Bayeux: Remembering Liberation 80 Years Later

Sitting outside a café, I find myself on the quiet streets of Bayeux, France. The small town, nestled in the Calvados region of France, is a centerpiece in the reembrace of the liberation of France during the first days of liberation after D-Day. The town hosts a population of about 12,000 individuals; however, it feels much larger with the constant flow of tourists in the city. Outside the quiet town, cows and sheep call the sprawling fields of the region home. Minutes outside of the town center, rows of simple white marked and unmarked graves lie outside the city of Axis, Allied, and civilians who fell during the liberation efforts of France. On 14 June 1944, a tall and lanky General Charles De Gaulle strode amongst the incoming parades of liberated Bayeux mere days after the Normandy landings. Sitting in the café, complex imaging filled my thoughts of the narrow and war-torn streets of Bayeux bustling with parades, civilians, army personnel, and tanks upon the arrival of the Allies after liberation.

The British Memorial of fallen soldiers in the Normandy invasions within 5 minutes of the town center.

Today, the rural town of Bayeux still bears the scars and remembrance of WWII. Buildings show the marks of tanks that once traveled the narrow streets. I find myself seeing the town marked by the harsh remembrance of the cost of the landings, yet a celebratory atmosphere envelops the city, especially leading up to June. Leading up to the annual celebrations, the normal population explodes as history enthusiasts and veterans alike return to the historic town to remember the fateful liberation. The remembrance of the war showcases the binary of French memory, a constant battle between commemorating collaboration and resistance.

A drawing on a local shop that depicts the 4 major forces that participated in the D-Day landings in Normandy. The French flag was utilized in this art, but solidiers bore the French Resistance Flags during the landings. The crest of Normandie can be seen at the top of the building with the two lions.

This year marks the 80th anniversary of D-Day. While D-Day celebrations and subsequent liberation festivities occur yearly, this year’s atmosphere is uniquely special. During my stay, the town has transformed into an “Allied melting pot,” welcoming tourists from Allied nations who come to commemorate the world-changing event. I would not have expected such a melting pot of languages and cultures in the Calvados region. The intersection of a mass of cultures was scheduled for major cities but not the rural area of Calvados. As an American, I feel welcomed in this small town as American, British, Canadian, and French flags fly through the city. These countries are most well-known in the D-Day landings, but remembrance often forgets the efforts of other countries in the landings, such as Belgium and Luxemburg. While these countries did not play significant roles in the landings, the French remembered their efforts by paying homage to their contributions by flying their flags throughout the city alongside other countries’ collaborations. Throughout the city, locals and tourists dine and shop in areas that proudly display the flags and depictions of Allies in celebratory spaces. Commissioned drawings of depictions of Allied soldiers and civilians during liberation celebrations. This ranges from Much controversy surrounds the French remembrance of their part in WWII. However, the town of Bayeux surpasses all these notions by celebrating the liberation of Normandy as a momentous achievement, which remains a sacred celebration even 80 years later. Bayeux’s civilians continue to welcome the landings’ veterans with the same celebratory spirit as they did on 14 June 1944.

 

A picture outside a local bar that depicts the French, American, and British flags. The celebratory American soldier hoists a beer. The notorious Higgins boats are on the right side, with Allied paratroopers incoming.

Diners outside a local restaurant that commemorates the countries who participated in the Liberation of Normandy

Remembering Catastrophe

Before arriving in Poland, we visited sites where most of World War II’s heroic stories unfolded.  In London, the Blitz was devastating. Nonetheless, the allies were victorious, and England’s national identity remained after the war. In France, we visited Normandy and walked the same beaches as those who liberated France. In Western Europe, we saw examples of resilience, perseverance, and triumph over evil. In Krakow, however, the sites and museums did not bear the usual Western European happy ending.

About one-third of Krakow’s pre-World War II population was Jewish. They were intellectuals, doctors, lawyers, and most importantly, people.  Jewish people in Krakow were Polish citizens and were incorporated into life throughout the city just like other citizens. The Nazis quickly occupied Poland and all of this changed. The Nazis treated Jewish people as less than human and made every effort to break the Jewish population. 70,000 Jewish people were relocated to a ghetto with space for 17,000 people; rations were less than three-hundred calories per day; and Nazi terrorized the community as part of their mission to gain living space.  Eventually, Krakow’s Jewish population was nearly exterminated. Outside of Krakow, we visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, one of the largest and most brutal Nazi death camps. Over one million Jews and even Polish citizens were sent here, and most of them never left. These atrocities were unfathomable to me, especially considering that they happened in a modern society.

Amidst my shock and attempts to understand how Nazis created a system that murdered millions of Jews, political prisoners, gypsies, homosexuals, and other outcasts, I realized how important it is to study these catastrophes and visit sites where they took place. Visiting Auschwitz was hard. Gaining a sense of how many lives weren’t lived was even more challenging. The system responsible for nearly seven million Jewish people’s murder was created through a series of societal changes and motivated by hatred in an attempt to portray someone else as the enemy. Visiting these sites is gut wrenching, but if we don’t take time to pay respect to those who were victims of Nazi Germany or attempt to understand why these atrocities happened, we risk accepting a similar fate in the future.

“When we were singing, we forgot the fear”

Music is something that captures feelings when words fall short. Traditionally, music can be everything from uplifting to devastating. When considering music through the WWII lens, the Nazi party used music to control others. However, the Jews used music as a way of staying strong, keeping up the fight for their freedom, and surviving the holocaust. During the war, music had two main objectives; control and staying alive. 

