May 31st:

When we stepped through the door of our first class for the WWII program, we became historians. As historians, we need to describe and assess the sources given to us. The one question that we, as students of this particular study abroad program, have to ask is how has Germany dealt with the consequences of WWII and the Holocaust? As we went to a variety of locations in Berlin, it became clear that Germany was asking this same question to itself.

One of the first few sites we visited was the German Historical Museum, which presented the events of post-WWI, the interwar period, WWII, and post-WWII. The Museum itself had plenty to offer, portrayed this small part of the nation’s history accurately, and addressed the issue of the descent to dehumanization confidently. However, my only gripe with the Museum, and this seemed to be one many of my classmates had, was the layout of it.

Another museum we went to later that same day was the Topography of Terror Museum. This Museum is on the site of buildings that housed the Gestapo and SS headquarters. The central institutions of the Gestapo and SS in Nazi Germany and how they committed crimes throughout Nazi occupied territories was the focus of the exhibition, while also giving attention to the many victims of the Nazi regime.

View within the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.


One of my favorite sites in Berlin was the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The Memorial is comprised of numerous concrete slabs with varying heights that are arranged in a grid pattern. As you make your way towards the middle of the Memorial, the ground starts to decline. This is due to the sloping foundation on which the Memorial is built on. With the increasing height of the slabs, this creates a confusing and uneasy feeling. Though the Memorial is outdoors, it can enclose you from any other sights or noises. The only feeling of comfort you can receive while in between the slabs is when you look up to the sky and you get a sense hope.

Thank you to those who have read all of my blogs. Auf wiedersehen!


May 26th:

The Main Square in Kraków.

While I am looking towards going to Germany, I am glad that Kraków, Poland was a part of our program. Buying food and souvenirs in Kraków were not as blow to the wallet as it has been in previous cities. Kraków also provided many beautiful sites to see and adventures to have. On the first day, the whole Study Abroad group went the Main Square, or Rynek Główny, where we all decided to break into smaller groups to eat dinner. Many of us tried a well-known Central and Eastern European cuisine called pierogi. The Square itself is one the largest medieval town squares in Europe. Despite the food and the man-made structures, these are not the main reasons why that I am glad we went to Kraków. The main reason is a serious one and should be treated as such.

As students, we are always taught certain topics in our history classes and to analyze the consequences of these topics. However, I believe being in a location of such historical significance can further enhance a student’s understanding on a topic. Physically being at the Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau camps made me have a sobering experience about the Holocaust. However, it did leave me with some questions that irked me. We know the despicable political party that was the National Socialist, how they came into power, and with Hitler, enacted policies that discriminated against anti-Semitic and other groups in Nazi Germany and Nazi occupied territories. These policies were based on their twisted Aryan supremacy ideology and in 1941 culminated in the Holocaust; a horrific genocide in which around two-thirds of the Jewish population in Europe, along with the Roma people, people with disabilities, and other groups, were persecuted, sent to concentration camps, and murdered. Though we walked through the camps, and saw them with our own eyes, it was hard for me to imagine how one human would let another go through unspeakable atrocities. How would anyone live with themselves after personally witnessing such death and destruction? And how could they come back to the camps day after day?

Crematoria II in Auschwitz II-Birkenau.

As the Soviet Red Army approached Poland in November 1944, the SS scrambled to remove any evidence of the atrocities committed at the Auschwitz concentration camps. They destroyed many written documents, plundered goods stolen from the prisoners, and demolished many of the camps’ buildings. Among these buildings were crematories II and III in Birkenau. They have remained untouched ever since and were shown to us in our guided tour. Looking back at it, I am glad we got to experience the camps because they serve as a reminder to us and future generations of the atrocities that happened there and give us a responsibility to ensure such atrocities on this scale is not repeated.

Thank you for reading this blog. Do widzenia.

Rebuilding and Remembering

We have had a very unique opportunity to compare how different countries present and memorialize their own national history. Traveling from London to France to Poland to finally ending our excursion in Germany, we have grown beyond simply taking in knowledge and began to criticize and compare how a nation grapples with their own – often complicated, morbid, and cruel – history when the eyes of the world are watching.

I found Berlin’s presentation their World War II involvement especially unique. The city is a cultural mecca of music, art, and history, whose most recent decades are characterized by the Berlin wall’s separation of Germany. However, unlike many nations we have seen, Berlin has not swept aside their past, but embraced it as they created and rebuilt the city after the war. The city is distinctly modern in its architecture; however, its WWII and Cold War past are still apparent and noticeably reminiscent. Berlin, above all, has gone further than any other city we have visited to keep national memory at the forefront of its architecture, culture, and politics.

