We’re off to Poland!

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Saturday, April 7

We woke up real late today, 8:30am. We then traveled the traditional Jewish district in Krakow to meet our tour guide for the day. We toured all around the district visiting many traditional orthodox synagogues that either survived the war or were rebuilt. We also visited a progressive Jewish synagogue that had moorish architecture resembling something that you would see in Hungary or Spain. After we saw the synagogues we went to the former sight of the Krakow ghetto where all the Jewish citizens were forced to live. The wall of the ghetto (or at least the remnants that we saw) were terrifying as they were designed to look tombstones. I can only imagine what it would look like from the inside in the 1940s. We then visited the monument where the residents of the ghetto were rounded up and sent off to camps, it is weird to think how something so evil could happen in just a seemingly normal city square. Schindlers factory was next and to my disappointment it had very little to do with Oskar Schindler. I am pretty sure the museum just assumed everyone had seen the movie. Either way the museum about life in the 1940s was very cool even though it was very tight and packed with people. I am glad I saw the movie or else I feel like I would not have enjoyed the factory as much. We then had free time for 4 hours until dinner, and some other kids and I walked back a half hour to the main city square to eat lunch and do some shopping. And that basically leads up to now, as I’m writing this at dinner…


Friday, April 6 (evening)

(Coming soon!)

Friday, April 6

We met our tour guide at Barbacan, a – for lack of better words – fort situated a mere few meters from the north entrance of Krakow’s old town. Barbacan was built in the final year of the 15th and despite its age, is still in perfect condition. It’s three meter wide walls still wholly intact and the mote clearly visible. Behind it remains only the north wall of Krakow’s defense. Due to the rapidly changing face of warfare in the 19th century, the walls were still in desperate need of technological advances. Yet at the same time the city found itself embroiled in financial issues and found it easier to simply tear down all the walls except the north. Why the north? The rational is nothing short of amusing: the city was afraid of a north wind that would cause the women to become sick… sketchy explanation I know yet that was the only answer presented.

We then made our way to a monument commemorating the battle of Grunwald. The battle of Grunwald is easily the most celebrated battle in Polish history. The battle took place in 1410 and was the only battle in which polish soldiers were ever to beat the Germans – then the Teutonic Knights -. The monument was destroyed upon the German arrival in the city as the reminder of their defeat bothered them and in the 1970’s it was erected once more. In the monument are carved two swords. It is said that the Teutonic nights offered Ladislas II Jagellon two swords in exchange for Polish surrender. Jagellon is said to have responded with the words: “thank you, but I will take this as a sign of our future victory”. And sure enough, it proved to be a decisive victory for the Polish- Lithuanian state which killed the Teutonic Grand Master.

Only 50 meters away from the monument stands St. Florian Church. Many years back, Krakow had no saint as patron to any of their churches, a bishop ran to the pope and asked to find a patron for a new church. The pope asked the saints and none but one gave an answer: st. Florian of the firefighters. The answer is said to have appeared in the form of a letter on the relics. Later on as horses brought st. Florian’s relics, the horses are said to have stopped in a certain spot and were unwilling to move despite the villagers’ attempts to keep them moving. The bishop was consulted and his reply was that that was where St. Florian wanted his church to be. Later on in the church’s history the building caught on fire and the villagers claim that st. Florian himself was seen above putting out the flames to his church.
We also took the time to visit Poland’s oldest university: Jagiellonian University founded in 1364 by Casimir the Great. In this building there is a room in which the best professors were gathered during the German occupation of the city. They were notified that they were to be sent to concentration camps because they were “intellectuals”. In the camps they stayed for one year until the overwhelming amount of letters sent by villagers demanding their release finally got (most) of them out. Jewish professors were kept at the camp and many of the older professors died there. Approximately 130 of them were first sent.
We then returned to the city square and the Museum Podziema Rynku. Several years ago, the city redid the cobblestone on the plaza and at the same time conducted archeological excavations that were originally planned for half a year. Instead, they dragged on for 5 years due to the amount of things that they found. In the museum museum we find objects used in multiple eras of Krakow’s history including coins, machinery and tools.

After the museum, each to his own for lunch. Personally, I went with some friends and we did the most European thing to do: watch people as they walk around from a café.


Thursday, April 5

Our trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau, although very depressing, was as equally interesting. While we were there, I learned that it was actually divided into 3 different camps. Unfortunately, we only visited 2 of them. At the first camp, we learned how everyone was divided. When they first arrive, they are divided into 2 categories: fit to work and not fit to work. Only about 25% were decided fit to work, while the others were told to strip naked, leaving all possessions with the guards, and forced into rooms to “take showers for disinfection”. The room’s air conditioning would turn on 30 minutes later and German soldiers would search the bodies for jewelry and gold teeth, and would shave their heads to use the hair for textiles, preferably women’s hair because of its length. The bodies were then burned and the ashes would either be poured into a pond or be used for fertilizer. This was very shocking to me, as it is very disrespectful to those who died for no reason. I don’t know how anybody could treat hundred of thousands of of people this way, as if they’re nothing more than an insect. Even worse were the portions served everyday. They were given 3 “meals” a day, with “coffee” for breakfast, vegetable soup for lunch, and a piece of bread with maybe cheese for dinner. This totaled to about 1500-1700 calories a day, but totaled with the amount of work done, is was basically nothing. What was most shocking to me was the use of collective punishment. One of the worst ones used is if someone isn’t working hard or fast enough or somebody is missing, nobody would get vegetable soup for lunch. Even the thought of this made me sick to my stomach, because of the immense amount of sadness I had for the people who had to struggle through this for weeks, even months.
After the first tour, we went to lunch. There, we had a choice of sour soup, onion soup, and cauliflower soup. I had the sour soup, and it was amazing. I’m not much of a soup person, but it was delicious. The main course was based off of the soup you ordered, and so I had a plate of crepes. It all tasted great, and we got back on the bus to finish the second part of our tour.