While we were on our tour in Poland, we visited the concentration and death camps of   Auschwitz and Auschwitz II Birkenau. While we were there, our guide mentioned that the Nazis forced musician prisoners to play classical music while prisoners were marching to and from work. The prison guards marched them in orderly fashion to control the prisoners as they were counted on their way out to work. Though this was easy in the morning and quite effective for organized marching, it was a much more disorderly and painful job in the evening. As men and women returned from their long days of work, exhausted and starving, the band would play. Each prisoner would stand at attention and be counted over and over. Often, those who were weak would ultimately collapse and be taken away to be killed. This position in the camp had a high turnover rate because these musician prisoners were not released from their usual work duties and due to the nature of this position, there was a high suicide rate. Forcing musicians to share their art in a sadistic manner was both degrading and traumatic. This is yet another example of the Nazi party using art as a form of control. [Auschwitz additional band information courtesy of: http://holocaustmusic.ort.org/places/camps/death-camps/auschwitz/] 

Wall of survivors’ quotes in the Schindler Museum in Krakow, Poland

On the other hand, Jews also used music to keep morale up during the ghettos, deportations, and camps. At the end of our tour in the Schindler Museum, there was a room with quotes from Holocaust survivors about their experiences. The room was circular and bright, with calm music playing in the background to make visitors stop and read all the quotations. One quote that stuck out to me was, “we were terrified. All of a sudden he began to sing. We all joined him after a while. When we were singing, we forgot the fear”. Just as the music was used as a tool by the Nazi regime, the Jews were using music to achieve solidarity and unite as a people 

Using music as a tool is seen around our modern world. In the days of slavery in the United Statesslaves used black spirituals to send messages. Lyrics were modified to keep fellow slaves out of danger and possibly find freedom. more recent example would be the French people who gathered in front of Notre Dame as it burned. They collectively sang a French tune and remained together to mourn. [Watch here:  https://youtu.be/L0zpkFlJ95I ] Music will always be a tool used to feel deeper and understand further. Whether music is used for good or evil, it is a powerful way to control a narrative. 

Seeing My Name at Auschwitz

I saw this photograph of a victim at Auschwitz, named Helen Dudek.

On of the most sobering experiences I have had in my life was seeing my last name at Auschwitz. I knew my family was from Poland during World War Two, and I knew that I had family in the concentration camps, but I never fully comprehended what this meant. Seeing the last name “Dudek,” under a picture of a Polish woman, forced the reality of the holocaust to set in. Seeing Auschwitz was an experience that I cannot describe with words, but I will carry the feeling with me forever.

My absolute favorite city we have visited thus far is Krakow, Poland. From the moment we got off the coach  and I saw the city, I immediately understood why Krakow is considered the cultural capital of Poland! I loved being able to walk down the street and find random street art graffitied on the walls or stumbling into markets every few blocks. Also, the locals were extremely friendly and helpful. At every shop, I was greeted with a friendly smile. My favorite experience was when I bought hand-made Polish pottery to ship home, and when the owner saw my last name, he said, “Oh! I didn’t know you were Polish yourself!” This experience, like many others, made me feel very welcomed. Also, it was very noticeable that Krakow has a lot of colleges in the town. The locals were very close to college aged, and the city had a very “young people” vibe. The age and cultural feel of Krakow spoke to the “rebuilding” character of Poland since after World War Two. Everything in Krakow looked old, but the people and vibes of the city were young and new. Poland is an old country, but they have been rebuilding and re-growing since after the end of The War.

One specific thing I noticed about Krakow was that about 25% of locals I met in the mall and in shops did not speak English. I tried asking a worker a question in the Oskar Schindler museum, and she did not speak English. Neither did the cashier in a pierogi place I visited. This was interesting and surprising, because everyone I spoke to in other countries spoke English. I am not sure why this is. I plan on asking my Polish Grandfather when I get home to see if he has an explanation. It was tricky, but I loved trying out my minimal Polish language skills I learned from my grandfather those three days! Another note I made during our stay was the abundance of Catholicism in Krakow. I know Poland has always been a Catholic country, but I loved being able to see all the old Catholic churches and memorials throughout the town. On our free day in Krakow, I was able to visit St. Mary’s Basilica, St. Andrews, and the Wawel Cathedral. These three churches were all so beautiful, and I felt very connected to my faith while visiting them.

How Charles De Gaulle Alone Won Back France

Throughout the past semester and in my high school history classes, I have always been taught that after the French surrendered in World War Two, the secret “Free French” did not do much of anything to help the Allies win the war. Visiting France, I saw a completely different narrative. Each museum we visited in Normandy discussed in detail the contributions of Free France, led by Charles De Gaulle. France spared no time or detail in discussing the contribution of the Free French, especially in the Memorial Museum of the Battle of Normandy. A big focus was on De Gaulle’s BBC radio speech in 1940 while he was in hiding in England, where he called for the rallying of Free France after the country fell to Germany. In class, we discussed that while this was an important speech for morale, the number of people in the French resistance was small and unimpactful. A whole panel on French liberation and D-Day gave most credit to the persistence of Charles De Gaulle and his leadership of the Free French.