The Bundestag tour we went on showcased this concept prominently. The parliamentary building acts more as a museum than a government building. Our tour guide pointed out how the space is drenched in purposeful symbolism following its reconstruction – the placement of the public viewers above parliament members, the transparency of the dome on top, the juxtaposition of the old Reichstag’s architectural style and the modern art that currently hangs on the walls. Instead of erasing the nation’s more shameful memories, the building memorializes its past and uses these physical features as an opportunity to remember. The names of Soviet soldiers who stormed the Reichstag are preserved along one hallway in the Bundestag and the original architecture commemorating Germany’s three emperors is kept lining the stone arch entryway.

Soviet soldiers’ names inscribed on a wall from the storming of the Reichstag in May 1945.

Seeing the Bundestag from the public’s point of view. The chairs are a specially made blue color that no German party is allowed to use as their own.












This building is, in many ways, emblematic of what it feels like to walk around Berlin; the city itself is a living testament to the nation’s past. The presence of the wall and division between East and West Berlin is unavoidable. While there is a central museum hub, many museums are outside these boundaries and littered throughout the city making surprise and unintentional run-ins with history inevitable while walking through Berlin. The Topography of Terror Museum and the Resistance Museum are deliberately placed where the SS and Wehrmacht Headquarters once stood. The city’s integration of its history into the natural landscape reminds visitors and locals alike that national memory is not an afterthought.

From Potsdam to Today

At the end of WWII, Germany was in shambles. On their recent historical scorecard, they tallied two lost wars, the genocide of over 6 million Jewish people, and the failure of numerous attempts at a unified government. At the Potsdam Conference in 1945, Germany’s postwar fate was decided; their new economy was planned, its borders were redrawn, and the country was divided among the Allies. An independent German government ceased to exist and was replaced by the governing forces of the Allied powers. These measures were taken to ensure lasting peace in a post-WWII world. For much of the next half century, the world watched Germany, curious to see how they would rebuild under such circumstances. In the West, occupied by the Americans, British, and French, was the Federal Republic of Germany, and in the East, occupied by Russia, was the communist German Democratic Republic. Germany’s ensuing “rebuilding” period took place under the tension of the Cold War, a conflict between democracy and communism that would not be resolved until the 1990s. Nonetheless, Germany slowly began to rebuild themselves, and today is considered an exemplar of reconciling one’s brutal history.

Cecilienhof Palace, where the Potsdam Conference of 1945 was held.

No modern war, with the exception of the Civil War, has been fought in the continental United States. To see the physical and political remnants of a war almost 75 years later was an informative experience. The effects of the war and the ensuing occupation is echoed throughout Berlin, the epicenter of German culture and politics. The Reichstag building reverberates Germany’s new idea of democracy and attempts to deal with their turbulent past. In very particular details, the Reichstag building symbolizes the German government’s attempt at a truly democratic political system. Today, the Reichstag building is where the Bundestag, or German parliament, meets. Upon entering the building, visitors instantly notice how devoid it is of decoration. This is because each decoration with cultural influence from one state must be matched with the same type of decoration for every other state. As a result, the Reichstag must either be distractingly filled with decorations, or lack any decoration at all. In the interest of parsimony, they chose the latter. Another aspect of the building that is hard to miss is the large glass dome on the top. This dome symbolizes the transparency of the government, allowing citizens to look down into the main hall where their representatives are. Inside the chamber, the stands for the public are placed above the representatives to symbolize the people being above their elected officials. These particular details, aimed at pleasing all citizens, clearly demonstrate that Germany is determined to move on from their dark past. Finally, one of the most striking remnants of the war is the Russian graffiti that has been memorialized on the walls of the Reichstag. When Russia invaded Berlin in 1945, many soldiers left graffiti on the inside of the Reichstag, which was preserved and now displayed in the Reichstag. To me, this is a statement from the German government that they are not ashamed by their distressing past.

Graffiti from Soviet invasion in 1945. Notice the different dates in the graffiti.

The intense pressure on post-war Germany to deal with the mistakes of their past led to their display of an objective public history of the war. Throughout Berlin there are numerous other instances of the memorialization of their transgressions. The German History Museum presents a narrative that does not shy away from the atrocities committed during the war or attempt to overstate any resistance to the Third Reich. The Topography of Terror Museum is wholly dedicated to documenting the atrocities of the Nazi regime. The many pieces of the Berlin Wall throughout the city commemorate a pressurized period of German history. In many ways, there is no attempt at presenting a nationalistic view of German culture, something completely different from the United States and our ethnocentric attitudes. There are many aspects of American history that are glossed over in the interest of forgetting our dark past. While there are attempts at memorializing our wrongdoings in the United States, we should take an objective look at how we present our darkest moments at a country in the same way Germany has attempted to do so.

The main hall of the Reichstag.

