People’s War at All Levels Comparative Blog

Britain is a place where the memories of the past and her people are baked into the streets, architecture, and words of the museums.  The museums of Bletchley Park, Imperial War Museum and Churchill’s War Rooms are all a part of Britain’s perspective of the People’s War. where British citizens are shown relying on one another, making sacrifices in food rationing, limiting resource consumption, and supporting Britain’s survival.  The stories of rations on electricity or coal stood out as everyone from cooks, Alan Turing and even Churchill were forced to live and work in dim, cool rooms with this policy of no waste being strictly followed.  A similar policy followed food as families in their homes forcing cooks to be creative which Churchill’s personal chief did to feed him.  This national character of sacrifice was the backbone of the British Fighting Spirit.



The Imperial War Museum deals with the larger scope of the war with the cost it had on Britain and her people.  The setting and objects are designed to put viewers in the perspective of those at the time such as a dimly lit home, small portions of dinner for all and the radio keeping those inside informed about the courage of the British people.  The Churchill War Rooms are focused on the strain the government was under, its personnel, and Churchill himself.  The facility is a fortified basement with small rooms where the war was waged.   The cramped living conditions for everyone who worked inside with low lighting and smoke-filled air was their home and burden.  The diary of Chief of Staff General Alan Brookes vividly described his dread as the bombs stopped one day, which he saw as Germany readying invasion.  There in the bunker he stayed for weeks.   The fear of imminent destruction clung in the air like smoke of a cigar, yet it never came.



Harrowing stories of suspense fill the grounds of Bletchley Park for different reasons.  Unlike a military facility, Bletchley was an unusual assortment of huts, mansion and a few buildings which hold top-level security which all its members sworn to secrecy by penalty of death.  This was a necessary precaution as hundreds of men/women worked twenty-four hours a day to gather and decode German radio traffic with revolutionary equipment, including the world’s first computer, to decipher the German Enigma code.  This embodied the British national character, as the scope of their efforts touched all parts of the war with stories of sacrifice of body and mind as they worked to bring an end to the war.

The Depths of Nazi Depravity

Truly little can prepare you for setting foot in Auschwitz. It is hard to connect with statistics, but walking through the very place where over a million people were murdered and seeing the tons of hair taken from the victims to use for fabric or the piles of children’s shoes highlights just how brutal and evil the Nazi regime was. We learned about Auschwitz in preparation for this trip by reading testimonies from prisoners who escaped the camp, but even their brutal attestations paled in comparison to the gravity of being in the camp itself. This was elevated by our tour guide, who explained the awful conditions and violent mistreatment that the prisoners had to endure every day. Each barracks was crowded with hundreds of people, and prisoners could be locked in solitary for weeks for the most minor of infractions. Even though the Nazis tried to hide their crimes by destroying the camp, parts of it survived as a testament to their atrocities. I was surprised to learn that Auschwitz was a series of camps instead of just one. These included Auschwitz I which was the main camp, and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, which housed the gas chambers. Auschwitz Birkenau was a massive complex and included the gas chambers and crematoria that became infamous for their implementation of the Final Solution. Walking through one of the surviving gas chambers it is hard to fathom how willing the Nazi regime was to commit genocide. The creation of a complex dedicated solely to the murder of innocent people shows how dangerous indoctrination and totalitarianism can be, and how low humanity can fall.

Looking out at the entrance to Auschwitz-Birkenau from inside the camp

The German Influence

The German Resistance Museum is dedicated to the individuals who stood against the Nazis, most of whom were murdered for their efforts. Along the way, the Museum also made clear that opponents of the regime were a small minority. Nazi ideology was engraved into lives of German children as well as adults. They started teaching them while they were young and as they grew up, they were pro-Nazi. Many displays were of children. One contained child in class all saluting to Third Reich and Hitler himself. Another had Jewish children being transported around the ghettos. The third one had children celebrating German troops invading Austria. Children’s minds are innocent in a sense that they do not necessarily know right from wrong, and Hitler took advantage of that. These pictures represented corruption. They taught children very simply that the Jews were bad, and the Nazis were good.