I also found it interesting to note the differences between the British and French museums. A big focus of the British perspective of World War Two was a focus on the “People’s War.” Credit was given to “The People.” In France, credit was given to De Gaulle. These museum sites really helped me understand that each country of the war had some freedom to write their own narrative after the war ended. The French chose to focus first on their leader, as seen through the museums I visited in France, and second on the country’s people. Frances near obsession with crediting De Gaulle for their taking back of their country seems like a compensatory coping mechanism to lessen the embarrassment of needing so much help winning back the country.

One of the many posters praising Charles De Gaulle and his war efforts during WWII.

A bust of Charles De Gaulle.

Searching for Stolen Art

By Matthew Bonner

We arrived in Krakow, Poland on May 21st, greeted by a thunderstorm and the smell of fresh perogies. My personal mission in Krakow was to explore how museums and neighborhoods feature Polish artwork, as the country has had a turbulent history with its cultural treasures. Over the course of the Spring semester, I researched Nazi art looting during the Second World War, touching on the story of art from preparation to restitution. While researching I focused mainly on France, but Poland’s experience specifically captivated me. According to the Nazis, most Polish and other Slavic artwork was deemed “degenerate artwork” – meaning it did not align with Nazi ideology or was made by Jewish people, immigrants, or other enemies of the Third Reich. In Poland the Nazis waged a violent war against Polish culture by targeting monuments and artwork. Additionally, as Poland was the site of a majority of Europe’s Jewish population before World War II, the Nazis attempted to eradicate both the Jewish community and its cultural artifacts. However, the Poles also possessed a multitude of artwork from all over Europe, as Krakow had long been the capital of Poland, that the Nazis systematically targeted, confiscated, and shipped back to Nazi Germany.

The two Polish masterpieces I had the opportunity to visit were among those not targeted for Nazi destruction, but instead were looted from the country by Nazis for Hitler’s proposed Führermuseum. The Veit Stoss altarpiece is a massive wooden altar that took 12 years to create in 1477 and stands in the heart of St. Mary’s Basilica in Krakow’s Main Market Square. Before the war, Poland attempted to protect the cultural treasure from looting by dismantling the altar and shipping it to the countryside. However, Hitler tracked down the altarpiece and shipped it to Germany, due to its creator’s German origin. Additionally, I had the pleasure of viewing Da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine, one of three surviving oil paintings by the master painter. Older than the Mona Lisa, the portrait is a depiction of Cecilia Gallerani, the mistress of Leonardo’s employer Ludovico Sforza, holding an emblematic ermine. Before the war, the painting was also shipping to the outskirts of Poland for protection, but was seized in 1939 by Nazis and sent to Berlin. In 1945 the painting was restored to Poland.

The Veit Stoss altarpiece, located behind the High altar of St. Mary’s Basilica.

Looking at these pieces of artwork in real life was a surreal experience after reading about their tumultuous stories the past semester. The art fell into many people’s hands and was hunted down for years to finally end up in their current buildings for visitors’ viewing pleasures. Though some pieces such as these two made it out of the war intact, the same cannot be said of other Polish artwork and cultural sites. Specifically, Rembrandt’s Portrait of A Young Man was lost in the war and could have been destroyed. In the Czartoryski Museum there is a blank wall stating that the art piece was lost during the Second World War, possibly destroyed or still owned illegally. The wall and empty picture frame symbolize the thousands of other sculptures and paintings lost or destroyed by the Nazis.

Matthew Bonner with a copy of “Lady with an Ermine”, at the special exhibit in the Main Krakow Museum.

Additionally, when traveling through the streets of Kazimierz, the Jewish Quarter of Krakow, I visited the Old Jewish Cemetery. The cemetery was used to bury members of the Jewish community from 1552 to 1800 and is considered one of the most important Jewish cemeteries in Europe. During the war, the Nazis took a place of reflection and prayer and desecrated the graves. Now, the shattered gravestones form a mosaic wall surrounding the cemetery and the adjoining synagogue serves as one of the only practicing Jewish religious sites in Krakow.

Old Jewish Memorial wall featuring gravestones broken during Nazi occupation and persecution.

After visiting the artworks and sites in Krakow, it is obvious that Poland is still attempting to reclaim and restore its great cultural treasures. The Nazis waged a war of destruction against the Polish people, with the goal of eradicating an entire culture, people, and memory. Though it is shocking that only around 200 Jewish people in remain in Krakow, what was once a vibrant Jewish community and cultural hub of as many as 68,000, Krakow is rebounding to its former glory. Street art is rampant throughout the city, new exhibitions are featured in museums, and the Old Jewish Cemetery was filled with Jewish community members praying. Although the arduous work of restoring Polish artwork to its original owners and rebuilding damaged sites is ever evolving, that which remains is celebrated and showcased. This is both a testament to the Polish people and evidence that though the Nazis murdered millions, the legacy, culture, and memory of those lost will never be destroyed.

How Firm Thy Friendship

Driving through the countryside in Normandy, France, I was struck by the American flag’s omnipresence. Whether it be a corner creperie or a rustic homestead, the flag was invariably hung alongside a French flag for passersby to see. I was not sure whether this phenomenon represented an undying appreciation for the Allied liberation of Normandy nearly 75 years ago, or a pandering to the masses of American tourists who visit the city annually. However, an encounter with the mayor of St. Mere Eglise made me confident that gratitude for the Allied sacrifice in Normandy persists deeply among locals to this day.

