The Pink Triangle

Twentieth century German history has an inescapable stain that will remain forever in the memories of people across the world. The Holocaust and other Nazi atrocities are central to our understanding of both the Second World War and our human capacity to perform unthinkable acts towards each other.

This trip has given me the opportunity to learn extensively regarding the Holocaust and in particular the history of concentration and death camps. While in Germany our group visited the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, which was primarily a labor camp which housed almost every type of prisoner held by the Nazis. The well-preserved camp included two original prisoner barracks, two medical barracks, and the foundations of the crematorium and gas chamber there. The camp also includes a memorial that the Soviets erected to commemorate the Red Army POWs held and killed at the camp. The experience of being present at the site of mass murder and forced slave labor was intense and somber, and the entire group felt sobered.

A single item piqued my interest more than any other part of the camp. In the prisoner barracks, an encased painting hung on one of the support beams. A survivor of the camp created this painting, and it depicted the different symbols on the prisoner uniforms to identify the type of prisoner that they were. Prisoners were designated as political, asocial, Jewish, or a combination of these or other factors. There was only one symbol missing from the painting, the pink triangle. This symbol represented persons whom the Nazis imprisoned for having or acting on same-sex attraction. The artist that made the painting did not include this symbol, and our guide said that it was most likely because he did not want to mention those prisoners. If you wore a pink triangle, you were the most likely to die in a labor camp because of reduced rations, alienation from other prisoners, and constant harassment and beatings by guards and fellow inmates.

This is not terribly surprising, because public attitudes throughout the world were still extremely homophobic during the 20th century, but this specific omission concerns me. This man, a Belgian political prisoner, suffered discrimination, hatred, and dehumanization in Sachsenhausen, and yet he pointedly excluded certain prisoners. The ability and the tendency for humans to create an “other” group is unfathomable. Even in the case of the Holocaust, victims of discrimination still actively victimized people that were different than themselves.

This week our world has undergone several jarring episodes of hatred. In Brussels, a gunman slayed 3 people at the Jewish Museum, with another person in critical condition. The reaction has been anti-immigration, and not anti-hatred. A movement has begun because of a shooting in California, and #YesAllWomen has yet to be covered fully by mainstream media. The hashtag is a response to the Santa Barbara homicides and suicide by Elliot Rodger. His attitudes and statements towards women have caused a national outcry, yet many media outlets continue to ignore the hashtag. Instead of highlighting underlying misogyny that our society teaches young men, media outlets disregard this reaction and continue to air movies, commercials, and TV shows that perpetrate the notion that women wrong men through rejection.

The issues that arise in our world today almost all stem from discrimination. This “other” mentality is the root cause of violence and hatred. Yet we fail as a society to teach or inform people about it. In fact, in the case of the Belgian prisoner, even amidst terrible conditions humans have the ability to hate others based on differences.

This attitude is extremely bleak and cynical. I know that there are people out there striving to better the world and stop hatred everywhere. However, the problem will continue unfettered until we, as humans, stand up and say that it is enough. Until we create governments and societies that treat people as truly equal (a utopian ideal), needless conflict and violence will persist. Many people believe that the genocide of the Holocaust will never happen again because we learned our lesson as humans. I believe that a systematic murder of people based on racism on prejudice occurs every day across the world. It is happening today, and through my experience at Sachsenhausen, I believe that even those most affected are participating. I implore you to keep the Belgian prisoner’s prejudice in mind.

The City of Love

The city of Paris is one of the biggest tourist destinations in the entire world, and this begs the question of what makes Paris, Paris. It is the City of Lights, and a major artistic and cultural center in Europe. There are baguettes, croissants, macaroons, éclairs, and so much more. Over two million people from varying backgrounds call Paris home, and millions more visit each year.

Now you know the statistics, but that is not really the point. What is Paris? What makes it so beautiful? Is it the Arc de Triomphe or the Catacombs? The Eiffel Tower or the Louvre? The Musee d’Orsee or Notre Dame Cathedral? As I visited each of these places and more I began to ponder the question of what Paris is, and why.

This is a difficult question to fully understand, let alone answer. I thought about this the entire time I was in Paris, and I am sure I will continue to think about it when I return in a few weeks. My conclusion is short, sweet, and simple. Paris is whatever you make it. Paris is completely different for each person on our trip, to the two million people living there, or the tourists that visit every day. For this reason, I can only tell you my version of what Paris means to me. I will attempt to give just a little bit of insight, and that I can convey what I have experienced.

