Lessons from the Past

We’ve been across Europe these past three weeks, and I don’t think I’ve been as shocked or as interested in the exhibits as I have been in Germany. I mentioned in one of my previous posts that Bayeux, France has the unique, authentic ability to remember the War since so much fighting took place in Normandy. If that is true for France then that idea definitely extends to Germany as well. I was pleasantly surprised to find that many of the exhibits we’ve been to in Germany deal with the war in an upfront manner; they don’t dawdle around the topic of genocide. Rather the museums have exhibits that expand upon the Nazi regime and their deep- rooted racism and anti-Semitism in order to explain how the tragedy of the Holocaust happened.

Perhaps the most powerful manifestation of this lesson hit me when we visited the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. It was first established in 1936 to house political prisoners but then expanded to include a variety of prisoners including Jews, anti-Socials, and other people who were considered racially inferior. Walking the grounds of the camp, there wasn’t as much left to see since a majority of the camp was destroyed in bombing raids, but the things that were left standing were eerie and terrifying. Walking through the stuffy dormitories where people were forced to live and sleep and the old kitchen and infirmary enabled me to at least create a vision in my head of what conditions were like back then. I don’t think it is possible for us to grasp the amount of human degradation that the Nazi regime instigated through the use of their concentration camps, but I think visiting the site where so much tragedy happened was a step toward understanding the suffering of so many people.

My head hurt the whole time I was there. Everywhere I looked I knew that years ago people were walking through this camp, starving, exhausted, and maltreated. I knew that many of the people imprisoned in this camp would end up dying there, most likely losing their family members in a similar fashion. I also knew that as terrible as this camp was, there were so many more just like it functioning throughout Germany and Poland, holding and eventually killing millions of people. It’s enough to make anyone feel sick.

And so nearing the end of our journey we’re faced with one of the most important components of the war, and one that I think is the most visible in Germany. How is it possible that a civilized nation such as Germany could be responsible for the extermination of millions of people? The men that committed these crimes were intellectuals after all with degrees from prestigious schools, which is perhaps one of the most terrifying aspects of this genocide. It’s a difficult question to answer, one that I think involves a variety of components based on what I’ve learned during my time abroad.

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

A Dark Past

One of the most fascinating things I came upon in Paris was the Vel d’Hiv memorial. It’s strange that that was my favorite part of Paris. The Eiffel Tower was beautiful, the Louvre fascinating, and the Arc de Triomphe was everything I hoped it would be. But somehow, doing everything I’ve seen people do in movies and acting out all of my adolescent fantasies of exploring Paris wasn’t as exciting as I thought it would be in the end. It was all great, but nothing beats visiting specific sites that are rooted in the topics we are studying.

On our last night, some of my colleagues and I were walking back from our last visit to the Eiffel Tower and we stumbled across a sign that pointed us in the direction of the Vel d’Hiv memorial. We had no idea that there was even a memorial dedicated to Vel d’Hiv, so I instantly grabbed the person closest to me and ran in the direction the sign led me. It was a small memorial, depicting the poor men, women, and children that were rounded up on July 16th and 17th of 1942 and sent to the Velodrome d’Hiver: a stadium where over 13,000 victims were held before they were deported to other work camps throughout Paris such as Drancy.

The Vel d’Hiv roundup was just one of the many roundups that occurred throughout France during the German occupation. It’s an example of French compliance and collaboration with the Nazi regime’s racist laws and attitudes. Being on this trip has put me in a specific mindset, and it’s hard to separate my purpose of study from the various sights I’ve seen. We studied in London because it was heavily bombed during the war, we studied in Normandy because of the D-Day invasion, and we will be traveling to Berlin in a couple of days in order to examine the German side of the war and witness the sights where so many crimes against humanity were committed.

But why study in Paris? After all, Paris was technically preserved during and after the war, it was in the occupied zone, and the Germans spared it. Paris is a place you visit in order to find love, shop, and eat exquisite food and drink champagne on the Eiffel Tower. Yet in the tiny little corners of Paris, we found sites such as the Vel d’Hiv memorial and the Memorial des Martyrs de la Deportation, stashed away as dark reminders of a terrible past.

Our work here is important because our job as young historians is to discern which parts of the past are being silenced. While many of the French museums and memorials we visited in Paris include information about Vichy collaboration, there is always far much more information and emphasis on the various resistance movements than the actual collaboration of Vichy. So why is this past not a major part of the discourse in France? Why was the Vel d’Hiv memorial placed in a hidden spot within the city? These are the questions my colleagues and I ask ourselves as we continue our journey throughout Europe studying the Second World War. We’re coming to the understanding that this war story is a lot more colorful than we once thought. Germany isn’t the only country that has a dark past rooted in the war.

The Vel d'Hiv Memorial

The Vel d’Hiv Memorial

The Meaning of War

I’ve never really liked military history. This is sort of strange for me to admit since I am a history major and I’m currently studying World War II. Yet, it is how I’ve always felt. Guns, military tactics, logistics, they’re all just concepts that I can’t really grasp because I like to focus more on people when I think about history. Therefore, I was a little bit skeptical that Bayeux would be a memorable place for me. It’s a charming little town in Northern France, and a lot of history took place in the surrounding areas.  But would it be all that interesting since the Normandy campaign is mostly just military history?

