Hi there! So if you’ve been with me the last few weeks, we have set off on an epic rail journey around Europe hitting 12 cities in 25 days. You can read all about the train route HERE – and although we have just left Amsterdam and are heading towards Berlin, I though this would be a great opportunity to segway into one aspect of the trip I hadn’t anticipated when planning: the reality of the Second World War and it’s impact on European countries today. Join me as I explain how 4 sites in Europe turned my EuroTrip into the ultimate history lesson. Europe History
4 Sites That Will Turn Your EuroTrip Into The Ultimate History Lesson
Europe is full of history – and not all of it is very pleasant. Hilter’s effect on the continent throughout the 1930-1940’s can still be seen across several countries, and little did I know when we embarked on our Eurotrip that we would be visiting some of the major memorial sites of the Second World War.
1. The Ann Frank Huis – Amsterdam
The first stop on our history tour, the Ann Frank Huis, was an introduction to the horror of Hilter through a child’s eyes. Ann was barely 13 years old when she and her family were forced into hiding as Hitler sought to remove all Jews from Germany.
Whilst living in the secret annex in a house in Prinsengracht, Amsterdam, Ann wrote about her life in hiding, in a space she shared with 7 other people. They lived in constant fear of discovery, had to be extremely quiet and could never go outside. The diary was a way for Ann to get her frustrations on her chest.
Despite hiding successfully for 2 years, the Frank family were betrayed just before the end of the war and of the 8 residents of Prinsengracht 263 – plus two helpers – were arrested and deported to (separate) concentration camps. Ann’s father Otto was the only person to survive.
Otto returned to Amsterdam after the war where he discovered his family had perished, and was given Anne’s diaries by the family who had hidden them. In reading the diaries he discovered a different Ann to the one he lived in such close quarters with and was moved by her writings. She had written in one book she wanted to be a journalist and hoped to have the diary published at the end of the war. Otto was convinced to do so by his friend and in 1947 ‘The Secret Annex’ was published.
The house was commissioned as a museum in 1960 and with parts of the property maintained in the state it was kept at the time Ann lived there, it is easy to imagine how hard it would have been to live in hiding for 2 years.
Only a small museum, it is a powerful memorial to the persecuted souls who lived there, and a testament to the bravery of those who hid them. It is also a reminder that although this museum is unique, the plight of its occupants was one that was mirrored across a lot of Europe throughout the Second World War, and the absolute horror of that weighs heavily on every visitor.
2. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe – Berlin
An information center and monument in one, the Holocaust Memorial is a large site offering the most comprehensive memorial to the atrocities of the Second World War in Europe.
At ground level is the installation known as the ‘Field of Stelae’ – a monument constructed of around 2700 concrete slabs set out over 19,000 square meters. The are identical in depth and width, varying only in height, and create a maze effect once you enter the structure – which you must do to enter the information centre.
It’s designer , Peter Eiseman, said this about it:
“The enormity and scale of the horror of the Holocaust is such that any attempt to represent it by traditional means is inevitably inadequate … Our memorial attempts to present a new idea of memory as distinct from nostalgia … We can only know the past today through a manifestation in the present.”
Located underground, the information center has 7 rooms, each detailing the horror of the National Socialist terror policy between 1933 and 1945.
The Foyer presents an introduction containing 6 portrait images representing the 6 million Jews murdered; The room of dimensions displays the number of Jewish victims from all countries in Europe along with quotations recovered from the memoirs of those persecuted; the room of families details the fate of 15 example families from different social backgrounds; the room of names contains nothing but blank walls, on each of which the names, date of birth and date of death of those who were murdered is projected on a loop. Should you wish to read each of the names and associated stories, it would take approximately 6 years, 7 months and 27 days. Other rooms contains details of over 200 sites where the persecution and destruction occurred, the location of over 400 memorial sites in Europe and at the end there is room where visitors can engage with the life stories over 150 survivors who have conducted interviews for the memorial – but this is only open on Sundays.
A very comprehensive museum that deserves a couple of hours of anyone’s time.
3. The Communist Museum – Prague
Not as eloquent as the last two sites, the Museum of Communism in Prague depicts the history of the totalitarian regime which was imposed in 1948 through to its collapse in 1989. Although only tenuously linked to events during the Second World War (the Communist Part took control after Hilter had surrendered) it was a consequence of the fallout of the different ideologies of the Allies (Britain, USA & France in the West, and The Soviet Union & Russia in the East). Eastern Europe had typically been under a Communist regime and when the Second World War ended, the Soviet’s wanted a “buffer zone” from it’s Western neighbours.
The Communist Museum in Prauge is the only museum of it’s kind in Europe and its theme is “Communism – the dream, the reality and the nightmare.” With exhibits about daily life, politics, history, and sport under the regime, you are introduced to what life was like under Communist rule, and what is most certainly a much more repressed society than visitors from a Western nation would even have experienced.