 

Winding down the gravel roads, the WWII program bus eventually stopped in front of a tall, aging church. As we exited the bus we were met kindly by the mayor, who through translation welcomed us to the landmark. Inside the church Robert Wright, a 1934 Buckeye graduate had  set up an aid station during the war to save both Allied and German troops injured amid the battle of Normandy. As we walked between the pews, blood stains from the conflict 75 years ago remained unfaded. Pictures and excerpts dedicated to Wright’s service scattered the church walls, and a large gravestone dedicated in his name laid in the center of the cemetery outside. We planted a Buckeye flag next to the stone and stood in silence alongside the mayor to pay our respects. Afterward the mayor thanked us for visiting the site, stressing the importance of such visits to ensure contributions like Wright’s stay in memory. We soon left and waved adieu to our new friend and his family. Thanks to locals grateful for the sacrifices made in Normandy, stories like Wright’s live on, and the tragedies of the war, although devastating, feel less in vain.

How Bombs Brought Forth Art

View from the cliff face

Though we can read books about warfare, we will never know what it was like to be showered with bombs. Growing up in the early 21st century, I have lead a privileged life that has been safe in my own country. In history classes, a picture was painted of families fleeing to the London Tube tunnels during bombing and fearing to return to a pile of rubble that used to be their home. I could not begin to comprehend the sheer power that these bombs harnessed until I walked the grounds of Pointe du Hoc.

 

Example of a bomb crater at Pointe du Hoc

This site is the most striking thing we’ve visited on our journey thus far. Pointe du Hoc was the highest point between the American landings on Utah and Omaha beaches. Though the area had been fortified by the Germans, the United States Army Ranger Assault Group attacked and captured Pointe du Hoc by scaling the cliffs from the beach. The Rangers accomplished this by using borrowed ladders from the London Fire Brigade and grappling hooks while under fire. I finally saw the damage that was caused by bombs dropped by the allied forces during the pre invasion strikes. All around me were gouges in the ground, some 20-30 feet deep. To fully understand the impact, I walked into a crater and I almost felt like I was in another world.

 

The bottom of the crater was a new ecosystem, one that was magical and seemed almost safe. Among the yellow flowering bushes, vibrant green lichen, and chirping birds, I found a surprise. As the bombs ripped through this land, they created art and new life. The impact had ripped away the substantial concrete blocks, leaving the metal support spikes, or rebars, exposed. This created an organic, found art experience. These clumps of metal spikes reached up towards the opening of the crater in an almost snake-like manner and they seemed a logical part of the earth they were protruding from.

Metal spikes exposed after bombing

These spikes didn’t seem to be a result of a bomb impact, they seemed to be slithering out of the ground to rejoin and intertwine with the new plants growing. Seeing something that is usually man made become something that could interpreted as many organic forms was an inspiring moment.

 

Trying to comprehend the power of bombs is impossible until you’ve seen the damage and walked the path of destruction.

More rebar detail

Regardless of the sources that I’ve read for our spring class or for other history classes, I didn’t understand the reality. Beyond understanding the power of bombing, I never expected to find something so beautiful as a bi-product. The juxtaposition of the craters to the flower accented spike art was a true sight to behold. Art is always something that is unexpected and finding beauty in the midst of destruction was the most unexpected of all.  As an arts major, I find myself inspired by the organic art that I discovered at Pointe du Hoc and I plan to explore the idea of recreating this experience in an arts series.

 

Paying Homage in the Hall of Eagles

View of the alter from the balcony level

St. Clement Danes, the Church of the Royal Air Force (RAF), was established in 1958.  This church is a “hall of eagles,” honoring generations of men and women who have fought for the British Empire since the RAF’s creation 100 years ago.  The British historical memory of the sacrifices of these men and women is breathtaking.  This church embodies the national idea of the importance of their sacrifices. It has shown me, an “outsider” to the United Kingdom, the cultural significance of these men and women, and specifically, their impact in the “People’s War.”

In the Battle of Britain (1940), pilots and radar operators became the front line soldiers and the Supermarine Spitfire became a symbol of national pride against the bomber threat that affected so many.  Citizens worked in factories to make the aircraft, rationed materials to make them, and kept a close watch for downed airmen in their areas.  In the Summer of 1940, it would be hard to imagine that any man, woman, or child would not have their head turned skyward in observance of “the Few” as they flew in combat missions over their homeland.

Bomb damage on the rear side of the church

Bearing this in mind, it is easy to imagine that those who fought and died in this conflict, and others, have been memorialized at St. Clement Danes.  With the air war affecting the large majority of the population, this building is a fantastic way to pay homage to those who dedicated themselves day and night to the defense of Great Britain.  The building itself is a monument to the shared experience of thousands of Britons during the Second World War.  Walking up to it, one sees that the facade is peppered with bomb damage and that the stained-glass windows are no longer, both a result of London’s “Blitz.”  Outside the church is a statue of both Air Marshall Hugh Dowding, the commander of RAF Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain, and Marshal of the Air Force Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris, the commander of RAF Bomber Command.

Walking into the church, I was immediately struck by the symbolism and imagery everywhere I looked.  The floor at the opening to the church contains the RAF “eagle,” but also has a several miniature logos for different Commonwealth Air Forces:  Pakistan, India, Iraq, New Zealand, and Australia are all honored.  The floor is also adorned with slate carvings of the patches of every RAF unit that has ever been in service over its 100-year existence, with one section dedicated entirely to Polish squadrons who fought in the Second World War.  Elsewhere in the church are gilded sculptures of eagles and winged angels, an organ donated by the United States Air Force, monuments to specific units, and retired squadron flags.

