Dealing with the Past while Moving into the Future

To the unobservant eye, Berlin is just a city filled with nice buildings, a beautiful river, good food, and friendly people. Just under the surface, though, Berlin is a city that deals with a dark past. From the Nazi era to the Berlin Wall, Berliners face the challenge of acknowledging their dark past while still moving forward.

While walking through the city, I could not get very far without seeing something to remind me of World War II of the Cold War. On a simple walk down the street, I would any combination of gold plaques on the sidewalk marking the locations where Jews were deported to concentration camps, the façade of a train station that had been bombed, pieces of the Berlin wall that still stand or had been transferred for display, or a cobblestone line marking where the wall had once stood. Berlin also has museums that address World War II, the holocaust, and the role of the Gestapo and SS in Nazi Germany.

Overall, I think Berliners have done a good job acknowledging their history while still moving past it to brighter times. This was especially evident to me when I saw how the city handled the remnants of the Berlin wall. Instead of completely destroying the wall and trying to forget about it, there is a strong effort to remember the history of it and the reasons why it was built. I was both surprised and impressed by this. It can be difficult for people to recognize and acknowledge darker times that they or their ancestors were responsible for. Berlin does not try to hide from their history though. Instead, through displays, informational panels, and museums, they embrace their history.

Sign at Checkpoint Charlie, where people could cross from one side of the Berlin Wall to the other.

Sign at Checkpoint Charlie, where people could cross from one side of the Berlin Wall to the other.

While they do not try to turn it into a spectacle, Berlin does not try to hide their role during the Nazi era. I learned this through the Topography of Terror museum and the placement of plaques throughout the streets to remember the people who were deported from those sites. I made me uneasy every morning when I would walk outside of the hotel and immediately see those plaques. The spot where I began my day was the same spot where others’ lives were torn apart. It was difficult to comprehend the horrors took place where my hotel now stands. The Topography of Terror museum shows pictures and provides information of the Gestapo and SS’s roles during the holocaust. The museum fully acknowledges the roles Germans played in the Holocaust. It does not try to make excuses. Many other countries I visited seemed to point blame at another group and did not take ownership for their actions as well as the Germans did.

Plaques marking the location of deportations.

Plaques marking the location of deportations.

Being in Berlin was a bizarre experience. I was standing in a modern city while surrounded by so much history. I could go from looking at a brand new building to seeing the Berlin wall to seeing a plaque or memorial from World War II in under five minutes. This made Berlin fascinating city, and I feel like there is still much to be discovered from it.

Erik Smith


I was a bit nervous to be traveling to Krakow. It would be the first country that nobody in our group could speak the native language in, and I expected fewer people to speak English. I thought I would need to resort to using many hand motions and pointing to try to communicate with the residents. I was also nervous because I did not know what to expect from the city. I had a general idea of the type of setting I was getting into when going to London, Bayeux, and Paris, but I had no idea what Krakow would be like.

To my surprise, soon after arriving in Krakow, I realized that I was going to like the city. Professor Steigerwald and Professor Davidson took us on a short walking tour to help orient us, and then we were on our own for dinner. Most of us went to a small, traditional Polish restaurant for dinner. I had pierogi, and they were delicious! Afterwards, we walked down the street to look in some of the small shops and get ice cream.

I really enjoyed walking around the streets and square in Krakow. The stone streets were beautiful, and we could walk down the middle of them, rarely having to move for cars. Some of my favorite times in Krakow were walking around. The square had so many street vendors and there was a small market in the center, filled with authentic, hand made Polish souvenirs and items. The detail in the various items for sale was amazing. There was an entire booth of hand painted religious icons. Just looking at them was amazing. I personally liked the hand carved chess sets. Even though I am not very good, I enjoy playing chess. There were sets of all different sizes and made from all different woods. I ended up purchasing one made partially out of cherry.


My delicious doner kebab.

My delicious doner kebab.

The square was also a good place to sit and observe the action or grab a bite to eat. There were frequently horse drawn carriages to watch and street performers to listen to. It offered a variety of eating options. Whether I wanted to grab a quick bite to eat from a food stand or sit down at a fancy restaurant, I could find it in or near the square. I particularly enjoyed the doner kebabs. These were great if I needed a quick meal or wanted to eat on the go.


As I explored the square, I realized that the calmness and pleasantness of Krakow was a bit bizarre. Here was this beautiful city with good food and a nice square, and not to far away was one of the most notorious sites for genocide in the world. It just did not seem right that this pleasant city was so close to Auschwitz. I continued thinking about this while I was in Krakow, and while I was still partially uneasy about it, another part of me was okay with it. It is extremely important to remember the past and to honor those who were killed at Auschwitz,

Train tracks leading into Auschwitz II - Birkenau, on which trains arrived daily, carrying thousands to their deaths.

Train tracks leading into Auschwitz II – Birkenau, on which trains arrived daily, carrying thousands to their deaths.

but it is also important to not become bogged down in the past and not look forward to the future. The Polish people need to remember their past and recognize the atrocities they faced, but they also must move forward as a country. To not move forward is to give the Nazis the final word. Krakovians did not give the Nazis the final word though, and because of this, I think it is okay for Krakow to be a pleasant city to live in or visit, as long as while you are there, you also take the time to honor the thousands of Jews and other Poles who were killed by the Nazis.

Visiting Krakow was extremely interesting. I enjoyed experiencing their culture and learning about how they dealt with their painful history. The people of Krakow, especially the Jews, have been through tremendous horrors, but they do not let that define their city. They remember, but they also move forward.