An Overstated Resistance

According to Sartre’s, “Paris Under Occupation,” the French’s misfortune under German occupation is understated because of their atypical experience. They escaped the fighting, so to many, including the British, they escaped sacrifice. However, the Parisians existed in a limbo where they lived in a skeleton of what used to be a lively city. During this time, Paris lost her identity to the Germans causing anguish among the already war-weary Parisians. Today, unsurprisingly, Paris has regained her status as the epicenter of French cultural and political life. However, like most countries affected by the war, the city is filled with artifacts and reminders of the war and its heroes. For instance, as evident from the abundance of things named after him, Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French during the war, is an integral figure in French history.

The Eiffel Tower, one of the most recognizable features of the city, stands as a national symbol of Parisian culture in the now thriving city.

In the Musée de l’Armée there is an apparent dichotomy between Vichy and the Free French. After France’s fall at the beginning of the war and the signing of an armistice, France was partitioned into a free and occupied zone. In the former, Phillipe Petain, a war hero and a political favorite among the rural conservatives and urban liberals alike, set up a new French state. Vichy France, the name of the new state, was set up in collaboration with their Nazi occupiers, adhering to and sometimes anticipating what they thought would please the Germans. Vichy executed anti-Semitic policies, deported thousands of French Jews, and implemented conscription laws that required French citizens to go to Germany to work. After the war, the collaborators of Vichy were denounced and punished. Although the French do not ignore the collaborationist state in their history, it seems they chose to emphasize the resistance led by Charles de Gaulle more than Vichy. Even more so, de Gaulle is often lumped into the Allied alliance with Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt.  A lot of the rhetoric used by the museums insists that de Gaulle’s contributions were as important, if not more important, than the Anglo-American contribution. One section of the museum boasts the role of French paratroopers on D-Day, something we had not previously studied in class. Finally, to tie together the WWII section of the museum, we watched a film in the Charles de Gaulle wing. The film, while educational and entertaining, had obvious biases towards the importance of the Free French and de Gaulle. The French emphasis on the resistance rather than collaboration implies the French remember the actions of side that won and ignore the cooperation with the Nazis and anti-Semitic policies of the other. Another instance of the French failing to come to terms with their involvement during the war is shown in their commemoration of those deported during the war. Although French Jews were largely deported to concentration camps, their Memorial des Martyrs de la Déportation fails to mention them and instead focuses deported people as a whole. Additionally, in the Musée de l’Armée, the Holocaust is all but skipped over. There is a tiny room that is very easily missed and focuses mainly on political prisoners.

A display from the Holocaust section of the Musée de l’Armée. In english it reads, “the deportation of political resistors, political hostages.” There was little mention of Jewish victims of the Holocaust and instead focused on political prisoners.

The Caen Memorial Museum in northern France mirrors a similar dichotomy between the Free French and Vichy. The museum begins with a broad overview of the interwar period down a winding decline to symbolize the deteriorating nature of the political state. Directly after this, without mention to anything specific about the French interwar period, France fell. Additionally, the museum posed the fall of France in a passive way, as if France was taken from them, despite the fact that an armistice was signed. Similar to the Musée de l’Armée, the museum mentioned Vichy and Petain once before moving on to an extensive discussion of the resistance. Finally, it seems that the French were again lumped together with the Allies, boasting when the Allies were doing well and disassociating themselves from the Allies’ mistakes. I believe this is the French’s way of avoiding responsibilities for the faults of World War II. While the French were certainly on the Allies power’s side, they were not an integral part of the D-Day landings and war effort as a while, as they portrayed themselves to be.

While it is apparent that they French have not entirely came to terms with the war, it is important to remember the comfort of the American experience. It is quite easy to become critical of other countries historical memory, especially because the United States benefitted from their involvement in the war. While the French must come to terms with their history on their own, there is an important lesson to be learned. Although the war experience was different in every country, in order to conduct meaningful and productive public history, one must take objective look at our own experience and convey it in an unbiased manner, something that even the United States has issues with.

A serene sunset on the Seine.

Study Abroad 1001: Comparative Studies of Cities in Europe

It may be a cliché, but everything in London just felt ancient.  There are castles and cathedrals from medieval times, books way older than the U.S., and countless artifacts stolen by the British resting in the British Museum.  I think it gives cities there a much smaller and cozier feel as the buildings are squat and tightly packed.  London was the third city that I went to on this tour of Europe and it was the first that had genuine skyscrapers and even those were confined to a limited part of the city.  New York may be the closest U.S. contemporary to London, just in terms of sheer size and history, but New York is still very young and there are hardly any remnants of the old city left.  One of the biggest surprises that London gave was how clean it was.  The air may have been terrible, but the streets and the Underground are practically spotless.  Another surprise that London had for me was how each part of the city had its own distinct feeling and look, almost like New York and its boroughs.