For you to appreciate this anecdote I feel that you need to know a little bit about me. I have never been a Francophile; in fact, I would consider myself quite the opposite. My elder sister, Allana (love you!), studied French in high school and was planning to spend two years of her life there. I always disliked French and took Spanish, often teasing my sister or discrediting the French. While I became more aware of the truth behind French stereotypes, I definitely became more enthused about being in Normandy and Paris. Still, I held reservations for Paris. I was excited for the beaches of Normandy because of their significance in American and World War II history but I honestly thought Paris would be my least favorite place on this trip.

Despite this, Paris floored me. In less than a day I became fascinated with the city. To me Paris was rich history, fantastic food, wonderful art, and stunning architecture. I make Paris to be a destination, a place of exploration and adventure. As I strolled through the streets of Paris, all I felt was love. I also happen to be a hopeless romantic, and while I did not fall madly in love while in Paris, I do find it to be the City of Love. Everywhere I went I felt that people were there pursuing their passions, realizing dreams, and experiencing something they have always wished to obtain. I thought about how few people have the opportunity to go to Paris, and how for some it is a lifelong goal. I saw wedding pictures, and couples enjoying the view of the sparkling Eiffel Tower. I felt love in the paintings and sculptures, the carefully tailored gardens of Versailles, and the magnificent River Seine. I can hardly put into words what I felt in Paris. There was an intangible feeling of rightness, and utter happiness as I roamed the city.

Fortunately, this will not be the last time I visit Paris. Vincent and I will be returning in a few weeks as we extend our ventures abroad. I am quite sure that even that will not be the end of my Parisian escapades. Paris, I will miss you sorely, but this is not goodbye. Au revoir!

Les 100 Jours de Normandie

On our first full day in Normandy we went to a few important places in the Battle of Normandy. The first location that we visited was Pegasus Bridge, so named for the fly horse symbol of the 6th British Airborne Division. This division was a specially trained unit of glider troops that landed just after midnight on June 6th, 1944. Their objective was to secure and maintain control of Pegasus Bridge, and Emily gave a wonderful site report that outlined the attack and its critical part in Operation Overlord. Emily also shared an interesting anecdote about the fight for Pegasus Bridge, and quoted Stephen Ambrose in regards to its importance. Emily told the group that at one point, a single anti-tank shot made the difference in securing the bridge, and Ambrose extrapolates in his book that the battle essentially won the invasion. This fascinates me because so many important events occurred that heavily influenced the outcome of the war. If any part of the invasion on the beaches of Normandy changed, the entire operation could have failed. While I normally do not dabble in theoretical history, this idea captivates my interest. The thought that one shot in the entirety of the war could have changed the outcome of a battle, operation, and world history is unfathomable to my consciousness.

Another subject, which I repeatedly find myself struggling to comprehend, is that an event can occur and create a different perspective for every person. We spent the next portion of our day in Caen, the primary objective for the Allies in the overall strategic plan of the invasion. The group visited The Caen Memorial, a museum that covers history from the First World War to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The detailed and organized exhibitions caused us to spend over 3 hours in the museum. The entire site was immensely helpful to my understanding of these histories because it presented a French perspective on the events. What was most interesting to me was the infusion of the French Resistance into the museum. During the past semester in classes and in my own research, I have learned that there was a myth created by Charles de Gaulle that the French Resistance was much larger and more influential during the war. Throughout the exhibits, I constantly saw hyperbolic language referencing the number and influence of the French Resistance. Often this did not include any sort of historical evidence. Also, the French museums focus more onn the destruction and effects on civilian life than most countries. This is important because the Germans controlled France for the majority of WWII, and so they have a closer affinity to the effects of war on life.

This is a portion of history that I believe is very important, and I strive to understand and consider the effects of perspective. The American experience and outlook is starkly different from the Italian, French, Polish, British, Russian, German, or Japanese experience. The thoughts, opinions, and backgrounds of those people, coupled with the events and battles create a unique wartime view for each country and each person as well. The stones outside of the memorial further emphasized this concept, as each country sent a different message to commemorate Normandy. Each country had a different reason for fighting in the war, and the result and the involvement had a different significance for their people.

The Adventure Continues

I am writing this while traveling from Portsmouth towards Bayeux on a ferry. The English Channel is an amazing thing, and it has acted as an important defensive mechanism for years. William the Conqueror in 1066 was the last person to successfully cross and invade the Isle of Britain. This was also critical in the Second World War, as Hitler’s Germany was unable to control the entirety of Europe, and Britain once served as a rallying point for Allied forces, and eventually the starting point for the D-Day operation. I am currently taking a similar approach to France, where my next adventure will begin in Normandy and continue to Paris.

