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“We Wanted to Be Free and Owe that Freedom to Nobody.” Poland Trip Fall 2012

“We Wanted to Be Free and Owe that Freedom to Nobody.” Poland Trip Fall 2012

Let me start off this blog by saying that I never, ever, thought that I would find myself in Poland this semester. I’m not Polish, I have no ties to the country, and just never even considered putting it on my list. But for some reason when the day came to sign up to go on the trip (way back in the beginning of September) I kept finding myself drawn to the trip. Around 4pm I decided to go check out the list, assuming it would be full, just to get it out of my system. I dragged my buddy Fernando with me to the business office and asked, casually, if the list was full.

“Oh, there’s actually two spots open,” she said.

I turned to Fernando, wide-eyed, and without a word of discussion I turned back to her. “We’ll take them!”

Best. Decision. Ever.

The view over Warsaw!

17 fellow students, one SLA (Emily!) the Beazleys,the alumni leading the trip and myself met up in Warsaw to begin the trip. From the first dinner there (more on food in a future blog!) we knew it was going to be a great trip.  Our first night in Warsaw we found ourselves in a bar listening to traditional Polish music and dancing with a 70-year-old+ entertainer who would pull us from the audience and swing us around until the whole group was dancing. It was silly, amazing, and a great way to kick off the trip.

Luke dancing with our entertainer!

The Poland trip, however, did have a very serious theme to it. The trip was based around a Human Rights Symposium held in Torun at the Nicolaus Copernicus University (more on that later), and throughout the trip we were visiting museums and discussing World War II and what life was like in an occupied country. The first full day in Warsaw we went to the Uprising Museum, which covers just about every topic of WWII, from artillery to Nazi propaganda. The most striking part of the museum to me, however, was a movie that took you on a virtual flight over the city of Warsaw in 1945. The city was absolutely destroyed, leaving only 1,000 citizens living among the ruble. Looking at Warsaw now it’s incredible to think that just over 60 years ago it was essentially flattened but has been able to pull itself back up into the thriving city that it is today.

Armbands of the members of the Uprising

After the Uprising Museum we had the incredibly privilege of talking with an Auschwitz survivor. The topic of Auschwitz is so important and was so moving that I’m writing another full post on just that, so I’ll talk more about meeting him and seeing Auschwitz there. But let’s just say that we all left his talk feeling incredibly blessed and so fortunate that he was able to share his story with us.

The next day we set off for Torun, a beautiful small town that’s home to the Nicolaus Copernicus University.  John Kurowski, one of the alumni leading our trip, has been a visiting professor at the University multiple times and seven years ago set up this Human Rights Symposium to facilitate discussion among Polish and American students on different human rights topics. This years topic was “Trafficking in Human Beings: A 21st Century International Crime.” The first night in Torun we watched an extremely moving movie that depicted what life was like as a girl who was being trafficked. The movie left us all shaken up and a little uneasy. That feeling of uneasiness, however, was then able to lead to discussion and debate over the topic. Even at the dinner afterward tables were still discussing parts of the movie that they found particularly disturbing, and how this topic was so much bigger than any of us originally thought.

The next day we got to the heart of the Symposium, listening to talks and discussing the topic of trafficking with experts on the topic, including one woman, Iana Matei, who kidnaps girls from the traffickers. Can you believe it?? When asked about what it felt like to kidnap girls away from a huge organized crime industry she just replied, “It’s easy. And really fun!” So much courage.

After the Symposium and a visit to a Gingerbread Museum where we got to make our own gingerbread while learning the secret recipe (which we had to swear on our life not to tell!) all the students and administrators of the Symposium met up for dinner and then drinks at a bar near the campus. We were able to mingle with Polish students studying at the University, along with American students studying in Bologna in Italy who had also attended the Symposium. You could hear the cry of “Na zdoróvye!” (Polish for “Cheers!”) throughout the room as we got to know each other better. By the end of the night we all left old pals, hugging and promising to “find each other on Facebook!”

Me making gingerbread!

The next day we set off on a six hour train ride to Krakow. We settled in our 19 person apartment (18 college students + 1 SLA + 1 apartment = amazing and fun mayhem) before setting off for the Schindler Museum. For those who know the story or have seen the movie, the museum is inside Schindler’s factory, and gives you a tour of life pre and during WWII. My personal favorite part of the museum was the last room, which was just a circular round room with quotes from worker’s in the Schindler factory. The quote that stuck out to me the most was “He employed me in his factory although he know I would be useless for him.” Incredible.

Kitchenware made in the Schindler Factory during WWII

The next day after a night in our cozy apartment we headed to Auschwitz. As I mentioned earlier, I’ll be doing another post on that topic, so I won’t say much about it here. But I will say that it was without a doubt the most moving and emotional place I’ve ever seen. More on that later, though.

That night was our last official night in Poland, as we commemorated the trip with another amazing dinner. It was hard to believe that it had already been 6 days, and that the trip was coming to a close. Speeches were made, baby Annie (the Beazley’s one-year-old daughter) was passed around the table, and we talked for three hours reflecting on how amazing the trip had been. In a lot of ways the Poland trip is a very heavy one. You spend a great deal of time discussing sometimes uncomfortable topics, like Human Trafficking, and experiencing feelings that overwhelm you and really shakes you to the core. This was a trip that changes and affects you, and I can already tell that it will be one of, if not the main, highlight of my study abroad experience.

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