Paris, on the other hand, has such a distinct style throughout the city that it was hard to tell which neighborhood I was actually in without significant landmarks.  The city’s style is graceful and beautiful, but it simply gets boring.  If I couldn’t see the Le Sacre Coeur while I was in Montmartre (there is an excellent Dali exhibit there, by the way), I could have been in the Latin Quarter instead and not know the difference.  There are two areas in Paris that stand out from the others in my mind, however.  At night, the Champs de Mars is unlike anything I have ever seen.  The park is alive with Parisians and tourists, and people trying to make a quick buck selling wine and champagne, all gazing at the beautiful Eiffel Tower lit up before them.  Montmartre is the other area that will always stand out for me because of the good memories I shared with several of my comrades.  Nothing compares to sitting on the steps of Le Sacre Coeur at midnight while bartering for cheap drinks and listening to street musicians.

Krakow is as old as London or Paris, but the city shows its age in every neighborhood and lacks the modern skyscrapers of the other two cities.  The Old Town of the city dates back to the middle ages and the surrounding neighborhoods feel like they haven’t changed significantly since the 18th century.  I’m sure every street corner has history, but you would never know it unless you asked.  The Jewish Quarter of Krakow has sidewalk restaurants with live music that rotates from venue to venue every fifteen minutes.  With the right people by your side, dinner can continue an hour past when you finished your meal and you won’t even notice.  I know I didn’t.  This city has heavy history from World War II and it takes a lot of contemplation and discussion to begin to comprehend it.  It’s not perfect dinner conversation, but that’s what you talk about when you eat with a bunch of history students.

In all actuality, Berlin as the city we know it today is only twenty or thirty years old.  Not only was the city almost leveled by the Allied bombing campaigns and the Soviet invasion, but East and West Berlin were reunified beginning in 1990.  I think this is why Berlin was my favorite city.  The city felt fresh and new and chose to confront its enormous baggage rather than hide it.  The new German parliament, the Bundestag, exemplifies this by reclaiming the building of the German parliament of the Weimar Republic and making it symbolic of the new German state.  The design of the building places heavy emphasis on transparency of the government and placing the people of Germany above the government.  While the city was recently rebuilt, it carries its history from the war with it.  A small plaque commemorating a Jewish victim of the Holocaust may be found outside of a beer garden, grocery store, or even your hotel.  Sites of extreme evil, like the former SS headquarters, are now museums dedicated to educating the public about the atrocities committed by the Third Reich.  Berlin may be ashamed of its history, but it does not try to hide it as the city moves forward.  I find it very inspiring that victims of the Third Reich can be remembered right outside a place meant for enjoying the company of friends and I’m not sure that I can find this in the US.  It may be hard to find a memorial to murdered slaves in the deep south, or to find a museum dedicated to educating about the Native American reservation system in the plains state.  Maybe the US can learn from Germany about dealing with generations of baggage and do some remembering instead of neglecting.

The first picture below shows the exterior of the Bundestag, which is the old Reichstag.  In order to reclaim the building from its difficult past, the new German Republic built their parliament in the husk of the Reichstag but made significant changes to the building, such as large windows and an enormous glass dome.  The second picture was taken from the gallery of the Bundestag.  The structure of the parliamentary hall places the public above the government, making a government for the people quite literal.  The final picture is of a Soviet monument in the middle of Berlin.  While it was built almost immediately after the capture of Berlin, it still remains as a symbol of the Russian conquest of Nazi Germany.

A Recovered Germany

After traversing through the old cities of London, Bayeux, Paris, and Kraków, Berlin’s modernity surprised me. They were forced to rebuild most of their city after the destruction of World War II. With this restoration of Germany, the state had to choose how they wanted to represent their history, all the while proving what they have become. After visiting the German Historical Museum and Reichstag, it’s plain to see that Germany has handled both its history and growth well.

The German Historical Museum impressed me with its objectivity. It was very unbiased, as opposed to the museums in England, France, and Poland – each country presented some favorable twists in their history. The German state presented their part in the war well without shirking any responsibility. I also appreciated that the museum went beyond a mediocre description and explained the reasoning behind most of the events in the war. Along with its objectivity, the German Historical Museum was the most comprehensive collection I’ve seen yet. This museum did not focus solely on its own history, but incorporated how other countries were affected by Germany’s decisions. My research in this class was focused on the Kindertransports – Britain’s effort to save 10,000 Jewish and non-Aryan children from German-occupied areas prior to the outbreak of World War II. I was surprised to see that the German Historical Museum had a detailed exhibit on this topic, when it was only briefly mentioned in one of the museums in Britain. This complete collection of war history reinforces the objectivity of this site and demonstrates how well they are capturing their history.

After all the museums we have been in, we finally toured a contemporary building. We received the pleasure of going into the Reichstag, the location of Germany’s parliament. The lengths the government has gone to avoid past mistakes and to set itself apart from the Third Reich is impressive. Our guide spoke of the meticulous decision-making process to use the former Reichstag as the location of current-day Parliament. Interestingly, the building was decommissioned shortly after Hitler became chancellor because of a fire; thus, the building was never used by Nazis. With this line of thought, the government believed they could use the building without sharing anything with the Third Reich.

