A Canvas of History: How Berlin Tells Its Story Through Art

Our first night in Bayeux, I had a conversation with Professor Davidson at our group dinner about how different cultures approach the arts. We discussed that Americans have a high-cultured approach to the arts. There is an idea that the arts are reserved for elites or someone “other.” It is as if only the ritzy couples in fur coats can go to the ballet or the eccentric enthusiasts can appreciate a modern art exhibition. There is a barrier between public life and artists. The arts seem above and disconnected from the quotidian rather than reflective of it.

Finances, availability, and exposure decrease American accessibility to the arts. Certainly, admission rates are enough to dissuade those on the fence. Yet, in the eyes of many American artists, reduced admissions fees devalue their work rather than promote it. It is notable that Berlin’s museums and performances are much less costly and offer ample discounts.


A portion of the Berlin Wall, currently displayed as the East Side Gallery.


Prof. Davidson explained that there is a “come as you are” approach to the arts throughout most of Europe, particularly Germany. In other words, the arts are meant for everybody, in every state, bringing whatever they have to offer. A night at the symphony elicits visions of dollar signs in the heads of Americans. In Berlin, these events are accessible to everyone, even college students. Art is affordable, recognizable, and advertised. It is available and appreciated.

When I arrived in Berlin, the streets colored in graffiti and murals suggested this same idea. In many ways, Berlin feels like a city-wide art exhibition. There is hardly a building left unmarked by the tags of gangs or the murals of street artists. Berliners not only appreciate art, they create it.


An artist paints the Wall in the East Side Gallery, coloring the history of Berlin.


I wondered what ignited such a strong sense of artistry in this city. Every corner seems to have been claimed by an artist, or at the very least someone with a can of spray paint and an idea. During the Third Reich, this spectrum of art was truncated. Hitler deemed many artists and their works, namely Jewish and Expressionist artists, as “degenerate.” He not only devalued their work, he rendered it meaningless. The National Socialist takeover erased freedom of creativity from the lives of German artists.

The abundance of art decorating the streets of Berlin depicts a reclamation of artistry. Abstraction, emotion, and expression are once again produced and appreciated. Artists can practice their work without inhibition. With the streets of Berlin as their canvas, Berliners put art in the spotlight and paint vibrancy over a void of creativity left by the Nazis.


Dancing To Freedom: another segment of the Berlin Wall.

I began thinking about my own place in the world as an artist. Moving and discovering, articulating a thought or a fragment of one, and honing strategies and techniques are catalysts for me as an artist. As I move and create, I am driven by a desire to find realities. I work to make sense and to connect to the world around me instead of leaving things—dance, theater, history, and current events—behind as if they are isolated.

The art of Berlin accomplishes much of the same. Every building tells a story of Germany through its architecture and an artist’s claim that overlaps it. Germany has not left its history behind, but displayed it throughout the streets.

Art is a life. Within it I find a reality laced with the intricacies of creating, being, and a work in progress. What a beautiful life to be preserved in time and space. What an amazing history etched into the walls of Berlin.


Graffiti near our hotel on Stresemannstrasse.

Shining Light on the Darkest Corners of History

I could not really conceive of what Auschwitz-Birkenau truly was until we climbed off our bus and walked down the gravel path towards its entrance. “Auschwitz” was black and white photographs in textbooks alongside words on a page. These photographs disconnected me to its place in history, giving the site an eerie and archaic feel. It was as though this place existed only in the past and was inaccessible to us now. The black and white photos immortalize Auschwitz-Birkenau in the darkest corners of history; I could not feel its presence in today’s world. These old photos of the barracks, gas chambers, and watch towers show contrasting shades of darkness and light, their red brick and chimneys standing against a stark, white sky. I was able to feel this same contrast when I walked through the camp. The darkness of Auschwitz became present, though not in the ways I expected, and I no longer felt disconnected from this depraved piece of history.

As we entered through the wrought iron gates, the iniquitous phrase “Arbeit Macht Frei” looming above us, I did not see the darkness I anticipated from the photos. I saw red brick buildings constructed for the Polish army as barracks prior to World War II. The bricks were carefully laid, the buildings constructed to last. A bird’s-eye view of the area depicts a gridded, regimented landscape lined with trees. As strange as it sounds, Auschwitz was aesthetically pleasing. I did not see the darkness I was anticipating. I saw sunshine reflecting off windows and leaves rustling with the wind, like a day at a summer camp rather than a site of mass death and evil. The uniformity of the buildings and the trees that lined them were almost picturesque.