Throughout Germany I also noticed many sites that accepted the Nazi past for what it was. In the German spy museum, they talked about intelligence throughout history, and they had an entire section about its effects throughout WW2. They wrote about the failure of German intelligence and how they failed to recognize their own faults. At the Berlin Zoo zebra exhibit there was a small plaque talking about how that particular exhibit was one of the few to experience very minor damage during the war. These sites didn’t revolve around the war, but they recognized it instead of hiding it. This shows that they are acting in memorializing the war and Germany’s past rather than denying it.

The Memory a Space Holds

By Cecelia Minard

It is impossible to prepare yourself for visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau. Historical readings, documentaries, and photographs pale in comparison to the feeling of the physical site. In class this spring, we read The First Report about Auschwitz by John S. Conway, which included eyewitness accounts from two young Slovakian Jews who gave a breakdown of the numbers and classifications of the prisoners, as well as an explanation of the methods of extermination used by the Nazis. We also watched the documentary The World at War, which included horrifyingly detailed videos from the discovery of the camps. Yet after visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau, I realized that nothing could capture the memory of such a horrendous place more than the physical site. Auschwitz-Birkenau as a source in and of itself highlights each of the hundreds of thousands of people murdered there.

While the report and the documentary focused on the details and the scale of the genocide, Auschwitz-Birkenau showed me each victim’s personhood. Rather than seeing a number on a page or a video from 70 years ago, walking through Auschwitz showed me the very space attached to the memories of those who were there.

In the barracks, there are displays of the victims’ belongings: their suitcases, shoes, pots, pans, and even the hair from their heads. While looking at these belongings, I focused on the remembrance of each individual who lost their life there. I couldn’t help but think that this could have been their favorite pair of shoes, this pot and pan could have been a gift from a loved one, and this was the hair on their head that they brushed and cared for each day.

While studies are vital to understanding history, documents cannot hold a memory the way a physical site or object does. While walking through the same spaces as the victims of Auschwitz-Birkenau, I felt their memory in a way I never had before. I felt a deep connection and sorrow for each person who was murdered there.

Horrifying Holocaust Realities

      I have learned about the Holocaust in my history classes for as long as I can remember. Despite seeing pictures from Auschwitz-Birkenau, nothing could have prepared me for how it felt to walk around and stand in the death camp.

      Before we walked into the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, I never understood the sheer size of it. We passed through the gates that I have seen pictures of in every textbook and museum I’ve visited, and it all seemed to become real to me. I didn’t realize how little I internalized the brutality of the camps until I was crying looking at a pair of toddlers shoes behind a pane of glass. The ground was rocky and muddy, and looking around I couldn’t imagine fitting thousands of people into such a place. Even worse was seeing the “beds” that prisoners crammed into. The dark, hard wood looked uncomfortable at best, and hearing stories about people waking up next to cold, dead bodies, and being happy that it wasn’t them was almost unimaginable. We saw the blocks, the death wall, the tracks, and everywhere in between. We were able to see pictures of victims, see collected valuables, and hear about how they got there. Our guide was especially good at helping me to understand exactly what I was looking at and at drawing connections back to the humanity that was stolen from all of these people. Our studies had covered the estimated number of deaths in the camp and explained the inhumane treatment of prisoners, but facts and figures will never compare to standing in the camp itself and seeing the expansive aftermath personally. Seeing the piles of shaved hair, the glasses, and the collection of shoes was more haunting than I ever could have imagined.