Another aspect I found interesting was their hierarchy for police. They have different police for different areas; they have cops specifically for the trains and others for the streets. This is done intentionally so that no one person can have more power than another. I’m impressed by all of the steps the new government has taken to realign itself and prevent something like a Third Reich from forming again. Not only did they incorporate the lessons learned from past mistakes into their government, but they paralleled it by combining old and new architecture. Most of the Reichstag was destroyed by fire and the Soviets, when they occupied that area. Despite the almost total destruction, some areas were left standing and the walls or outside structures were incorporated with the new modern architecture. When the Soviets occupied the Reichstag, they wrote on its walls with either messages or their signatures. Parliament uses it today to remind itself and the country of their rocky history so that no one can forget. These many precautions taken show that the history of Germany still plays into issues and decisions today.

Facing the Facts

The last stop on our tour was Berlin, Germany. I was excited to see this city and learn a different side of the story. As an American, the German people are presented to us as the “bad guys.” I went into the country thinking that the Germans would attempt to hide their dark past and paint themselves as somewhat victims of what happened during World War II. However, after trips to the German Historical Museum and the Bundestag of Germany, I learned that the German people aren’t trying to hide anything. Amidst all of the history, I saw first-hand how a foreign country treats their government. I was very impressed with Germany’s honest take on the history of their country, and the dedication they now have to serve their people.
At the German Historical Museum, I was introduced to my first German perspective of the war. I was impressed and surprised to see that the German museum had outlined, in great detail, what they had done to so many people. I was expecting to see the idea that the German people suffered during the war plastered all over. Instead, I saw facts detailing the rise of the Nazi party and the eventual atrocities that they committed.
When we visited the Bundestag building in downtown Berlin I had no idea what to expect. The building used to be the Reichstag, where the Nazi government used to be centered. I was surprised that the German people would allow the government to function in such a historically horrible place. Our guide told us that this was the way the government told the people they were ready to move on. They were able to take the building that was used for terrible things and turn it into the center of their people’s government.
Being an American we grow up learning to believe that we have the “best” government. As someone who knew little about the current government of Germany, the Bundestag opened my eyes to how the country views democracy and serving the people of their nation. The government is elected proportionally, meaning everyone has some sort of voice in the government. Parliament only allows people who are experts on a topic to vote on certain bills. It seems that the people trust their government because they are doing their job and representing the people. I thought it was fascinating to hear about the government’s dedication to helping their people. It was something I didn’t know about before and I’m glad to have learned.

Me on the roof of the Bundestag.

Germany was not afraid to show their dark past to the world. The country realized what they did and decided to learn from the mistakes and move on. I admire Germany’s dedication to truth and education. I hope they continue to show the truth and educate generations to come.

Heat of Berlin

Going into Berlin, I was more conscious about the historical aspect of the trip than I was in any of the other countries I went to. What I mean is that for the other countries I felt like I could speak more freely on historical matters of the war but in Berlin I thought I would have to watch how I say things especially if I was talking about Nazis. When walking through the museums such as the Topography of Terror Museum, I thought that I would see some slightly skewed perspective of the war however, out of all the countries I went to the German perspective of the war was the closest to how I have learned the war through school. The Germans were straight to the point and very direct when talking about the past. They didn’t put the blame on anyone else but themselves. The Germans realize that they are the ones that caused the war which gives me a great amount of respect towards the German population.

The Topography of Terror Museum is a building where the Nazi government offices were. I couldn’t wrap my mind around walking into a building where some of the most ruthless people walked. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was expecting when walking into this museum. How were the Germans going to portray their own people who oversaw killing millions? I was surprisingly shocked. I noticed that the articles and pictures were direct and gave more detail than I was expecting. I learned more about these people than I ever have before. This museum went into depth and detail about all their lives. Not only give me an insight to how they were placed in the powerful position they were given but I learned about what they did during their time in the Nazi regime and what happened to them after the war. I was in awe of the German population because they probably have some type of guilt being from the same culture that caused World War II but instead they told the war exactly how it happened. The Germans didn’t try to cover anything up or skew the perspectives at all. They told the war exactly how it happened which is admirable.

I think as an American, I have a victor’s perspective. Once we entered the war, that’s when the tide changed in the European front. Going to Germany was the first time, I was in the presence of a country where they were the ones defeated and destroyed. I think that the Germans have done and will do everything in their power to never let that happen again and I was able to see the changes when walking through the Reichstag building. They are inclusive and accommodating to everyone. They have a parliamentary system which divides governmental powers, they have open clear walls and open spaces which helps the deaf community and they also have brail for the blind. It was truly a wonderful experience to walk through and see how the Germans are taking the lessons from the past and making changes to improve the future.