Yet, this darkness still felt so present. Though I could not see it, I could feel it. I walked around Auschwitz-Birkenau conflicted by my perceptions. Death could be felt so strongly, but the landscape suggested nothing of the atrocities that occurred here. I imagined guards in the watchtowers 70 years ago, observing feeble prisoners dragging along the gravel paths back to their barracks, paralleled by the same tree-lined buildings I was seeing today.


St. Maximilian Kolbe provided light for others in the darkest times (www.st-maximilian-kolbe.de/).

This feeling of darkness intensified inside of the buildings. We were led into the basement of a building, Block 11, that housed torture rooms. As we descended the stairs, the air became chillier and the ventilation poorer. We were prompted to look inside the cells intended for starvation or suffocation. The second to last cell once held St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Catholic priest who volunteered for death in place of a stranger. After a prisoner escaped, the Nazis chose 10 prisoners at random to be executed as an example to the rest of the camp. St. Maximilian sacrificed his life in place of Franciszek Gajowniczek, who had a wife and children. St. Maximilian survived for over two weeks in the cell he was supposed to be starved in and ultimately received a lethal injection that led to his death.

I stared into the dark cell, which was transformed into a shrine of sorts for St. Maximilian. The flickers of the flames from three candles elicited the same strange contrast of darkness and light I found in the black and white photographs. The flames illuminated the small cell just enough to read a plaque beneath them and observe a picture on the back wall. Somehow, this dark cell was still a beacon of light, as St. Maximilian was to other prisoners in the camp. The contrasts of dark and light in this moment were not products of exposure or shadows created by photographic techniques, but of the light of hope in the darkness of death.

I experienced this light throughout the camp. I could not remove the image of St. Maximilian’s cell from my mind. I walked through the camp with the sight of three flickering flames illumining my thoughts. These flames were the smallest light in such a vast darkness, and a symbol of hope in a world and history of death.

As the skies overhead blackened with an approaching storm, we walked the remaining areas of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Auschwitz in my mind—the Auschwitz I had read about on a page in a textbook and seen through black and white photographs—was real. It was present. As I walked through it, the dichotomy of darkness and light persisted. Auschwitz was a site of extreme darkness penetrated by slivers of light. Today, in color and in person, this darkness was only a feeling. It could not be seen in the shadowy, eerie way the photographs suggested. I looked back up at the skies continuing to cloud. The sun never disappeared. Even as it began to rain and thunder rumbled in the distance, the sun was still shining.

History Obliterates

I returned to Toledo for spring break prepared to quell the persistent urgings of my sister. For months she insisted that I listen to Hamilton: An American Musical. “You’re a dancer. You’re a history major. This is a musical about history. Why are you not obsessed with this?!” Ok. I gave it a shot. As I listened through the cast recording, I was struck by a recurring theme battling with what history is, what it means, and how it is told.

In a newly independent America, the musical’s antagonist, Aaron Burr, fights an ideological crusade for power against Alexander Hamilton. He considers his place in history and American collective memory:

“Death doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints. It takes and it takes and it takes. And we keep living anyway. We rise and we fall and we break and we make our mistakes” (“Wait For It,” Act I).

He continues this idea in Act II:

“History obliterates every picture it paints. It paints me and all my mistakes […] I survived but I paid for it. Now I’m the villain in your history” (“The World Was Wide Enough,” Act II).

As I walked Utah and Omaha beaches, I thought about how history obliterates. I pondered historical memory as Burr does throughout Lin Manuel-Miranda’s musical. I considered how we remember these areas and this war. The waves of the beach rolled in and out as I watched the tide ebb farther from view.

I looked at the beaches and thought of the men who fell there. Some took only a few steps onto to the beach they were preparing to storm for months. I saw only broken shells, crab legs, and fine Normandy sand.

I tried to imagine the sounds of bullets. I heard the roll of the low tide in the distance and the whispers of my classmates.

I watched for the German cavalry in the projections of my mind. Instead, I saw three Frenchmen racing horses down the coast. I heard the clicks of their hooves, as steady as a metronome.

Depleting resources caused Germany to be more reliant on horses than mechanized division towards the end of the war.

Depleting resources caused Germany to be more reliant on horses than mechanized division towards the end of the war (Musee du Debarquement de Utah Beach).

Three Frenchmen race horses down Utah Beach.

Three Frenchmen race horses down Utah Beach.

I pictured the Atlantic Wall, a massive German defensive construction. I saw only a piecemeal barbed wired fence enclosing the perimeter of the beach.

The war obliterated. Time slowly erased the brutality of these battles. The beaches once littered with stuff—human stuff, as journalist Ernie Pyle wrote in his columns—no longer suggested this history. Save for a few plaques and memorials along the entrances of the beaches, one would never consider such picturesque scenes as sites of such horror.