 

The most remarkable part of the Church, however, are the “Books of Remembrance” that line its walls.  In these volumes are the names of more than 150,000 airmen who died in service of the RAF.  Their names are organized by date and mention any awards that they may have earned in their service.  Tucked in a back corner, however, was a sight very familiar to me: the crest of the United States Air Force.  Below it, illuminated prominently, was a book containing the names of all of the United States airmen who perished in the Second World War, and next to it, a portion of the Gettysburg Address.  Interestingly, The Ohio State University adopted a similar practice in the aftermath of World War One.  Through research into the efforts of Ohio State into the First World War, I found Ohio State’s own “Book of Remembrance:” a 500-page book that contained not only the name of every Ohio State “doughboy” that died in combat, but also when and how they died.  Rather than being displayed on a monument, these names are in a list that can be taken into a private home.  Like at Ohio State, the RAF Books of Remembrance are an incredible example of memorialization maintained by a smaller community for all the public to see.

The United States Air Force Book of Remembrance

In Search of the People’s War

By Matthew Bonner

I arrived in London on May 8th, immediately greeted by a refreshing English downpour and a warm fish and chips. Throughout our class discussions and readings over the Spring semester, we focused our analysis on piecing together the historical memories of England, France, Poland, and Germany regarding World War II. The British remember the war as a “people’s war,” where a mass mobilization of British society was required to fight in the total war. Under this national memory, the war impacted and was shaped by every British citizen, but is remembered as a unified effort of the whole British Empire.

As I wandered through the immense labyrinth of underground rooms that make up the Churchill War Rooms, I was searching for evidence of the “people’s war”. The underground bunker was a home to many British officers ranging from secretaries to intelligence officials who worked in top secret on planning the British war effort. One of the biggest contradictions I grappled with throughout the museum was how the war was a “people’s war” when the museum exhibits attribute so much of the success and focus of the British war effort to prime minister Winston Churchill. However, after exploring the exhibits and getting a sense of the greater British experience, it is clear that Churchill serves as a symbol for the “people’s war” interpretation. Churchill was a leader to rally behind during the war for millions of British citizens and “people”, inspiring officers, soldiers, and civilians in the mass mobilization needed for the war. For example, the museum’s Churchill exhibit traced Churchill’s life through his public speeches and private letters across his extensive career, and the emphasis on the will, strength, and unity of the English people needed during the war was evident.

A map room in Churchill’s War Rooms, where officials carefully mapped out troop movements and gathered intelligence to lead British and Allied war efforts.

As we made our day trip to Bletchley Park, the headquarters for the Allied decryption efforts, preconceived images came to mind of an expansive mansion where Oxford and Cambridge graduates worked together to piece together vital intelligence for the war. Instead, after touring the site, I was able to grasp the full extent of the multiple huts and buildings on the estate where thousands of men and women worked together in secret. The classified work at Bletchley was hidden from the worker’s families and even other members of the decryption efforts, as warning posters littered the various buildings ominously reading “The Walls Have Ears”. A majority of the thousands of workers at Bletchley were women, initially selected due to demonstrated skill and socioeconomic connections, and later expanding to additional women workers through assessments, such as logic tests in newspapers. Most of the men at the site were hand picked from Cambridge and Oxford. In fact, the Bletchley location is tied to these universities, as the site is equidistant between the two universities for ease of access and transportation. The “people’s war” memory exudes from the campus, as brilliant civilians sacrificed individual pride and worked tirelessly at various compartmentalized stations to decrypt German enigma messages and provide key intelligence to Allied forces regarding German troop movements, planned attacks, and intel on invasions such as D-Day. After the war, the Bletchley workers blended into the common historical memory of the “people’s war”, until 1970 when their work was declassified, and with it another chapter of the “people’s war” revealed and definition of “people” expanded.

One of the Bletchley Park huts, where men and women worked to provide valuable intelligence to the Allied war efforts – often for extreme working hours and in isolating conditions.

Ultimately, the “people’s war” historical memory interpretation inherently asks the question, who were the “people”? After touring the various sites in London and museums, such as the Imperial War Museum, it is obvious that the people included any and everyone, ranging from both women to men from London to the colonies. However, it is remarkable that the definition of “who” the “people” were expanded during the war to include group of peoples ranging from women to homosexuals, who were discriminated against, persecuted, and held in second and third class status in peacetime society. Furthermore, as England and the world remember the immense sacrifices and contributions made by the “people” during the war, these key members of the war effort are often left out of the historical memory. The gap between those who served and those remembered is closing, however it is important to understand the full extent of the “people” that served in England’s “people’s war” when considering the war’s legacy and impact.

Spray Paint and Air Raids

Just a few blocks from downtown London the street signs read in both English and Bengali. Historically, it is an immigrant community. One building, originally a Protestant church built by French Huguenots in the 1700s, has also been used as both a synagogue and a mosque (The Brick Lane Mosque). The streets themselves are narrow and littered with garbage, and the sidewalks are in disrepair. While the buildings are newer, they are a dim juxtaposition to the rest of London’s prim apartment buildings. Despite this decay, the area is famous for its street art, which is the illegal use of paint on the outside of buildings. While much of the art is incredibly skillful, it is symbolic of weak local rule of law in Whitechapel. Some artists choose to remain anonymous, but each has their own distinct style. The subjects range from pop culture to political commentary to original artistic inspiration. Pieces last anywhere from a few weeks to several years.