A Lingering History

Even though our time in Poland was short, I absolutely fell in love with the city of Krakow. Krakow is a hub for the arts as well as academia, and is a true cultural center in Poland. It has a rich history dating back thousands of years with traditions that have persisted for centuries. Part of Poland’s history has to do with its involvement in World War II. For many Poles, this is a history that they have yet to come to terms with.

Polish history in World War II plays a large role in the contemporary issues surrounding Poland today. Recently, the Polish government passed a law making it illegal to blame Poland for crimes committed during the Holocaust. Many right-wing groups have been pushing back against talk about Polish complicity in the Holocaust ever since the end of the war. This law has become very controversial because it is seen as a Polish attempt to “rewrite history.” One of the major points in the bill that was passed is the banning of reference to Nazi camps, such as Auschwitz, as “Polish death camps.” When we visited Auschwitz and Birkenau on May 24, the importance of what the camps are called seemed to be the most notable issue. Before we even entered the camp, our tour guide made a point to tell us that UNESCO had changed the name of the Camp to Auschwitz-Birkenau, The Nazi German Concentration and Extermination Camp. While changing the name to reflect those who ran the camp seems an innocent measure, changing the name affirms the Polish government in their measures to deny Polish complicity in the Holocaust. It removes the agency of the Poles that lived in the surrounding areas and even worked inside the camp, yet did nothing to help those inside or stop the atrocities from occurring.

This controversial bill passed by the Polish government caused an uproar in the international community, but from our time in Poland, its effects were not as noticeable as I thought they would be. Besides the insistence on calling Auschwitz-Birkenau a Nazi German Camp, the effects of this new bill were not really visible in the day-to-day life we witnessed in Krakow. I expected a bill as divisive as this to produce a visible outcry that we would witness during our time in Poland. The lack of voices publicly speaking out against this issue speaks to the character of Poland as a nation, and their inability to fully deal with their role in the Holocaust. Since the end of World War II, Poland has tiptoed around their own complicity in the Nazi crimes committed in occupied Poland. The silence from the public surrounding this issue further shows how the Poles have not yet been able to accept and deal with their own history.

A Stark Reminder

After traversing the cities of Bayeux and Paris in France, The Ohio State World War II program travelled to Kraków, Poland. The purpose of our expedition to Kraków was to further explore the Holocaust with Auschwitz, the infamous concentration camp where at least 1.3 million people were systematically murdered, being an important stop. Poland recently passed a bill that outlaws blaming Poland for complicity in any crimes during the Holocaust with varying penalties based on the severity of the condemnation. I was eager to witness how the passing of the law shaped my experiences in Kraków.

Arbeit Macht Frei, or “work sets you free”, sadistically stretches across the entrance to Auschwitz 1, the section of Auschwitz that served as a labor site. For prisoners, the only freedom from Nazi terror was in death through labor or murder. Worn brick barracks lined each side of the uneven dirt streets. There was an immediate, overwhelming presence of sadness upon entering the gates of Auschwitz. We toured several of the barracks, seeing prisoner’s belongings and representations of living conditions. One of the most powerful moments was walking down a narrow hallway filled with prisoner photos taken upon their arrival to camp. The sense of fear and hopelessness was palpable from their gazes. Towards the end of the hallway, shoes taken from prisoners filled glass cases. Seeing the large quantity of shoes and knowing each pair represented a person was a jarring reminder of the death and inhumanity at Auschwitz.

In addition to visiting Auschwitz 1, we went to Auschwitz II Birkenau, the location of the infamous railroad station where prisoners were selected for labor or death by gassing upon arriving to Auschwitz. There is an example of a train car in the spot where selection occurred along with an image of a selection taking place. It is eerie to stand in the same location where someone’s fate was determined with a point of a finger. As we walked the grounds, we followed the same path as those who were condemned to death in the gas chambers. It was difficult to imagine human beings being ruthlessly herded to their deaths. The gas chambers were destroyed by the Nazis once the outcome of the war was determined in an effort to erase any evidence of these horrific war crimes. The remains rest in their same state as a reminder to the atrocities at Auschwitz.

I did not see the Polish law altering my experience in Poland. The exhibits at Auschwitz made clear that the atrocities occurred at the hands of the Nazis and Poland was not responsible, but I would imagine this has been the case for years. Our tour guide at Auschwitz did not hide any history but did reiterate that Auschwitz was a German death camp built for German use. The murder at Auschwitz was directed at Jews but I detected a Polish narrative reminding visitors that Poles were affected too. The systematic dehumanization and murder that occurred during the Holocaust must never be forgotten so history is not repeated.

