What I Gained

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Today is the 71st anniversary of D-Day and I cannot think of a better day to collect my thoughts. Having stood on Omaha Beach just two weeks ago I am feeling both somber and proud today.  I refrained from posting on the blog while we traveled because I wanted it to be about others experiences, not my own. As group leader my goal for the Honors WWII study abroad experience has always been about providing an experiential learning opportunity for students. But, now that our trip has concluded and I’ve been home for several days I realize how much I’ve gained in the process.

Studying WWII and the Western Front for the past year and a half to prepare for our course and this trip was somewhat selfish. I have not delved this deeply into a topic since graduate school. I’ve always been interested in this time period and how Americans contributed to the war effort at home and abroad. Shortly before D-Day in 1944 my maternal grandfather, Grandpa Joe, became a civilian volunteer who went to Hawaii to help in the rebuilding effort at Pearl Harbor. He was unable to serve in the armed forces (medical issues) and this was his way to contribute to the war effort. My grandmother, Grandma Bonnie, was back at home in St. Louis with 2 little girls and another on the way. It must have been a terribly trying time for them. Grandma and the girls eventually went to Clarksville, AR to live with family in the area because they needed the support. The only record we have of this time in their lives are the letters that my grandpa wrote to my grandma and the girls. The letters tragically stopped in December 1944 when their 3 month old daughter, Nancy Joanne, died. My grandfather never got to see her because he was in Hawaii and I can only imagine the anguish they felt as a family during wartime. Happening at the same time halfway around the world, men were hunkered down in foxholes in the Ardennes Forest and fighting for their lives to rid the world of the Nazis during the Battle of the Bulge. The war effort on the western front had been going so well that many thought that WWII would be over by Christmas. This was not to be as Hitler made one final push, his last stand in many ways, in dense forests covered with snow in the dead of winter. Whether at home or abroad, Christmas 1944, was not a joyous time.

I have the utmost respect and admiration for the Greatest Generation and the Allied Forces. I am proud to be an American and a citizen of the world: A world that stood up to the tyranny of the Third Reich and the pure evil that surrounded the Axis powers. I never fully grasped the Holocaust until I walked the grounds of Dachau Concentration Camp with my family last week. There had been moments all throughout our journey where I cried or my eyes welled with tears, but standing in the crematorium at Dachau found me weeping and almost brought me to my knees. If only for the people around me from all different countries did I manage to remain standing and bear witness to the war atrocities that occurred in that building. I left feeling raw and devastated. No one in our group even spoke on the bus for hours it seemed. Make no mistake, there still is and will always be evil in this world. Part of our purpose in our course and on this journey was to provide deep learning about WWII—not just surface learning about the topic. I hope we accomplished that because as George Santayana once wrote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

I also gained a new appreciation of our United States Armed Forces, current and past, while abroad. Walking through the headstones at the Normandy American Cemetery and Henri Chapelle American Cemetery in Belgium was overwhelming. It is inspiring to stand in a place of profound beauty that reminds us of unfathomable tragedy. The Stars of David and crosses that mark the final resting place of our service members had Abraham Lincoln’s words from the Gettysburg Address ringing in my head. These men and women had truly given “the last full measure of devotion.” I’m not proud to say that prior to this experience I would have had reservations about one of my children wanting to join the military. I’ve always admired my friends and acquaintances who are veterans or active service members, but my hesitation came from fear. I am no longer reluctant, but maybe still worry about the evil in this world. If one of my children said they wanted to join our US Armed Forces and devote their life to causes at home or around the world I would proudly stand and support them.

Our 16 day study abroad experience was the trip of a lifetime for many who participated. Students wrote this in their blogs and on social media. I’m glad they feel this way now and I hope that the sentiment grows with time. I studied abroad 21 years ago and I’m still grateful for the opportunity and how it changed me. Only in retrospect do I see how much it altered my worldview and I wish that for our students as well.

Below are group photos from our time abroad. These moments, these places, and these people mean so much to me.