Brutality was palpable in every room we passed through, but most telling for me were the executions. I work in a veterinary clinic, and I have been present for animal euthanasia. I have held animals as they passed from an injection to the heart and seeing pictures of human beings killed in the same way made me feel sick. Many guinea pigs, mice, and rats are euthanized by placing them in a box and filling it with anesthesia and then carbon dioxide gas. This is scarily similar to the gas chambers used to kill so many prisoners at once, except for the fact that prisoners were killed without any sedation. The fact that these animals are being handled in a more humane and caring way as compared to these human beings with full lives ahead of them is absolutely vile. The aim of animal euthanasia is to put an end to an animal’s suffering in the most humane way possible. Learning more about the terrifying deaths of thousands of young prisoners has truly shown me how these prisoners were treated as not only less than human, but as less than animals.

How Poland Remembers

There were many aspects of the museum in Krakow that reflected Poland’s claim to national innocence during WWII. The museum focused on the severe punishments forced on the people of Krakow under Nazi occupation. Public executions and arrests occupied much of the museum, especially in the first exhibitions. Next, the museum detailed the suffering of the Jewish population because of Nazi occupation in Krakow, such as being moved to the ghettos and concentration camps. The order of the exhibits implied that what the non-Jews in Krakow went through after occupation explained, and perhaps excused, why so few of them decided to help the Jewish people and why some even betrayed them. Our tour guide even said repeatedly that she did not think we should blame the Polish people for refusing to help because helping would mean putting themselves and their families in danger. I do agree that helping Jewish people would have been a risk for many Polish people and their loved ones. However, to insist that they should not be blamed for remaining silent and even betraying Jews felt unfair. The Poles in Krakow would not have had the power to defeat their Nazi occupiers but that does not remove the blame from those who chose to betray Jews.  

To be fair, the museum did showcase complicity for some of the Poles. Exhibits showed that even those who did help had ulterior motives for doing so, and that there were many who denounced their neighbors for aiding Jewish people. The Krakow Museum also had first-hand accounts of Jewish people, including children, who were moved to the ghettos. It was refreshing to read the experiences of Jewish people that went through it, rather than just being told the information. The museum allowed Jews to tell their own stories, which was more beneficial than getting the facts second-hand.  

Tainted Polish Innocence

            Poland holds some of the deepest and darkest aspects of World War II, the most gut wrenching took place at the Auschwitz Concentration Camps. As a Polish/Hungarian Jewish woman, I felt such a deep connection and appreciation for my ability to walk through these places where my family endured so much. After the visit to the concentration camp, the group had a chance to visit Oskar Schindler’s Factory Museum, which primarily focused on the city of Krakow. This museum brought to light some truth behind the Polish innocence in the war and participation.

            Throughout the course of the semester, this class has studied participation in the war and passive action that benefited the Nazi regime. Poland was occupied  quickly by the Nazis and unfortunately left many endangered citizens unprotected. The Schindler Museum discusses the conflict that the Poles faced with protecting the Jews or protecting themselves. Many Poles did not stand up in defense of the Jews because their resistance threatened them and their families; they adopted a “better them than me” strategy.  Even those inclined to help sometimes faced this choice. In one case, a Krakow  woman had housed a Jewish man for some time until  “our cleaner threatened to expose us to the police. By morning I asked him to leave the house not caring where else he went.”

            Because they chose to protect themselves over the Jewish population, Poles can be held accountable for aiding in the Nazi work. In our studies we read a book discussing the mass murder of a Jewish population in the Polish town of Jedwabne by their own Polish neighbors. The Poles acted in fear of being the next victims of the Nazi regime. Families turned on each other and so did neighbors. Although there were several Poles who were participating in a resistance and helping the Jews, one cannot disregard those who participated in Nazi actions just to preserve themselves at the cost of others.