A street portrait of an ordinary local community worker, portrayed as powerful and unique.

This art attracts tourists from all over the world, but the East End also has unique significance in WWII history. This area bore the brunt of the Blitz and endured near-total destruction because of German raids. However, White Chapel has no infrastructural memory for WWII. In fact, this largely Bengali community is undergoing a struggle against gentrification and displacement. It was once an affordable place for immigrant families to start businesses and save enough to eventually move to the suburbs. However, it is slowly being taken over by hip and trendy coffee shops, boutiques, and other outside businesses. Not only is the cost of living on the rise, but the unique blend of culture is being chipped away by commercial business. Companies like Adidas and Gucci now own walls in the area and have created advertisements that mimic the style of street art. The local opposition to this commercialization is apparent: “tourists go home” is written on a nearby wall.

Local commentary on the gentrification of the neighborhood.

London’s wartime experience is often conveyed as the “People’s War”—the idea that the common man, woman, and child came together to achieve victory both at home and abroad. Perhaps in the 1940s WWII was the “People’s War,” but its modern-day legacy only belongs to some.  Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Parliament Square, the National Portrait Gallery, Hyde Park, the Victoria and Albert Museum. World War II memorials are as easy to find in London as tourist attractions and are often incorporated into sidewalks and walls. Westminster Abbey, an active site of worship, houses memorials to the Women’s Voluntary Service, to British and French soldiers, and even contained a U.S. Congressional Medal of Honor. Wartime legacy is casually featured in infrastructure all over the city—a city that withstood the German Blitz for several months. Hidden in posh and historical buildings are memorials, royal decrees, and commissioned works of art that commemorate the valor and loss of World War II. Generally, London and the West End of London are clean and trendy, yet still possess enough historical significance to maintain a powerful tourism industry.

An homage to the Jewish restaurant that used to operate in the building.

There are many possible reasons why the residents of the East End have never benefited from WWII tourism, unlike the city of London and the West End. The residents of the East End are probably not of the same families that endured the Blitz in the 1940s, so perhaps they do not share that cultural history with the rest of London. Perhaps the city of White Chapel chose not to commemorate such a devastating event when rebuilding. Perhaps in British memory it is only significant that iconic sites—like Westminster Abbey—managed to survive the Blitz. While the Germans valued the East End as a wartime target due to the manufacturing and shipping centers in the area, Britain’s collective memory of WWII fails to dignify the area as a site worth remembering.

London Through a Comedian’s Newsreel

On my first night in London, I found myself entering an attic in Camden, The Camden Comedy Club, and laughed as a comedian made many jokes and struggled to participate as she referenced politics I didn’t understand. By entering a new nation one enters a knew political and social climate. Suddenly, jokes were centered around the Royal Wedding and Brexit rather than Donald Trump and the Mexican border. The Royal Wedding was a massive buzz everywhere from Trafalgar Square to Kensington. Brexit was whispered around with weighted connotations about future implications for the British people. And yet, what I found most interesting was that these buzz words fluttered across the City of London in a similar manner as any breaking news story would around New York City. It was dealt with in posters, with humor, and with a marked desire for commercial gain. The Royal Wedding is a national celebration of an old English tradition of monarchy as well as capitalism. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s faces were plastered all over shiny mugs and magnets ready to be sold at a kiosk anywhere and everywhere. And while Brexit has serious implications as heavy as any deal Donald Trump is currently pulling out of in the United States, the British people, in their classic British manner reminiscent of Hitler jokes during the Blitz, cope through laughter.

As I watched political history unfold and new skyscrapers rise in London, I could not help but notice a simple fact. The British are not yet over World War II. A few months ago I asked an Englishman named Christopher if I could use the name Chris, and his knee jerk response was “sure sure, anything but Adolf, right?”. It seems that thousands of air raids cannot so easily be forgotten. While I expected to experience World War II memorabilia during our time at the Churchill War Rooms or Bletchley Park, I was not expecting to experience it in everything I did during my free time. Our comedian began making jokes about Winston Churchill and his handling of Dunkirk within twenty minutes of her set. From this moment on I knew, the Second World War was still fresh in English memory. Everywhere from the Tate museum to St. Pauls’ cathedral, plaques were posted commemorating fallen soldiers, and art was on display to celebrate the British strength in World War II. It seems indisputable to assume that, whatever the current political and social climate in the United Kingdom may be, modern London is a direct product of Second World War sufferings and efforts. If a comedian can connect Churchill to a recounting of her failed blind date, then it can transcend into the functioning of modern society from Parliament down to the individual Englishman.

Strolling through Bayeux

Coming to Bayeux has been one of the most intriguing, thought provoking, and worthwhile trips I have taken. This sleepy, French town is packed with citizens and tourist alike during the day and by 9 pm there is barely a soul in sight. I’ve dined on more baguettes and pastries than I ever have before (especially since I haven’t eaten anything with gluten in it in almost 2 years). I’ve eaten and enjoyed escargot, duck, chicken liver in an apple/calvados based sauce, real strips of bacon on a salad (attention America: let’s get behind this idea, no more bacon bits!), and SO MANY CREPES. Aside from the tourists who are obviously visiting to see the nearby WWII sights and souvenir shops, there’s no major evidence that the town had once been occupied by German soldiers and was liberated soon after D-Day. A few short bus rides from the town told a different story, though. At Pointe du Hoc, bomb craters and the remains of bunkers were strewn throughout the cliff. Evidence of one of the toughest objectives of D-Day was all around us. Of about 250 Rangers who took Pointe du Hoc, only 90 were able to fight again in the war.