Anna, Robert, Beth, Casey C., Jennifer, Britney, Jamie, Ethan, Shelby, Ashley, Emily, Cecily, Casey G., Jaqulyn, Audrey, and Earl—you were the ideal students to participate in our WWII class and this study abroad opportunity. You all have a passion for lifelong learning and I hope our travels have opened your eyes and hearts to the world around you. You were fun to travel with and we made some great memories together!

Dr. Erick Chang—our Honors Faculty in Residence who joined us for the trip and who brought along his zest for adventure. The trip would not have been the same without you.

I am indebted to Dr. Ed Salo who taught a large portion of our class. His knowledge of WWII and the Western Front is astounding and I learned so much from him. He also brought his wit, humor, and knowledge of history on our trip. You are great colleague and I can’t wait to collaborate with you again.

My husband Dr. Tim Oliver is my constant travel and life companion. I could not have pulled this study abroad experience off without his support and encouragement. We enjoy seeing the world together and making memories for us and our family. I would be remiss if I did not mention the wonderful Armed Forces Salute: Greatest Generation concert he did with the Wind Ensemble as a companion and interdisciplinary part of our WWII course. Tim, you are my center and no matter where in the world we might be I am always at home with you.

And finally to Ben & Gwen, my children, as this was their first time out of the US and traveling to another part of the world. You are both really good travelers and your energy level in keeping up with the “big kids” was impressive. Your Dad and I have always said we’d rather give you experiences instead of things—I think you both now have a better understanding of why this is important as global citizens.

We are all global citizens and students of history—we must be. On D-Day let us vow to Never Forget.

     

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Ben’s Perspective and Final Thoughts

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This trip is now sadly coming to a close after an amazing 15+ days that was filled with learning, humor, and sadness. So this is the second part of my personal thoughts and highlights.

Day 9

On day 9 we left our hotel in Liege and took our bus over to a city called Cologne and saw its famous cathedral. We spent some time in the city and walked through the market area. After that, we boarded our bullet train and at its fastest speed, we reached 250 kilometers per hour. After about 5 hours, we finally made it to Berlin. 

 
Day 10

On this day we spent our time in the former East Berlin and exploring the area that was once fenced off by the Berlin Wall. Soon after that, we took our bus over to the Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park. It was very different from an American cemetery/memorial in the sense that the Soviets believed in a community and a group instead of individuality. We then ventured off into the east inner city and we saw Checkpoint Charlie and had homemade Bratwurst for lunch. After lunch we went back to the Checkpoint Charlie area, but we then entered the Checkpoint Charlie museum. It was interesting seeing the film and the different propaganda made by people unhappy with the Berlin Wall, and it was especially cool to read about several escape stories and to see some of the intricate inventions and vehicles made by people trying escape.

 
  
Day 11

This was our final day in Berlin and we started it off by taking a bus into the city where we made a visit to the SS and Gestapo museum. After that, we then walked down to the Holocaust Memorial where hundreds of large rectangular pillars stand to represent the 6 Million Jews murdered during the Holocaust. After a visit to the underground museum under the memorial, we headed over to the Brandenburg Gate. We walked through the gate and then made our way to the Riechstag, the place of the German government. We had intentions to go up and into the dome, but after we discovered that you had to have reserved tickets to go up in it. Later that night, we took the metro to a little shack called Burgermeister located under the bridge that held up the metro tracks and I had one of the best burgers I have ever tasted. To follow up on our whole Berlin experience, we had a panel of three Germans come in and talk to us about their different experiences on the east and west side of the wall.

 

 

Day 12

On this day we traveled out of Berlin and into the city of Nuremberg where the first Nazi rallies occurred and where the first Fuhrer city began its construction. We saw several buildings designed and used by Hitler himself and stood where he gave one of his rants. Later in the day, we arrived in Munich and we had the most delightful dinner on the whole trip. It was an Italian restaurant named “Bibulus” where I had a mushroom bisque, followed by 2 appetizers, a zucchini flower and an eggplant lasagna. For my entree, I had a veal chop which was then topped off by an Italian take on a chocolate lava cake.  