Erik Smith

The Beaches of Normandy

Visiting Normandy, specifically Omaha Beach, is the part of the trip I have been looking forward to the most. My grandfather fought on Omaha Beach and in Normandy. He is the reason why I have always had an interest in World War II. He is the reason why D-Day has fascinated and interested me since I was very young. To walk on the beach that he, along with thousands of other men, fought on, was chilling.


Les Braves Memorial on Omaha Beach.

Thousands of young men, many younger than me, risked their lives while storming the beach. To stand where they fought and died was a truly humbling and surreal experience. It was difficult to imagine what Omaha Beach must have been like on the morning of June 6, 1944. When I looked out over the beach, it hit me as to just how vulnerable the soldiers were. There was so much distance between the water’s edge and any sort of protection. With the Channel at their backs and facing enemy fire, they had nowhere to hide and nowhere to run to. They had to rally together and push forward

Standing at the top of the beach, looking down, I struggled to imagine what the Germans must have been thinking when they woke up on that Tuesday morning and looked out over the channel to see hundreds of ships that had not been there the night before. I wonder how they felt. I imagine they were terrified. They had to know a large battle was coming. It can be hard to commiserate with the German soldiers because they were our enemy, but they were also people though. They had families and jobs that they had to leave behind. While I do not believe in the cause they were fighting for, I still feel sorry for them. So many of their lives were cut short, leaving widows, children without fathers, and parents without sons.

The German Cemetery.

The German Cemetery.



After visiting Omaha Beach, we went to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial to pay our respects to the fallen soldiers, including twelve Ohio State students, alumni, and staff who are buried there. I, along with my classmates, placed Ohio State flags at each of the twelve graves. As I knelt down to place the flag, I thought about how similar I am to these men. I am the same age as many of the American soldiers were during the war. They had dreams and hopes for their futures. They had parents, siblings, girlfriends, and friends who they loved. They had jobs, school, hobbies, and responsibilities. They left all of this behind when duty called, and they left all of it behind when they made the ultimate sacrifice.

I placed an Ohio State University flag at one of the twelve Ohio State students. alumni, and staff graves at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.

Looking out over the well-manicured, green lawn of the cemetery, I saw row after row of headstones. I did not fully grasp the magnitude of destruction and death caused by the war. The cemetery is the final resting place for 9,387 soldiers. Chills went through my body as I stood there, taking it all in. These men sacrificed their lives for future generations.

Omaha Beach and the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial made me feel proud but sad. Standing on the sands that thousands died to seize back from the Nazis, I was proud of my grandfather, proud of his generation, and proud of the USA. I was also thankful for the sacrifices made by so many men, thankful that more did not die, and thankful that the soldiers who died on D-Day did not die in vain.

Erik Smith

The Churchill War Rooms

Whenever I thought of war, I always assumed that only those doing the actual fighting were under miserable conditions and in extreme danger. Visiting the Churchill War Rooms in London showed me that even the highest leaders must make sacrifices and live under dangerous and miserable conditions.

The German Luftwaffe brought violence and destruction right to Winston Churchill and his highest officials and advisors through the bombings of London. Churchill tried to remain above ground and be accessible to the British people and show them that he was not afraid. He was eventually forced under ground for his safety. Churchill, his top advisors, and staff lived and worked in the War

Winston Churchill's rarely used bedroom  in the War Rooms.

Winston Churchill’s rarely used bedroom in the War Rooms.

Rooms. Some staff went weeks without emerging, but Churchill preferred to sleep elsewhere. In fact, he only slept in his prepared underground bedroom only three times. They had to live off of restricting rations just like the rest of Britain. The worst part was that they were in constant danger of being killed by a bomb. While the bunker was underground and did have extra reinforcements for protection, it could not withstand a direct hit from a bomb.

As I walked through the war rooms, I could not help but feel cramped and claustrophobic. The hallways were narrow, the ceilings were low, and the rooms were small. There were no windows to let in daylight or to circulate the air. After touring the rooms for three hours, I was ready to come back outside to the fresh air. While seeing the rooms gave me a better idea of what Churchill faced during the war, it is still difficult to imagine making crucial decisions that could decide the fate of thousands of men while your city was being bombed. The bravery and resilience of the men and women who kept the heart of Britain’s war effort beating is both humbling and impressive.

Viewing the war retrospectively, it is easy to see that the work done in the War Rooms was crucial for Allied victory, but I imagine that if I had been working there during the war, it would be easy to grow disheartened amidst the death and destruction I witnessed in London.

While the conditions in the war room were far from ideal, I would have rather worked in the War Rooms than been on the front. Many of the people who worked in the War Rooms considered it an honor and privilege to have served their country through their work.

Erik Smith

Following in My Family’s Footsteps

Hello everyone! My name is Erik Smith. I am majoring in Political Science with minors in History and Communications. I am just completing my second year at The Ohio State University, and I am preparing for the trip of a lifetime!

I have been fascinated with World War II since I was five years old because of my strong family ties to the war. My grandfather, SSG Joseph Smith, fought in D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge. My great uncles also fought in World War II. I have always dreamed of traveling to Europe to see where my family and many other Brave soldiers fought.

My grandfather, SSG Joseph Smith, with the Army Truck he drove during the war.

My grandfather, SSG Joseph Smith, with the Army Truck he drove during the war.

The World War II Study Abroad Program has already taught me so much more than I already knew about the causes, events, and consequences of World War II. Seeing the sites in person will be a humbling experience. After learning so much and preparing for months, I am eager to set off on this adventure.

Erik Smith