Caught in the Middle

In preparation for our trip to Europe, we learned about the bombing campaigns the Allies conducted during the war. These included the bombing of railways in France in the weeks before and after the Normandy invasion. These attacks killed thousands of French civilians and destroyed many towns, including Caen. We visited the Caen Memorial Museum, and I was surprised to find little mention of this destruction or the pain it caused the people of Caen. This is even more surprising because one of the main intentions of the museum is to “pay a tribute to the martyred city of the liberation.” The suffering of thousands of French citizens was seemingly overlooked in this museum that was supposed to be dedicated to their memory. The Battle of Normandy Museum in Bayeux did a better job of capturing the civilian suffering, with multiple captions dedicated to the plight of the people of Normandy. Much of the region was caught in the middle of fighting, and many French civilians suffered in the “Battle of the Hedgerows,” which is acknowledged in the museum. Yet, if these two museums represent the national sentiment, overall, the French seem prepared to overlook the loss of life caused by Allied bombs in the belief that those bombs helped bring about a quicker end to the war. If that is the argument, then it is a questionable one. Strategic bombing proved ineffective in attaining its military goals, and its inaccuracy caused the death of thousands of civilians, which should not have resulted from the actions of their liberators.

Captions in the Battle of Normandy Museum in Bayeux describing the civilian suffering in Caen and Normandy.


Interpreting Poland’s Innocence

            Prior to our European travels, our class spent significant time on Poland’s claim of national innocence concerning the Holocaust and violence against Jewish people during World War II. Poland has dealt with two brutal occupiers throughout much of the past century, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, and, perhaps understandably, prefers to pin immoral actions on the occupiers. However, Poland also has a history of violent antisemitism, a history which reached an apex in World War II.  In the Jedwabne massacre described in Jan T. Gross’ Neighbors, and similar pogroms throughout the war, Nazi Germany’s presence allowed centuries of ethnic tensions to be acted upon, against Polish Jews. During this massacre, hundreds of Jewish Poles were humiliated, tortured, and

Pictured: victims of the Holocaust at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

eventually murdered by their own neighbors. Though the massacre was carried out with the basic support of German occupiers, the most egregious offenders were Polish Christians. Pogroms in other areas of Poland were similar to the Jedwabne pogrom, with the worst occurring just after the war in the city of Kielce, about 70 miles from Kraków (Gross 21) (Apple Maps). As pogroms occurred in many regions of Poland, interreligious tensions and violence were not limited to a specific area. Despite this, in the sites that we visited in and around Kraków, I was unable to find many, if any, references to Polish cooperation with Nazi Germany or Polish inter-religious tensions.


            The museums and sites that our group visited in Poland, Auschwitz-Birkenau and the Kraków Museum, were not places that I expected to find many displays that highlighted Polish cooperation with Germany. At Auschwitz, I found the exhibits entirely focused upon the terrible reality and sheer loss of life caused by Nazi Germany’s genocidal policies. Nazi Germany brought its hateful beliefs to thethe nations it occupied, but, in these occupied nations, ethnic tensions were already present that could be utilized by the occupier. At the Kraków Museum, I expected more information to be conveyed that acknowledged pre-war and wartime ethnic tensions because I had previously read similar acknowledgements by other European nations. Given Jedwabne is far from Kraków, and the museum focuses upon local history, I did not expect the specific pogrom to be covered, but I expected examples of Polish cooperation or ethnic tensions to be highlighted. Concerning Jewish treatment under occupation, the Kraków Museum highlights the experience of their Jewish residents, before and after being forced into ghettos, and the help that Poles provided to them. I feel that the museum did not put similar effort into highlighting the role that Polish people had in seizing Jewish assets or careers, even though it was a reality. Poland’s failure to significantly acknowledge collaboration with Nazi Germany in this respect, specifically carrying out aspects of Germany’s ethnic policies, is similar to France’s depiction of its collaboration. As France downplays the role of its collaboration with Germany, effectively blaming the worst collaboration on a small group of Vichy leaders, Poland downplays or ignores its collaboration with Germany.