Last Stop: The Present

After traveling across Berlin for the past week, it was easy to get a feel for the city and its rich history. While walking through the different museums, it was startling to see the language used to articulate the atrocities of the past. In the previous countries we toured, such as France and Poland, they were less explicit in their language describing their involvement with the Third Reich. One example is the Topography of Terror Museum, where they had a photo of notorious SS Officers during a retreat with a caption explaining they were “Taking a break from mass murder.” The bluntness of the speech is shocking and I believe that is the intention. It is clear that the museum had written the passages to stay with the visitors and learn from the lessons of the past. This made me reflect on how Americans present our own history. It is unlikely to find text presented in museums that would describe our actions that bluntly in regards to our atrocities, such as slavery and the genocide of the Native Americans. It has made me reevaluate how Americans treat our own history and how we educate future generations.


To educate ourselves on the present, we visited the Reichstag building It was fascinating to see how the current government of Germany is run and designed on the principles of democracy. Our delightful tour guide explained the design of the Parliament chambers highlighting the focus on the democratic principle of putting the people first by allowing citizens to walk above the chamber in the large dome top. Our guide went on to explain the current distribution of power that has come from the aftermath of the Second World War. While our focus is in the past, it is important to see how the past can reverberate through time and still effect today. I could not help but draw ties between the German and American governments. In the United States, we pride ourselves on our democratic principles and serve as a model for other countries to follow. However, the presentation we received showed that Germany had taken the lessons of WWII and the Cold War and used those to create a democracy that actually works for the people and not to serve an elite.


Lastly, a common theme throughout this trip was that most people we encountered knew a basic level of English. When going to restaurants and museums, I was fearful that my lack of German skills would be an issue in communication. However, most people had enough English skills to make ordering easy. This got me thinking as to why it is that most people speak English and German in Germany. One possibility we discussed over breakfast was if Germany had won the war and successfully created a global superpower, then most people would have German as their first or second language, rather than English. Overall, the theme of our time in Berlin was that the actions of the past still affect us today and we can either learn from it or hide from it.



Inside the Reichstag building where the current Parliament meets.

Collective Responsibility

Poland was home to 457 concentration camps during World War II. These camps were responsible for killing millions of people whom the Nazi regime thought to be inferior to their Aryan race. In the past, historians have called these camps “Polish death camps.” However, on February 6, 2018 the President of Poland signed a law to prohibit the use of the term “Polish Death camps.” When I heard this news earlier in the spring semester, I wondered what the intentions of such a law are that so blatantly changes history. My interactions with our tour guide at Auschwitz as well as walking around Krakow showed me that is just what the Polish government is trying to do: change history.

On our way to Auschwitz our guide told us that we have to remember that Poland was occupied during the war, and that the camps were German. While I see her point, it is hard to understand how an entire country turned their heads as they saw millions of people entering their country. She also discussed the idea of “collective responsibility,” that Everyone around the world needs to take responsibility for the atrocities the Nazis committed. I think this goes directly against what she said regarding the occupation of Poland during the war, as well as the government’s stance on Polish Death Camps. I think the world has to take responsibility, but then so does Poland. The country can not have it both ways.

At Auschwitz, we had time to ask our guide some questions. A classmate asked what knowledge the Polish people had about the camps, finishing the question with “did Poles ever work here?” The answer shocked me. She told us that the Poles knew about camps, Auschwitz specifically in this case. What shocked me even more was that the Polish people worked at Auschwitz. This answer goes against what the Polish Government is saying about the death camps in Poland. Poland has the strong stance that Nazi Germany was the group responsible for the death of millions, but there is record of Polish people helping in the process. The Polish people helped to murder 1.1 million people at Auschwitz. The Polish people were complicit and collaborators with the Nazis, proving that these should be called Polish Death camps.

Polish people carried out horrific acts against their Jewish neighbors. On July 10, 1941, an estimated 340 Polish Jews were killed in the town of Jedwabne. Their murders were carried out by 40 of their Polish neighbors.  Poles killed towns of Jews, and the country now is trying to sweep that under the rug by saying the Germans forced them. However, we learned that this was not the case. However, the Nazi takeover of Poland gave the Poles the platform to kill rather than forcing them to. The Polish people were not forced to kill their neighbors; they did it on their own.

After we left Auschwitz, I wasn’t sure if the views our tour guide expressed were her own or if others in the country believed as she did. Then, on my way to dinner one night, I saw a flyer in a storefront window (shown below) reminded the viewer that concentration camps were Nazi German. I was shocked to see the flyer and realized the government is forcing people to believe this false narrative they have created. The poster contained an internet address(Germandeathcamps.org). The website rehearses the government narrative that the Nazis ran the camps and forced Poles to be complicit.

The poster preaching Nazi death camps. I saw this in the town square in Krakow, Poland.