Staying in Bayeux, however, and visiting the beaches where the Americans landed and successfully carried out Operation Overlord was an incredible experience. I never realized the impact it would have on me until I actually saw the places where so many young men fought and lost their lives. In addition, visiting the German, American, and British cemeteries proved enlightening, showing me that social and cultural historians are needed to interpret the wars that young men, and in some cases women, die for.

While visiting Utah, the sea was calm, the sky blue and sunny. It’s hard to imagine that just almost 70 years ago this beach was covered with bloody men and filled with the sounds of gunfire, screams, and shouts from commanding officers. There was a museum located at Utah beach that carried many artifacts belonging to soldiers from World War II, including letters from soldiers to wives and girlfriends to boyfriends stationed overseas. Most of the men who died during the Normandy campaign were just boys, and reading these letters puts their sacrifice into perspective and allows me to understand how much they were giving up and what their loved ones were losing as well. Omaha, similarly, was the same calm seas and blue skies. There wasn’t as much to see since the town seemingly moved up to the shore, and it’s as if life had never been interrupted. It’s almost hard to believe that a major military invasion took place there, and that Omaha proved to be one of the bloodiest and most difficult beaches for the Americans to take.

The French had the unique ability to remember the war in an authentic way, because the majority of the fighting took place here. They don’t need alluring museums with fancy movies (although we’ve seen a lot of those) to make an impression on the public. The history is in the earth. It’s in the giant craters and bunkers we found when we visited Pointe du Hoc. It’s in the oceans and the beaches that seem so serene now, but eerily give us glimpses of the past through remaining bits and pieces of barbed wire and the occasional bunker found during low tide. It’s in the cemeteries, where so many bodies of young men are buried leaving behind the sinking feeling that all war is a little bit absurd, no matter how good or just the cause for fighting once was.

Ultimately my point here is this: Cultural and social history has a place in this war story, because war isn’t just about the military tactics, panzer divisions, and mulberry ports.  It’s also about the people, the soldiers who made these events happen and lost their lives as a result of ideological claims, whether or not individual soldiers sympathized with them. It’s about the mothers and fathers who buried their children, and the family members that to this day visit the graves of loved ones lost. And lastly it’s about the impact of war on society as a whole and the small ways in which we can remember and hold on to a past that should never and can never be forgotten.

Me, standing in a crater left over from the bombing during WWII at Pointe du Hoc

Me, standing in a crater left over from the bombing during WWII at Pointe du Hoc



Adapting to Big City Life in Europe

Greetings from London, England! As soon as I got off the plane at London Heathrow Airport, I caught myself smiling whenever I heard someone with a British accent. I couldn’t believe I was actually in London. I learned about the World War II study-abroad program my sophomore year at Ohio State. After I declared my major in history I couldn’t believe there was a program available that would accommodate all of my interests. It’s astounding to me that a trip like this is possible, and I am so grateful that I have been chosen to embark on this adventure with my two incredible professors and 13 talented colleagues.

So, months after completing grueling book reports and an incredibly long and rewarding thirty-page paper, I find myself in the beautiful city of London, and British accents aren’t as dominant as I expected. London is truly a transnational city. From navigating my way through the tube to strolling down Piccadilly Circus, I’ve heard a variety of different languages and rarely hear English being spoken. It’s remarkable to be in a city where so many different cultures and people are present. There’s always so much to see, do and learn. Although our primary focus here in London is to study World War II, which we’ve done extensively through the Churchill War Rooms, Bletchley Park, and the HMS Belfast, I find myself learning more about culture than I ever planned to.  After all we’re in England and that’s supposed to be similar to America…right?

Selena Vlajic and Kay Karg in front of the Tower Bridge

Selena Vlajic and Kay Karg in front of the Tower Bridge

I could not have been more wrong. Many of the people here may speak English, and a variety of other languages as I’ve mentioned before, but London is very much a European city with a completely different vibe, culture, and set of customs than what my colleagues and I are used to. We’re lucky that London is our first stop, since after all there isn’t much of a language barrier, allowing us to learn to navigate the fast-paced city life. Yet we’re still American and frustratingly enough, it is quite noticeable that we are foreigners, since we’ve been asked several times if we are. How do we give ourselves away? In the beginning, we stood on the wrong side of the escalator in the tube, we always seemed to be in the way.  Splitting our checks when we went out to eat was impossible, and we didn’t understand why we had to pay to use public restrooms. Yet I think we’re getting the hang of it.  Now when I see someone standing on the left side of the escalator, I casually pull them to the right.  I know to “mind the gap” whenever I get off of a train.  And I’ve learned to keep up in the busy city, always remembering that people drive on the left and that crossing the street successfully is a great accomplishment.

I’ve come to understand the importance of studying abroad just in the first five days of living in a foreign city and cannot wait to visit the three remaining places we have on our agenda. There is nothing more rewarding than learning the customs and practices of another culture. Traveling and interacting with a variety of people from across the world has truly enabled me to see the world through a different perspective.