Pictured: The Kraków Museum prefers to highlight examples of Polish Resistance instead of Polish Cooperation


A Jew at Auschwitz Birkenau: Past Tragedy and Modern Victory

The day I spent at the former Auschwitz extermination camp in Poland was an emotional experience that began even before the group’s bus arrived at the site. As a lifelong Jew and recent student of WII, I knew that the tour would be harrowing but had no way to truly prepare for the four-hour visit. Staring outside the bus window at the massive forests leading up the complex, all I could think about was the experience of my fellow Jews, who went to the camp under very different conditions eighty years ago. Unlike them, I had a choice. They were forcibly crammed into a tight train car with hundreds of other people for days; I was scrolling on my phone and sipping on clean water comfortably reclined in the upholstered seat. 

This deep contrast colored the entire experience. The tour guide brought us through the barracks, sleeping quarters, and holding cells while reiterating the litany of Nazi atrocities committed on the ground where we stood. While I gained a holistic view of the main camp, many victims only saw a few of those buildings for their entire dismal stay before perishing from disease, infection, starvation, or direct violence. Most of the Jewish victims only saw one structure: a gas chamber. As I walked through one, I pictured myself stripped down and bald: a Holocaust victim being ushered to their death. Tears rushed down my face, and I glared up toward the holes where Nazis dropped Zyklon B (the poisonous gas used in the chambers) on the unsuspecting victims. Then, in bittersweet victory, I left the room. Unlike any Jew 80 years ago, my feet carried me through an open door, and I took a breath of fresh air. I silently thanked God for the first time in years. Six million died, but I was still standing happy, healthy, and very much alive. The now long-gone Nazi Reich systemically exterminated a third of the Jewish population, yet my Jewish friends, my Jewish family, and my Jewish self are still here. 

Pain in Poland: A Comrade’s Journey Through Hell – A Historian’s Blog

At an early age I read Night by Elie Wiesel and the graphic novel Maus. I watched Schindler’s List and The Pianist, and I am blessed to say I have visited Yad Vashem, the world’s premiere Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, a handful of times. Yet, no part of my past truly prepared me to step foot on Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Third Reich’s most deadly killing complex that operated from 1940-45. While I am incredibly grateful for my previous education on the death camps and the terror of the Nazis, no class I have taken nor survivor I have met invoked the same emotions I felt on May 17th as I moved through Auschwitz. As I write this, I feel like I have no more tears left in my body, and my sleeves are blotted with snot from wiping my face dry. I shivered as I walked underneath the infamous arch at Auschwitz’s entrance reading “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Will Set You Free), and I felt somewhat weak as I moved through courtyards, barracks, gas chambers, and crematoriums. I broke down at the sight of mountains of hair and shoes once belonging to prisoners, with some locks still being braided or curled, further proving the fragility of life and the unthinkable realities that awaited men, women, and children.

There is no doubt in my mind that these grounds stand alone as the source on the Holocaust and attempted extermination of the Jewish people. Sitting at a desk or behind a screen did not allow me to grasp the importance of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The truths of it are, frankly, unbelievable and incomprehensible. The train tracks leading into Birkenau’s extermination camp were significantly longer than any picture has expressed, and the cold, rainy day accentuated the camp’s brutality better than any source I had seen before. Rarely have I felt so strongly about being in the exact location where an event occurred, and I think it’s because of how different being at Auschwitz was from classroom materials, regardless of their accuracy as primary resources.

I have touched the Western Wall and explored the Temple Mount, and recently I have seen some of the most magnificent cathedrals known to mankind. But I can confidently say that today I walked upon the most sacred land I know – one that filled me with fear, anguish, and horror, and yet also an incredible sense of pride to be a Jew. Auschwitz-Birkenau, amongst other death and concentration camps, functioned with the idea that I – a 21-year-old Jew in the year 2023 – would not exist. And I have just walked the exact lands where these ideals ran amuck and almost became a reality. This context shook my perspective of misfortune, leading me to believe I live an unbelievably blessed and beautiful life. If this entire excursion through Europe is not representative enough of this concept, I’m not sure what is.