   

Day 13

On day 14, we traveled to the Dachau concentration camp which was one of the first of many camps set up by Hitler and the Nazis. It was extremely powerful and when we walked into the crematorium, a wave of emotions just washed over me. I felt angry, sad, sympathetic, but at the same time remembering. It’s a very dark part in our history as humans but we must always remember the all bad in our past so that history doesn’t repeat itself.

 

 

Day 15

This was the last day of our trip in Europe, and it was a pretty great one. We started off boarding our bus and after 2 hours, we arrived in Salzburg, Austria AKA the place where Sound of Music was filmed and recorded. We explored the main area and markets of Salzburg, while also visiting or seeing several of the places where the movie was filmed. Later, we finished our tour of the city and we got back on the bus to ride up one of the mountains in the Bavarian Alps, and then took a specially designed bus up to “Eagle’s Nest” which was one of Hitler’s private homes. The home itself was underwhelming, but the view from the peak of the specific mountain was breathtaking. For our last dinner in Europe, we had a traditional Bavarian meal consisting of Wiener Schnitzel and Spatzle, which was a good meal to finish with.

 

 

Final Thoughts

In general, this whole trip has been a great experience for me and I have learned so much about WWII and the western front. We saw both the allies perspective along with the German perspective and it really shed some new light on the war itself. There were many moments that I was proud to be an American, but there were also a few chilling moments whenever we stood on a pedestal that Hitler once stood on, and when we walked what was left of the Dachau concentration camp. I also made several friendships with the college kids and thought it was very interesting to see a very different part of the world. With all of the different memorials and landmarks that we saw, I also got a taste of the different cultures in Europe. This has been an overall spectacular trip and I can’t wait to go back.

Last Day!

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Today was a long but exciting end to our study abroad experience in Europe. This morning we began the ten hour flight to Atlanta. Thankfully there was a good selection of movies to watch. The airplane food was much better this time. We even got ice cream! During our flight we were able to get a clear view of the southern part of Greenland. It looked stunning! From there we flew over Canada and then the Great Lakes on our way to Atlanta. Landing in Atlanta was the highlight of the day. Long lines at customs caused us to run a bit behind. We sprinted through the airport to make our connecting flight. I felt like I was on the Amazing Race. We made the flight to Memphis and then went our separate ways. There were definitely some mixed emotions. We didn’t want to leave Europe but we were ready to come home. I’m so thankful that I’ve had this opportunity. The past two weeks have been an unforgettable adventure. I’ve learned so much about World War II. I was honored to represent Morris Lansdale, a fallen soldier from Arkansas. Being matched up with fallen soldiers from Arkansas made the trip more meaningful. I’ve made new friends and countless memories. Some of my favorite activities were climbing the Eiffel Tower, visiting the beaches of Normandy, listening to our guide Henri from Bastogne, and climbing Eagle’s Nest. I loved Europe, but I’m glad to be back where there are free public restrooms and drink re-fills. Thank you to all those who made this experience possible, especially Mrs. Rebecca. 

   

     

Day 16: The End

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Today has been a crazy day. We made it on our plane out of Munich with no issues, but once we hit Atlanta we were on a tight timeline. When we landed at 2:35, we had exactly an hour before our connecting flight to Memphis began boarding. This is where madness ensued. We had this amount of time to get through customs, get our bags, recheck our bags for the Memphis flight, go through security, and then make it to Terminal A, the farthest stop from where we were. Customs and security took forever, and we ended up on the train to Terminal A around 4:00. Our plane was leaving at 4:15. Worried, we SPRINTED to the gate, attracting bewildered stares from bystanders. Twenty-two people running through an airport is quite a sight. At one point, we were running and Dr. Salo’s backpack had come unzipped, sending items everywhere! Dr. Oliver, Dr. Salo, and I picked up the runaway items and continued on our determined trek to our flight. We were not about to miss it! By the time we made it, I was one of the last ones there. We made it with two minutes to spare. After that insanity, we got to sit down and breathe for what seemed like the first time in an hour or so. I’ve never felt so relieved in my life!

