clouds clear, the top can easily be seen. Standing back and taking it all in, I was able to somewhat picture what the future might look like. Wherever I was in the city, it didn’t take too long for me to find the Shard, almost as if it were a beacon that was there to help me if I lost my way. But the Shard is covered in glass, like many of the neighboring skyscrapers on the London skyline. Although it is such a tall building, to me it seems rather fragile, as if throwing a rock at the Shard would cause the entire building to collapse. I guess the frailness of the Shard could be linked to the frailness of today’s society and, of course, the future. Nothing is set in stone when it comes to the present and future.

Me standing in front of the Tower of London.

Me standing in front of the Tower of London

Just across the Thames River from the Shard is the Tower of London. In some portions, ancient walls are all that’s left of the once mighty Roman Empire. The scars of war and conflicts cover the remaining portions of the castle. Walking around the grounds, from the White Tower to the ramparts of the outer walls, it felt like I was being transported through the ages. Looking around the castle, I could picture the generations after generations of people who lived and worked within those walls. Despite wars and the flow of times, the Tower of London has lived on for hundreds of years and will most likely live on for hundreds more. It makes me think that the people who lived in the Tower of London also were able to endure just as the castle in which they resided in.

I find it fitting that the Thames River flows between the two structures. It’s like going back and forth in the flow of time when I look across from one side of the river to the other. Looking at the Shard from the Tower of London was like looking towards the future, fragile due to uncertainties and ever changing by our actions. On the other hand, looking at the castle from near the Shard was like looking at how the past is set in stone and slowly fades with time. This has been one of the biggest differences that I’ve seen between the United States and Europe: seeing two worlds residing next to each other.

Going on an Adventure!

Hello Everyone!

My name is Kelsey Simmons and I’m ecstatic about my upcomming trip to Europe! I’m a soon to be fifth year majoring in Atmospheric Sciences (Meteorology/weather) and minoring in History. Although one might not realize it, history and weather are very much intertwined with each other. I love learning about military history so when I found out about this fantastic opportunity to visit Europe and learn about World War II, I knew I had to go. I’ve traveled outside the United States before but have never left North America so this’ll be a first for me.

I am really looking forward to exploring the historical sites and learning about the culture of each country I will be visiting. As for which place or country I’m looking forward to the most, that’s the same as asking me what’s my favorite kind of weather, it’s too hard to choose. I leave in a couple days and look forward to all the amazing experiences I will have on this trip of a lifetime. 

Thanks in advance for following my adventures across Europe!