A German bunker that survived D-Day at Pointe du Hoc

A German bunker that survived D-Day at Pointe du Hoc

Taylor and I standing in a bomb crater at Pointe Du Hoc

Taylor and I standing in a bomb crater at Pointe Du Hoc

The bombings didn’t stop after D-Day. One common theme that came up throughout the museums and films we saw was the French civilian suffering of allied bombing during the liberation of France. I unintentionally sparked a debate on the portrayal of French suffering after watching the short film “100 Days of Normandy” that was shown in Arromanches. While I did disagree with some of the others on a few small points, I felt that the majority of our disagreement was actually a misunderstanding of my criticism – especially since I was still chewing over all of the information I had taken in over the last few days. Wandering the streets of Bayeux on my last night here gave me the opportunity to really think on all of the information I’ve learned here in Normandy.

The French experience during WWII was unique. In 1940, France fell to Germany and the German occupation of France began, not ending until the liberation by Allied forces beginning on D-Day, June 6, 1944. The first indication I saw of a difference in the WWII narrative was in the Caen Memorial Museum. There was an entire section of the museum dedicated to French life during occupation and liberation. In this section, one panel addressed the question of Allied bombing of the French countryside. Strategic bombing of the French towns and railways were crucial to securing the defeat of Germany and had been approved by the French Resistance leader, Charles de Gaulle. The panel, part of which I’ve shown here in this blog, really took me by surprise when I first read it. It is extremely critical of the Allies and their methods of securing freedom for France. The text following the question “Why bomb Normandy’s towns?” did not explain the reasons behind the bombings; rather it seemed to be a question posed to the U.S. itself.

Why bomb Normandy's towns?

This panel, located in the Caen Memorial Museum, criticized the use of and effectiveness of Allied strategic bombings on the French countryside.

This sort of language appeared repeatedly throughout the various museums, but in my opinion, it appeared most strongly in “100 Days of Normandy.” There were many sequences of shots depicting allied bombing, then showing French women and children. Towns were destroyed. The French people were suffering. The destruction depicted in the film inflicted by the Allies, not the Germans. The Germans were shown surrendering, but all shots of bombardment were from the Allies. In my interpretation of this film (because there can be more than one), I believe the director was once again asking the question: “Why bomb Normandy’s towns?” When I was asked my opinion of the film, I responded that it left a bad taste in my mouth, which received some backlash from nearly everyone else. I tried to explain (unfortunately with a poor choice of words) that I believed the film presented a skewed view of WWII. The best way to explain this belief, I think, is to look at the U.S. narrative of WWII.

In the U.S., we aren’t taught about the suffering and bombing of the French people. Before spring semester, I had been completely unaware of the magnitude of French civilian casualties of the war. I knew that there had been some strategic bombing, but I was never fully aware of the implications it had on civilian life and death. Even then, it is difficult to imagine through reading the damage that can be inflicted by bombings. It wasn’t until I was standing in a 71-year-old bomb crater that I even began to fathom the destruction that was inflicted on the French countryside. The American narrative in the European Theater only has one theme: liberation. We were always taught that the U.S. was essentially savior of the French and all other countries under German occupation. This narrative focuses on national pride and gives the American people cause to believe in our country’s leadership and aims. There’s so much more to WWII, though! By promoting national pride, we’ve completely ignored the suffering we caused.

Now, let’s look again at the French narrative. How can a country bounce back from falling to Germany in less than two weeks? From collaboration with the Nazi regime? From needing to be liberated? The focus on elements that will bring them together – national pride. All of the museums highlighted the role the French Resistance played in the success of D-Day operations and the liberation of France (to an extent that almost seemed to exaggerate its role). They memorialized the citizens they lost. The entire country came together to remember these people and to rebuild instead of focusing on the German occupation. By ignoring and trying to forget the occupation, the necessity of Allied bombing comes into question. Thousands of French civilians were killed by Allied bombing – not German bombs. There is no doubt in the American narrative that the bombing was necessary to end the war, but in France, the bombings are called in to question and the Allies are criticized.

With all of this said, I will still say that the film left a bad taste in my mouth. It’s the same taste that is left when I (now) read American history books that exclude the French perspective. My time in Normandy has allowed me to really contemplate the true issue: the fine line between promoting national pride and distorting complete historical picture. To me, both the U.S. and France have crossed that line and contributed to misconceptions about the war. I believe 100% that it is important to remember the French civilian casualties caused by the American bombings, but I also believe it is important to remember why the bombings were necessary and the contributions they made to the war effort in shortening the war and reducing overall casualties.  The experiences I’ve had here in Normandy have truly opened my eyes to a new facet of the war – one that I could never have even comprehended before coming here.