A particular point of interest for me was the exhibits dealing with the arts, media propaganda and censorship. Growing up in a liberal society with unprecedented access to the rest of the world through the internet (and travel!) – it was (and is) hard for me to comprehend a world where access to independent, unbiased information is limited. (I could argue that we do not automatically receive that in the West today, but that’s a different topic..)
The Museum of Communism is a great way to spend an hour, and gain an insight to the lifestyle many throughout Eastern Europe were forced to endure under the repressive regime.
4. Auschwitz & Auschwitz-Birkenau – Krakow
Auchwitz is the saddest place I have ever visited.
Auchwitz and Auchwitz-Birkenau are the two site of Nazi Germany’s largest concentration and extermination camp, and the place where over 1.1 million men, women and children lost their lives.
When visiting, I highly recommend doing so with a guide (this can arranged as part of a group, or on an individual basis). The grounds of both sites are large and contain a wealth of information, that it is highly likely you will feel overloaded should you try to tackle it yourself. The guides at the centre are knowledgeable, compassionate and will guide you through the exhibits, providing details and information you otherwise wouldn’t know. These guides are invaluable to the centre and I cannot rave about ours enough. She was passionate about the education of visitors and dealt with the subject matter is a respectful and humane matter.
A typical guided tour last 3.5 hours in which you will be taken through the original buildings at Auschwitz where there exhibits detailing the conditions where prisoners lived; photographs of those who were held (and died) at the camp; buildings where doctors used detainees for medical experiments and a section of the camp, known as the death wall, where executions took place. In addition to this are the collections of personal possessions that were removed from prisoners on arrival at the camp and include over 110,000 shoes, 3,800 suitcases – of which around 2,100 bear the name of their owners, almost 500 prostheses and over 4,500 works of art, including 2,000 which were made by prisoners. Although there are photographs of these exhibits of personal items floating around the Internet, it is important to note that it is considered disrespectful to those who were murdered to photograph these items.
The camp details the daily life and routine of those prisoners who were not exterminated on arrival and it is heart-breaking to try to understand the horror of their existence under Nazi detention.
At the end of the tour of Auchwitz, there is an opportunity to go into the first gas chamber and crematorium built at this site. The building is the original structure that stood there and it is entirely optional to enter. We were advised that people often decide not to enter the building as the their religious or personal beliefs do not permit them to be in a place where people died, but for those who do, you are met with an overwhelming sense of sadness and a struggle to comprehend the fear and confusion people must have felt when those doors were locked behind them.
The development of Auchwitz II, officially named Auchwitz-Birkenau, became necessary when the original gas chamber could no longer cope with the Nazi’s unquenchable desire for death. The site was originally built as a prisoner of war/labour camp to hold 125,000 people, but quickly became the site of much larger gas chambers and as such, was where 90% of Auchwitz’s prisoners were executed. The chambers themselves were destroyed by the Nazis’ when they realised the war was lost, and their remains stand today as a memorial to the scale of the extermination.
The original railway lines transect the middle of the camp and it is explained how prisoners were ‘sorted’ on arrival. Those who were above 14 years of age and who were fit and healthy were directed to one side of the ramp for manual labour, the elderly, women with children and those who were deemed to be unable to work, we condemned to death in the chambers almost immediately.
On the opposite side of the tracks to the chambers are the remnants of the huts that served as living quarters of those who were allowed to live. The conditions were primitive and I would go as far to say that you would keep animals in better conditions that what was provided to the prisoners. It is truly horrifying.
To try and understand the incomprehensible nature of the crimes committed here, we were advised that if you were to stand and hold 2 minutes silence for each of the people murdered at this site, you would have to stand there for over 4½ years.
The tour concluded at the end of the railway tracks where there is in International Memorial to those murdered. On the steps to the memorial there is a row of granite slabs covered by a plaque with an inscription in every major language in Europe.
The English slab at the far right of the monument states:
FOR EVER LET THIS PLACE BE A CRY OF DESPAIR AND A WARNING TO HUMANITY, WHERE THE NAZIS MURDERED ABOUT ONE AND A HALF MILLION MEN, WOMEN AND CHILDREN MAINLY JEWS FROM VARIOUS COUNTRIES OF EUROPE. AUSCHWITZ-BIRKENAU 1940-1945
And so concludes my tour of 4 European sites which offer the ultimate history lesson. It might not exactly what you are looking for on your European extravaganza, but I believe these sites are so important to visit.
We cannot truly understand our future, without understanding the horrors of our past and I would encourage everyone who has the opportunity to visit to do so. Because, without educating people of these horrors, how are we going to prevent them from occurring again?
WANT TO GET BACK ON THE EUROPE TOUR? PICK YOUR DESTINATION: AMSTERDAM, BERLIN, PRAGUE OR KRAKOW – WITH 48 HOUR GUIDES FOR EACH!