Manuel-Miranda’s Aaron Burr concerned himself with the collective memory of his life and legacy: “Now I’m the villain in your history.” We travelled from the beaches to the German, American, and British war cemeteries. Standing in the green Normandy grass by these graves, it was suddenly harder to identify the villains in history. There was no visible enemy shooting across a line. Strangely, the cemeteries had obliterated these distinctions.

Gray stone slabs and crosses lined the German cemetery. A sea of alabaster head stones spread as far as the eye could see in the American cemetery situated on the coastline. The British remembered their dead with flowers and personalized graves displaying phrases of love, rest, sacrifice, and faith.

Concrete crosses throughout the German cemetery.

Concrete crosses throughout the German cemetery.


A sea of white stones in the American cemetery.

On these grounds, history obliterates nothing but the villain. They did not paint the mistakes of the Allied or Axis powers. They showed, as Burr acknowledged, that death does not discriminate between the sinners and the saints.

“History obliterates. It exhibits no restraints […] It takes and it takes and it takes. And we keep living anyway. We rise and we fall and we break and we make our mistakes.” The beaches of D-Day and the cemeteries underscore this notion. History obliterates; death does not discriminate. We remember the past through relationships to victory and villains. As we watched the afterbirth of a new world post-WWII, the memory of the D-Day landings began to be washed away with the tides of their beaches. We remember the Invasion and its actors not through pictures of mistakes and villainy, but through respect and sacrifice.

London: Tradition in a Contemporary Scene


It was a chilly early morning ferry ride to Caen from London.

The endless lulling of the gray waves on the English Channel fills me with simultaneous anticipation and ease as I cross them into Caen. This seems an inappropriate sentiment as I think about the anticipation and angst of the men of Operation Overlord as they prepared to steer history and direct the course of the future. Leaving London was an odd feeling; it seemed as though I had been there forever, yet everything still felt so different. London seems to advance with pride while running parallel with history and tradition.




London is always a bustling city, even in the late hours of the evening. Much like New York City, London seems to never sleep.

It feels as though—and I mean this with no suggestion of inferiority—that London is rooted in the 20th century. Its contemporary scene is composed of snippets of the past that American society would view as retro or vintage. Men sweep their shop fronts and couples smoke on the door steps. The Tubes are chock full of frantic and sophisticatedly dressed business men and women reading the newspaper. They bolt from their seats at their stops, avoiding eye contact with those around them as they move in the solitary hustle of their morning commute. I juxtapose these images with those of a bustling New York City subway where one is hard-pressed to find a car of people reading the newspaper—or anything in print, for that matter—as they gaze into the lights of their phone screens. If a cigarette were lit, its smoker would be viewed with revulsion and hear an exaggerated cough in demonstrations of disdain.


A quintessential London shot: a look at Big Ben from the Westminster Station of the Tube.

Americans are very focused and proud of their technological achievements. Yet, our devices separate us in ways that were not present in London. While both societies are progressive and consumer-oriented, London is unique in its appreciation of relationships to the past and each other. The 20th century vibe of London exudes a sense of connection with the tangible rather than the virtual. While the busy Tube riders moved in improvised movements though the labyrinthine corridors and escalators, an earthier and human-centered society projects itself to gawking and disoriented tourists. Londoners are not disconnected from each other.

I hesitate to say that the people of London are simpler, because in no way does the hurry and frenzy of the streets tell that story. However, they value aspects that of society that Americans have left behind. Factors of contemporary life that we consider antedated—reading the newspaper, smoking, a classic style—characterize London. As I exit this synergy of histories on the Brittany Ferry, I wonder what place in history and contemporary society Bayeux holds. London advances while valuing something more introspective. I think our home for the next week in rural France will reflect this as well.

Acquaintances and Anticipation

Hello! I am Brianne Szymanski, a History major and Dance minor set to graduate from The Ohio State University in December 2016.

My admiration for history was instilled at a young age. I grew up spending my weekends at our local American Legion Post, helping with their fundraisers and learning from the snarky quips of World War II, Korean, and Vietnam veterans. The influence of these men and women on my life is immeasurable. They have led me to not only better understand the past, but also how it impacts our lives today.

I can hardly wait to travel abroad. The experiences this May will be very new to me, and I am looking forward to learning with an equally interested group of peers, growing with them as we experience new, venturesome, and amazing things. These experiences will provide a tangible sense of what history means, connecting me to the past in ways that I previously have never been.

To the veterans that have been so formational to my life, these places mean something entirely different than they ever could to me. I know that this program will shape my perspectives of WWII and the world beyond it, and for that, I am very grateful.