Running through London

Taken from the courtyard of the Cathedral

The view of St. Paul’s Cathedral from the courtyard  

As soon as I stepped off the plane in London, I could feel the change in the atmosphere. Everyone was in a hurry everywhere they went. Stand on the right if you’re not one of the people running up the escalator because stairs that do all of the work for you just aren’t fast enough. It was so easy to be swept up into the Londoner mentality – to rush and rush and rush. Over the course of five days I saw Trafalgar Square, St. Paul’s Cathedral (Three times. By the third time I saw it, I finally had the lay of the city), the Imperial War Museum, the HMS Belfast, Tower Bridge, Tower of London, Buckingham Palace, Hyde Park, St. James Park, the Globe Theater, Westminster Abbey, the cavalry guard, Big Ben, Parliament, the Churchill War Rooms, Bletchley Park, rode the London Eye, finally figured out the Tube, and walked (rather quickly) through miles and miles of London. I’m getting exhausted all over again just reading that list.

It was quite easy to get lost in the city – especially since the only cell service I had in the city was the occasional free wifi from Starbucks. I wanted to get lost, though. I wanted to get lost in the history of the city. Instead of rushing from tourist trap to tourist trap, I wanted to take in the city (which is hard to do while sprinting across the city). One of my favorite moments in London was laying in the grass, looking up at St. Paul’s Cathedral. This beautiful cathedral was rebuilt nearly 400 years ago and is the one that stands today, but the original cathedral was built in 7th century. I was absolutely in awe of the history at which I was looking. St. Paul’s Cathedral was untouched by the bombs that rained down on London throughout World War II. As I laid in the grass, I tried to imagine looking up at this building, still standing, as smoke billowed from the rubble of buildings throughout the city. It was difficult to imagine since now the city is filled with modern, glass skyscrapers, and there were no clouds in sight – nothing reminiscent of the smoke that would have filled the city throughout the war (except maybe the cigarette smoke from Londoners walking by).

There’s so much history throughout London, it’s easy to miss if you’re always hurrying to the next destination. After touring the Tower of London (which was PACKED with tourists and an hour long line to see the crown jewels), Taylor and I decided to look in an old, nearby church. There were only a couple other people touring the church, which was really quite surprising since we were so close to the Tower of London and since this happened to be the oldest church in London. We made our way to the basement where we saw the original tiled floor – built by the Romans in the 2nd century! A little further down the hallway, there was a memorial to William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, who had been baptized in this church. Then in a small nook, there was a memorial to the members of the congregation who had been killed during World War II. In the middle of this ancient church was a somber reminder of how much was lost during the war. Buildings could be rebuilt, redesigned, or refurbished. That’s evident by the hundreds of new buildings surrounding the ancient landmarks of the city. These men were lost forever. This was also the first time I’d seen any memorial in London that listed the actual names of British soldiers that died during the war – in the basement of an old church of all places. I’m so glad Taylor and I wandered in off the street and took a little time out of a hectic day to discover such rich history.

Found in the basement of  the oldest church in London

Found in the basement of the oldest church in London

Becoming Grounded In History

Selena Vlajic, me, and Henry Dolin getting onto the HMS Belfast.

Selena Vlajic, me, and Henry Dolin getting onto the HMS Belfast.

There’s so much I want to say about this trip, so much I want to tell everyone about. I want to talk about the weather, or my impressions of the city, or what I love and hate about our hotel, or about visiting so many cultural sites. Basically, I want to convey everything I’ve seen and experienced since I arrived at Heathrow this Wednesday.

I guess I can sum up everything with a quote from a quote from Sweeney Todd: “There’s no place like London.” Up until even this past semester, reading about London, even knowing that I’d be visiting it soon, was like reading about a fairy-tale kingdom. It was so distant, it didn’t seem real. But being here, absorbing the sights and sounds and smells of the city have brought home the history and the reality of where I am. I’ve visited the Churchill Museum, the Tower of London, Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery, Buckingham Palace, Bletchley Park, the Shakespeare Globe, and so many more. Finally, London feels real to me. I’m actually here.

And not only has London become more real to me, but so has the war I’ve been studying for nearly my whole college career. Yes, it has always seemed real to me. There’s too much information and too many testimonials from veterans and survivors for me to have felt the war to have been anything but a reality. But when I stepped into the Churchill Museum and began exploring where Churchill helped to plan the war and where soldiers slept, ate and worked round the clock to keep Britain from being invaded, I felt myself become part of the war; I could see my place in history and how it related to me.

And then in Bletchley Park, I had another one of those moments when I saw the war through a whole new light. Standing there among the huts and the mansion where the British Army, Navy, and Civil Intelligence Services broke the Enigma codes, which helped to end the war a few years earlier, I realized I was standing in history, where important events took place and without which I might not be around to write about this study abroad trip. As I went through the museum at Bletchley and saw a full-length Nazi flag displayed near the code-breaking exhibit, I thought to myself: “If it weren’t for the people who were part of the Bletchley Intelligence Project, I couldn’t be sure where I’d be now. I might not even exist.”  Standing there in that museum, I put my hand on the swastika and sent it a mental message, as if to address Adolf Hitler’s ghost: “All that you and your followers stood for, the people here helped defeat. And I live to remember it.”

With the statue of Alan Turing at Bletchley Park.

So what can I tell you about my study abroad trip so far? Only that it has been edifying beyond belief, and made the Second World War more relevant to me than ever before. As the days go by, and as we travel between locations, to different museums and battle sites and historic places of note, I’m sure that awareness will only grow deeper. And at the end, I will be able to look back and know that this trip has greatly influenced not only broadened my knowledge of WWII, but also made me appreciative of all the sacrifices that were made so that someday I could come here and write about it.

I will write again from Normandy. Look forward to more musings and photos and discussions of the places I’ve been. Good night everybody.