Nine students, led by Dr. Marcel Rotter (Assoc. Prof. of German and Chair of the Dept. of Modern Languages) and Dr. Jose Sainz (Assoc. Prof. of Spanish and Director of the Center for International Education) spent Spring Break in Poland, February 26-March 5, to explore the multifaceted and often painful history of this Eastern-European country. They visited significant cultural sites such as the Wawel Castle in Cracow, place of the coronations of the Polish kings, but also places of former Jewish life and worship as well as the remains of the Warsaw Ghetto and the Auschwitz death camp where this rich life came to an end. The trip was part of the courses Poland Art and Culture (IDIS 350X) and IDIS 350 Q – Holocaust and Memory in Poland .
The trip had a great impact on many students. Some found the names of relatives that perished in the Holocaust in the Book of Names in Auschwitz. Others were amazed by the vastness of the former Jewish neighborhood that had been destroyed and replaced with modern office buildings after the World War II. Thanks to the talent of the Polish craftspeople, the historic old town of Warsaw, which was 85% destroyed looks like it has been there for centuries.
Sadly, the group’s visit coincided with the start of the Russian invasion of neighboring Ukraine, and the parallels with what the students had studied about Poland’s past and current events were palpable. Dr. Rotter explained:
What made the trip especially memorable were the historical parallels students could draw to the emerging war in neighboring Ukraine. The solidarity of the Polish people with their next-door country was visible everywhere. Every street car and bus in Warsaw was decorated with Polish and Ukrainian flags. Multiple stories of historic buildings in Cracow’s Main Market Square were covered in one huge Ukrainian flag. While we did not encounter refugees on the streets, we could see some in our hotel. Our visit to the Jewish Community Center in Cracow was cancelled as they had just taken in 50 Ukrainian refugees. We completely understood. One of our students met a Ukrainian woman on our flight from Munich to Warsaw:
On this flight I was sat next to a young woman in her early twenties, it didn’t take long for her to start asking me questions about the U.S and the immigration process. She shared with me that she was in the process of fleeing Ukraine, due to the recent Russian invasion, on her way to the Polish Embassy in Warsaw. We talked all throughout the flight about how she was forced to leave her family in Ukraine and her final hope was to seek refuge in the United States. Although I was not able to help her as much as I would have liked, meeting her was extremely impactful.” (Katriel Lee, UMW student )
Students and faculty saw so much on their trip, that it will take some time to unpack all their impressions and information they learned. As Katriel Lee concludes in her travel blog:
… meeting this woman on my flight allowed me to further sympathize with what the citizens of Ukraine are going through. Given that this is such a prevalent topic I feel that it will alter the way in which I process the events on this trip. This flight gave me the perspective I needed to see the ways the invasion will impact my time in Poland. (Katriel Lee)