And now, we’ve reached the end. I feel so many conflicting emotions about our departure: Sadness that it’s over, eagerness to get home, but most of all, thankfulness. I’m thankful that I had the opportunity to go on this adventure with what are now my very close friends, and thankful that I was able to learn more about the greatest generation and their fight for freedom. I think I speak for everyone when I say that we had the time of a lifetime on this study abroad tour. At one point, Dr. Oliver said, “I get the sense that going on an EF Tour is like drinking water from a fire hose.” That’s really the only image you need to describe this trip as a whole! We never slowed down. We went ninety miles an hour the entire trip, but in the end it was so worth the sore feet, the insanity, and the crankiness.   We had an absolute blast and I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. 

Waiting to check our bags in Munich!

  Flying over Greenland! 

A Chilling Epilogue

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During this two week journey, one could argue that we essentially spent one week with the Allies, and one week with the Nazis. Consequently our perspectives have widened, and our knowledge augmented and crystallized through sharing, literally in some cases, in the footsteps of history.

On the final day of the tour, at the final historical site, we stood on the remains of Hitler’s Berghof House. This once grandiose structure was reduced to ruins by a combination of a British air raid in April 1945, a fire set by the Obersalzberg SS a few days later, and demolition by the U.S. Military in 1952. 

The Berghof was not only Hitler’s private country retreat, but it also served as the second center of power, after Berlin, for the Third Reich. More than one third of the time Hitler ruled Germany, he was in residence at his Berghof estate located on the lower slopes of the same mountain as The Kehlsteinhaus (aka the Eagle’s Nest). The lives of millions of people, both during and after the war, were altered by decisions made in the rooms which once comprised this hideous edifice. 

Once we trooped down the steep, gravel trail leading to the site, a site which did not seem frequently visited, we listened to our guide’s description of the area. After which we surveyed the ruins.

Someone then noticed a small memorial – a handful of long stemmed red roses leaning ominously against a tree stump near the location of what was once believed to have been a massive fireplace. The placement of these flowers was most certainly purposeful.

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This was a chilling epilogue to our journey.

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Although Hitler has been dead for 70 years, clearly his ideology, or at least those who would sympathize with it, still live. I am in no way implying that a German left this floral faux pas, but this debased memorial (which I did not photograph) should serve as a reminder for all. Religious extremism, social intolerance, ultra right and left wing political ideologies – history informs us these are just some of the conditions for the ever present seeds of evil to once again take root in the soil of our society. Despite our eradication efforts, these seeds are always there, ready to restart the terrible cycle.

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May we, as members of a pluralistic culture in the 21st century, continue to learn from and evolve beyond the past mistakes of our society. In the spirit of Winston Churchill, “Let us go forward together” to continue our collective work to improve the human condition.  

Brick remains of Hitler’s Berghof House

Day 14- Munich/Dachau

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Today began with a bus tour of Munich. It is very interesting to me to see the remnants of Nazism throughout cities like Berlin and Munich. You have to remember that we are only a couple generations removed from the Second World War, and Bavaria was one of the heartlands of Nazism. Our tour guide, Tom, informed us that Hitler fled to Munich after being rejected admittance into art school and began painting postcards to get by. He volunteered to fight for the Bavarian army, but wasn’t qualified and somehow got through and became a messenger. He later became an informant and attended a meeting of members within the Worker’s Party who were very nationalistic. It was then that he really began formulating his ideas of pan-Germanism and Nazism that would later be present under his power. Today, you can still see remnants of the Honor Temples, beer halls where some of the largest pushes to put Nazis in power occurred, and statues to the victims of national socialism. 
As if the sights of the morning were not chilling enough, the afternoon proved to be one of the most sobering experiences of my life. The group visited the concentration camp at Dachau, one of the first concentration camps and the only to exist throughout the entire twelve years of Nazi rule. We began the experience with a graphic twenty minute video outlining the rise of Hitler and the extent of the persecution endured by the prisoners at Dachau. Standing in the center of the bunkers where these prisoners were held really gave me a new perspective on the persecution they endured. As I stood in the middle of the courtyard, I couldn’t help but imagine how the scene would have looked seventy-something years earlier. One interesting and chilling aspect to this concentration camp is the memorials erected at the back edge of the camp: one for the Jews, one for the Catholics, and one for the Protestants. So many were killed from all different religions, and the memorials side by side in such a gloomy place was very moving. 
We ended the night with a meal at the Hofbraeuhaus beer hall. After a very emotionally draining day, the dinner was proved to be a  stark contrast full of fellowship, good friends, and a drink or two. 
  