History is necessary to ensure that events don’t repeat themselves. Poland is taking a black mark out of their history book and shredding it. Kids in Poland will grow up learning that their country was not involved in the Holocaust. Poland needs to take responsibility for their role in death camps. The Polish government should be helping to educate about the Holocaust instead of altering their story. Poland, you preach collective responsibility, now own it.

Germany Remembers Their Controversial Past

As an American experiencing Germany for the first time, I was able to focus on the relationship and history between the German people and their government, especially during the Third Reich. The German Historical Museum explores the people’s perspective and their interaction with Hitler’s government. The juxtaposition that exists between the rights of the individual in Nazi Germany and in the United States makes the German experience unique and distinct from other European nations. The German Historical Museum discusses the Weimar Republic, the democratic government after World War I, and its shortcomings before its eventually destruction. Essentially, Weimar was a democracy without democrats and was doomed to fail the moment it was formed because the people saw its creation as a betrayal of the German Army. It’s hard to fathom from an American perspective, how the majority of the German people were willing to sacrifice their freedoms in favor of a totalitarian regime that persecuted its own people. The fact that the German government can change so drastically within a ten-year period makes it all the more interesting to analyze, especially from an American point of view.

The tour of Germany’s Bundestag helped provide a basic structure of Germany’s current governmental system. The current system relies heavily on democratic ideals and the structure of the Reichstag provides a constant reminder of the past. The glass dome in the center of the building reminds elected officials of the past and symbolizes that the people are always watching. This idea that the government exists to serve the people has a strong connection with America’s own governmental system and it demonstrates the progress Germany has made over the last several decades under democratic rule.

Germany’s World War II museums also present an accurate history of their country’s war experience and participation in war crimes. The museums discuss the atrocities that Nazi Germany committed, from the mobile killing units of the Einsatzgruppen to the systemized execution of the Jews, and tries to help Germans come to terms with their difficult past. Germany has a better grasp about recognizing their mistakes when compared to the United States. Some Americans forget the mistakes that the United States has made, from the institution of slavery to the treatment of Native Americans, and they fail to understand these events as a part of American history. Similarly, the German Resistance Museum accurately describes the different resistance movements against Hitler’s government. Under the Nazi regime, there was no widespread resistance movement like in France or Poland, and the German Resistance Museum accurately portrays these few movements that challenged Hitler’s authority. This museum does not inflate the accomplishments of the different types of resistance and does not suggest that the efforts of these resistance groups had any significant influence on the outcome of the war.

I Didn’t Have To Imagine

As a Jew, an American, and the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, I understood that Poland, and more specifically Auschwitz-Birkenau, would be an incredibly difficult experience in the course of this trip. I couldn’t predict how I would react, but having visited the Dachau concentration camp on a trip in high school, I assumed I would be similarly saddened and mournful. However, the emotions at the German camp came through clearly and more digestible than at Auschwitz. I felt a wave of complicated emotions and an indescribable frustration while visiting the camp where over one million prisoners, mostly Jews, were killed.

Viewing this site visit with hindsight, I am finding it surprisingly difficult to group this visit in with the rest of our itinerary. Our trip as a whole has been incredibly academically motivated and informative about many points in the war’s trajectory, but I don’t believe this site quite fits in with that description. I understand the visit’s importance to establish memory and by no means would I advocate for eliminating it; but in comparing the camp to the Schindler Museum, I personally did not wish to view Auschwitz as another opportunity to learn about the atrocities of the Holocaust. I hoped to go through the site on my own terms and feel whatever came over me and this was not the case. The site is widely presented as a museum, rather than a memorial or a place of mourning and the required guide and audio tour made it difficult to have a personalized experience. The presentation of the site only furthered the touristy and attraction-like feeling I was left with.

While we were walking through the camp, the main point that prompted my frustration was a somewhat predictable one – the wealth of indescribable inhumanity the camp reeked of. The entire site lacks compassion or sympathy; survival was based on luck and those sent to the camp were stripped of their status as a human being long before their arrival. There have been centuries of historians and psychologists whose job is to analyze the complacency and trajectory of how the Holocaust came to be. But as I was standing within the gates of the camp, I was continuously reminded of how incomprehensible the camps are on an individual level. We walked through rooms of shoes, of suitcases, of human hair and our guide told us to “imagine an individual occupying that space,” but those responsible for keeping the camps running and efficient did not have to imagine. And for me, I didn’t have to create a fictional character; I thought of my grandmother. I thought of how guards looked mothers and fathers and children in the eye and sent them to their death every day.

I have studied the Holocaust in school and my Jewish learning practically every year since I can remember and never had this thought until walking through Auschwitz. The Nazi Party were not responsible for committing the daily atrocities, individuals were. Individuals who in some capacity could have objected and prevented this from occurring. It’s easy to forget that even the most grandiose operations such as the Holocaust, are on a fundamental level, singular individuals making choices.

“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” — Elie Wiesel