Threatened by Invasion Again

When considering this study abroad trip, I had concerns about visiting Poland with Russia’s war against Ukraine happening right next door. I worried about my safety, and I envisioned a tense atmosphere in Poland that would reflect my worries. However, this was far from the atmosphere that I experienced in Krakow. Most Poles continue about their normal daily lives — workers tend their shops, people eat at restaurants, and young people go out to bars late into the night. No shortages were apparent. The tourism business thrives despite the war a border away. Some Ukrainian flags adorn the outside of businesses, but, as with the Ukrainian flags hanging in the United States, I wondered if these shows of support corresponded to real contributions to Ukraine’s aid. While I didn’t get to observe it myself, singers did perform one night to collect aid for Ukraine. However, I was surprised there weren’t more demonstrations specifically against Russian aggression, especially considering Poland’s own history of being occupied by Eastern aggressors.

During our tour of the Krakow Museum in Schindler’s Factory, I reflected on the parallels between Poland’s current situation and the time just before the German invasion in 1939. Our Polish tour guide explained to us how Poles spent the summer of 1939 enjoying life rather than preparing for a war. While looking at the photos of Poles dancing and having picnics, I was reminded of Krakow today, where Poles continue about their daily lives seemingly uninterrupted. I hope that their lives remain uninterrupted by war.

Our tour guide also called the Slavic nations “last minute masters.” By this, she meant that the Poles can mobilize quickly to counter any threat. However, I don’t think “masters” is the right word here, because it implies that the Poles succeed in repelling their enemies without prior planning. The Poles were swiftly overrun by the Germans in 1939, so hearing the tour guide speak proudly about their “last minuteness” caught me off guard. I realize there are dangers in drawing conclusions about an entire nation from one city or one tour guide, but the Poles do not seem to have taken their defeat in 1939 as a lesson in the importance of preparation.

Seeing History Firsthand

Seeing History Firsthand

A Historian’s Blog of Poland

Meg Brosneck

Two brick buildings surrounded by grass. On the right side of the photo is a rocky and muddy path, and towards the bottom it connects to another path made of wooden planks.

Barracks at Auschwitz II-Birkenau

Poland is a beautiful country to visit, but its beauty was not the reason for our visit. The main reason belonged to one of the most horrific places in history: Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Three wooden bunks stacked on top of each other. The wooden planks making up the “mattresses” are cracked and old, and the walls are made of decaying brick. There is a window in the back.

Bunks in the barracks

Though the story of Auschwitz is well-known in history classes, the true scope of its horror cannot be understood without visiting the location itself. Some of the buildings were transformed into museum exhibits. Most of these are on the main camp, and they were the first places we visited. While they included some important photos and explanations, the most important exhibits came from the Holocaust victims’ personal belongings. Entire rooms are dedicated to displaying the pots and pans, shoes, or suitcases a fraction of the victims had brought with them. They are all that remains of entire families. The Nazis collected everything the Jews had to sell or distribute after they murdered them. While the physical items were horrible to look at, nothing came close to the room filled with several tons of human hair. The Nazis shaved their victims heads and sold their hair as a product, and Auschwitz still has some of it behind glass cages. No pictures were allowed.

A largely empty, concrete and brick courtyard between two buildings. There is a wall at the far end with flowers in front of it as a memorial to the prisoners the Nazis executed there.

The Death Wall

We continued through the rest of the camps and walked along the muddy roads where over a million people suffered and died. This explained more than any textbook ever could. We saw the buildings the Nazis forced the victims to build and then sleep in, four to seven people crammed into each tiny, cold, muddy, wooden space. We walked through the courtyard in which they executed countless people. Most of the buildings were well preserved, and our tour guide was marvelous in his explanations of what happened at each facility. Downstairs, in the basement of the infamous Block 11, we saw the standing prison cells the Nazis would cram four people inside all night. There were no pictures allowed and we were rushed through the sites, but that location impacted me more than any others. You can read all of the books you want, view all the images in existence, but until you stand in front of the torture chambers yourself, it will not sink in. This is why preservation of these sites is so important; they are physical proof of what happened and irreplaceable sources for historians and the public alike. 