  

  

  

Day 15: The Culmination

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“The hiiiiills are aliiive…!” They are so alive that they knocked the breath right out of me, forcing me to gaze in awe of their splendor. As we rolled into Salzburg this morning, I decided that Julie Andrews was not merely acting when she sang this song while twirling around the Austrian hilltop in the opening scene of “The Sound of Music.” I had the same urge today – without the incentive of a paycheck. 

We spent the morning drinking in the quaint appeal of Salzburg on a walking tour. From the bottom of a mountain, we looked up and saw the ledge where the song “Doe a Deer” was filmed in “The Sound of Music”. We also passed the place where Mozart was born, the cathedral where he was baptized, and the house where he did much of his composing. Unfortunately, time only allowed us to spend two hours exploring the city, which did not do it justice. Out of all the destinations we have visited over the past two weeks, Salzburg is undoubtedly the place I would most like to revisit. 

  Salzburg

As we said aufweidersen to Austria and crossed over the German border up into the Austrian Tyrol (a section of the Alps), the majesty of the landscape heightened with the increasing elevation. Yet, as I marveled, an uneasiness loomed. At the very top of the mountain stands Eagle’s Nest, the home that was given to Hitler as a gift from his party. Although it is estimated that he only ventured there twelve times, it stands as a symbol of both the power and insanity of Hitler and his followers.

One of the few undamaged monuments of the Hitler era, this storybook setting was intended to deceive all the evil those years held. And even today, more than 70 years later, as I stood atop Eagle’s Nest, I was deceived. I had prepared myself to face the same sick feeling of disgust that I experienced two days ago in Nuremberg while standing on the very platform that Hitler stood on during the party rallies held there. But I did not. Perhaps this was because it was never a place where Hitler publicly spewed his filth, or perhaps this was because it has become such a tourist attraction. Regardless of the reason, I was deceived. The mountains, the trees, the sky – the views that left me breathless – likewise enchanted Hitler and served the inhuman dictatorship of his regime. 

  Eagle’s Nest

Hitler might not have spent much time at Eagle’s Nest, but he spent more than a third of his time at Berghof, a small country house that he purchased and enlarged into a pompous estate. This was the second center of power of the German Reich alongside the official capital Berlin. Here, plans for war and mass murder were formed. 

  Hitler’s Bunker 

After a stuffy venture into the Führer’s underground bunker complex at Obersalzburg, we hiked down to see where Berghof once stood. It was damaged in a British air raid in April of 1945 and was set on fire a few days later by the Obersalzberg SS. The US military government ordered the ruin to be blown up in 1952. The only fragment preserved today is a supporting wall. I expected to feel very unsettled, but once again, I did not – not at the sight of the remaining wall, anyway.  

 Remaining wall of Berghof

Just as we started back up the slope, thinking our tour had come to an end, a handful of red roses was spotted propped up against a tree stump where Berghof once stood. We all turned to see. Someone asked our tour guide, Tom, why they were there. Somewhat stunned, he murmured, “I’m sorry. Those shouldn’t be here. We usually check once or twice a day.” “But who put them there?” someone else questioned. I will never forget the three words Tom uttered in reply: “Third Reich believers.” 

My speech is inadequate to describe the feeling that those three words stirred in my soul. Dr. Oliver, however, shared his well-spoken reflection that I will do my best to summarize. “Through our journey over the past two weeks, we have explored both the allied and the axis side of WWII. We have been studying history – events that happened over 70 years ago. But those roses represent seeds of Hitler’s ideology that are ready to sprout once again. What a chilling ending to our journey.” Above all else this study abroad experience has taught me, I have learned that we as a society must continue to pass down the history of WWII and it’s related events so that it can be stopped before it ever reoccurs. And it could reoccur – the roses are living proof of that.