Before I get too far ahead of myself, I need to relate to you the rest of my experience in London. What an incredible city. Words do not exist that can express the beauty, presence, and history of this place. I was a busy bee while absent from this blog, and I was fortunate enough to visit various historic and national landmarks within London. These included Bletchley Park, home to the code-breaking operation of the Allied forces that helped to break the Enigma code and contribute to a multitude of dramatic victories that helped turn the tide of war. We also visited the National Gallery where I saw paintings by Rousseau, Degas, Rembrandt, van Gogh, Monet, Manet, and so many more. The creative ability astounds me, as I have not concept of the ability to produce such beautiful work. The power and splendor of these works left me speechless.

I also spent a significant amount of time simply walking and exploring London, and Vince and I got very good at navigating without maps. It was great to feel like I was staring to be comfortable with the underground and the general directions within London. While exploring I visited a monument created by Christopher Wren to commemorate the Great Fire of London. This tall monument had over 300 steps, and while it was a strenuous trip up, the view of London was incredible. I also was able to visit the British Museum, a collection of artifacts and items across many centuries and countries that have been a part or influenced the British. The museum held the Rosetta stone and other ancient Egyptian sculptures, tracked the evolution of watches and money, held Greek and Roman sculpture, pottery, and daily items. The age and significance of these items are incredibly powerful, and the museum itself was a strong symbol of imperialism, as the British travelled across the world.

My favorite portion of the trip thus far is Westminster Abbey. Solemn and beautiful, the tombs and monuments to important persons were extraordinary. I stood in front of Newton, Chaucer, Austen, Livingstone, and so many more great persons. While there I took a few moments to reflect on the Abbey, and my experience in London. I thought about the representation of so much power, influence, intelligence, and wealth. I thought about what I wanted to be, what I wanted to accomplish in my life, ad what I wanted to be represented as. While I still don’t know the exact path I wish to take in life, I do know that I want to truly impact how people think or act. That does not necessarily equate to fame or fortune, but I hope to have an impact on lives.

London has already beneficially affected my life, as I have gained new perspective, a greater appreciation for other cultures, and most importantly a love for adventure and new experiences. I know that I want to return to London, and will be exploring my options to study in England for my future education. I am saddened to be departing, yet excited for the next portion of my journey. I hope to be able to continue to feel the same for each part of the trip, and I am ecstatic to visit the beaches of Normandy next. Until next time, or as I will be saying soon, au revoir!



I have never blogged before so this should be interesting. Where do I begin? Well, I will put some perspective in to this before I start rambling about London. I have been waiting to go on this specific study abroad since the fall of 2013 when I first met with Professor Steigerwald. Back then, I was an enthusiastic first year student that wanted to learn and go abroad and I knew that I was interested in History and especially World War II. This program was a perfect fit, especially since I was not a History major at that point, and I could earn a minor through the program. To say that I have anticipated this trip would be an understatement. As we boarded the plan for London in the Toronto airport, I got slightly emotional. It finally hit me that I was embarking on a trip that I have been working towards for almost two years.

Here I am. London, England. I have already seen and learned about many historic sites, but I want to share with you a slice of World War II specific history. Today the entire group was able to go to the Churchill War Rooms and Museum, a fantastic place with an extraordinary artifacts, documents, and displays. It was humbling and aweing to be in the rooms in which Churchill and his War Cabinet made crucial decisions, planned and executed the D-Day invasion, and at times slept and ate through bombing raids. The maps used to chart the movements of Allied and Axis troops and convoys were riddled with pinholes where they had marked positions. I saw the machines used to decode German transmissions, a vital piece to victory for the Allies. The impact of every person and tool used in the war rooms was truly incredible, and as I read and learned about them all I only had a small glimpse into the enormity and import of this operation throughout World War II.

The Churchill Museum was just as wonderful as the War Rooms, and I learned so much about Churchill and England during and after the war. Winston Churchill is an interesting man who was and still is very controversial. His political views often clashed with his own party alignment, which even led to his change in allegiance. Churchill was also extremely adamant in opposing freedom for India, and he was incredibly anti-Communist. While he is often viewed as an astounding wartime leader, he lost his position as Prime Minister before World War II even ended. Many details like these are left out or passed over.

Many people affected World War II, from the commanding generals to the workers at the home front. Almost every person in the world either contributed to or was affected by the war, but from what I learned today I believe that Winston Churchill was the most influential person involved in World War II. While he did have an incredible supporting cast and immense resources to draw from, his ideas, strategies, and leadership were key to the success of the defense of Britain and the subsequent success of the Allied forces in defeating Hitler. While I have been taught about Churchill many times, this experience has truly shown the incredible passion, drive, and impact that Churchill had on the world.