Pointe du Hoc: A Reflective Perspective of Nature and Destruction

By Cecelia Minard

Pointe du Hoc is a coastal World War II site in Normandy, France known for its series of German bunkers and machine gun posts, which were captured by US troops on D-Day after scaling the steep cliffs. This site had a more profound impact on me than anywhere I visited in France. Covered in craters from Allied bombs, Pointe du Hoc struck me with emotions that I at first could not understand. I felt a deep serenity but also an existential insignificance that was simultaneously comforting and terrifying. I branched off from the group to sit alone, hoping to understand what I was feeling. Looking around at dozens of bomb craters, the decrepit German bunker, and the cliff the US troops scaled, I found myself overwhelmed by the contrast of nature and this memorialization of destruction. Grass and wildflowers have filled the craters since the invasion, making them appear almost natural; the interior walls of the bunker have grown over with lichen and moss, making them an earthy green color.

Reflecting on the destruction of the past as I looked around in the present, I felt the lasting power of nature in comparison to human insignificance. Man may have brought destruction to this beautiful seaside site a few decades ago, but what does that destruction mean to the earth? The earth continued to grow and reclaim, almost as if we do not exist. Pointe du Hoc provided me the tranquility to see what happens in the wake of destruction.

That serenity came to me in this thought process: nature will come back and reclaim the earth. There is the possibility that humans will cause our own extinction, but there is comfort in the fact that the earth will continuously foster life. As important as we believe ourselves to be, we are an ephemeral blip on this planet. 

However, that does not mean that nothing in the present should matter to us at all or that humans should only ever serve their own interests. This is clearly untrue; humans are complex and caring organisms. There is a tension between the meaninglessness of our lives and those very lives being the only thing that has any meaning to us at all. While Pointe du Hoc made me think about the impermanence of human suffering, I recognize the importance of human events to those who experienced them and the lasting impact of

 them for future generations, even though the earth will erase our suffering with time.

Through my studies of the Second World War, I better understand the extent of man’s capacity for destruction and cruelty, while also recognizing its insignificance. Visiting Point du Hoc brought me comfort in recognizing our own futility as well as the power of nature.

Bitter Lessons of the Past: The Importance of Historical Memory in Poland

Bitter Lessons of the Past: The Importance of Historical Memory in Poland

Contemporary Blog

Erik Ehrenfeld

     Poland was a country of incessant memory. The monumental events that occurred there have left a deep mark on the Polish people, both those who lived through them and those who came after. Even in discussions of current events, allusions to the past were bound to come up. Most of these narratives portrayed the nation as a courageous yet tragic victim that reflected a desire to never let the slaughter of the past happen again.

     The Polish self-perception of victimhood is not surprising. Poland’s eastern and western neighbors have partitioned, occupied, and brutalized the country for centuries.

Despite this long history of foreign conquest, the Polish museums demonstrated that the country often fought until resistance became futile. Even in defeat, therefore, the Polish people were proud of their fight.

These patriotic feelings and actions continued during Poland’s World War II and Cold War occupations. During a tour of the Oskar Schindler Museum in Krakow, our tour guide told me that her father privately, and illegally, told her the true story of the 1940 Katyn Massacre—when the Soviets killed 22,000 Polish prisoners of war—when she was a schoolgirl despite the communist authorities’ false assertion that the Germans committed the crime. In this manner, history itself became a form of resistance.

     These memories provided the Polish people with a unique perspective on the current war in Ukraine. Throughout the visit, Polish, Ukrainian, and European Union flags adorned many public and private buildings and monuments.

These sights communicated a desire both to resist foreign aggression and, as opposed to the dual Soviet-German invasion in 1939, to do so with the help of allies. Finally, again at the Schindler Museum, our guide stated that the 2022 invasion did not surprise most Polish people, which suggested a lingering animosity towards Russia based on historical experiences. The past, therefore, remained at the forefront of most Polish people’s minds.