The bus ride there was very short, and this camp was extremely big. There, I learned that the Europeans we’re divided into men, women, and families. The work done was the same as the past camp, but this was on a much larger scale. Much was preserved, but many of the documents (about 95%) and buildings were destroyed in 1944 to get rid of the evidence.

Something important to recognize when talking about this is that it was not just Jews that were sent to these camps. There were people from all around Europe that weren’t Jewish that ended up in these camps, including people from Poland and the Soviet Union, and even gypsies and homosexuals. This was not just a catastrophe in Poland, but also around the world. It’s something that everyone should know about, or else it will happen again. I think everyone should go at least once in their life to see its effect on the world, so this is never repeated ever.


Wednesday, April 4

(Coming soon!!)

Tuesday, April 3 (evening)

The Warsaw Zoo was very nice after our pierogi lunch. We got to see the house in “The Zookeepers Wife”, and the original look and furniture from World War II which was intriguing. The Zoo itself and the animals were calm and relaxed, just another ordinary day for them. My friends and I played basketball in the Zoo park, which was meant for younger children but was still very fun for us. The restaurant we went to after the Zoo was in a mall and not too fancy. Dinner was very good being a mainly pizza restaurant.  You could customize your pizza or pasta there. After that, we spent the rest of the day winding down at the hotel.

Tuesday, April 3

The day began with a city tour of the Old Town of Warsaw. Most of the city was destroyed after the Warsaw Uprising by the Nazis. However, Poland was able to reconstruct the capital after the war. I found it interesting that much of the buildings we saw were relatively new, however the old town has a vibe that things haven’t changed for centuries. The city of Warsaw is much larger than what it is perceived to be. The city is five times larger than Paris, and is one of the largest cities in Europe. We started at the Palace of Culture and Science, the largest building in the city. The building was a gift to Poland from Stalin. The building is very impressive. The outside of the building contains statues of Polish figures of culture and science. One of these statues is that of Nicholas Copernicus. We continued the tour into the old town and saw many impressive sites. These sites include some beautiful churches, sculptures, and the Presidential Palace. We concluded the tour with a statue that honored those in the Warsaw Uprising. This memorial was very powerful, especially with the context that we learned from the previous day’s tour of the Warsaw Uprising museum. For lunch we went to a Pierogi bar in Old Town. We were treated to many different kinds of Pierogis, which were delicious. 


Monday, April 2 (evening)

Today we started our day off quite early, as we got on the bus to travel towards Warsaw. We arrived in the morning, and began the day’s activity with a tour of the Warsaw Uprising Museum with a fantastic guide. We learned about the numerous developments and influences that were involved with the unprecedented historical event. The tour guide shared a wealth of anecdotal and personal information regarding the Uprising. Once our time at the Warsaw Uprising museum was finished, we headed to McDonalds for a quick lunch. Our next stop was the POLIN Museum of Jewish history in Poland. The exhibition featured the development of Poland’s rich Jewish history, from the Medieval Period to more modern times. The museum was a beautiful space, and was full of documents and artifacts relating to Jewish culture, which helped to supplement our understanding. We then got to experience one of the tallest and most impressive structures in Warsaw, the Palace of a Culture and Science. We took an elevator to the top and took in the view of the entire city, as we took many photos. Our day was concluded by a traditional Polish dinner, and we finally checked into the Ibis Hotel in Warsaw.


Monday, April 2

In the morning, the city of Toruń was very beautiful. I, along with Ana and Jackie, got up early to walk around town to see if any café was open, although nothing was, and the streets seemed empty, except for a police patrol car that sat on the corner. So, we all walked down by the river, and it was gorgeous. The city overlooked, I think, the Vistula river (the largest river in Poland,) and our hotel was right next to it. The air in the morning crisp and cool; definitely a nice way to wake up. The whole group ate breakfast overlooking the river, and we left around 8 o’clock to go on about a three hour drive to Warsaw. 

The drive was absolutely beautiful, as we passed rolling acres of farmland. Most people slept (myself included) while others quietly listened to music, stared out the window, or played on their phones. 

We arrived around 11:15 AM in Warsaw, and it had stunning first impressions; modern, mixed with history, which represents a lot of the rich history and tenacity of the Polish people. Their struggles over their 1000 years of history were especially apparent at the Warsaw Uprising museum. 

Now, I have been to quite a few museums, but this museum is one of, if not the most impressive museum I have ever seen. The outside of the building has intricate architecture, and grounds are impressive all by themselves. Although, there is nothing like stepping into that museum. We were first greeted by our tour guide after we hung up our coats, and we were led into the museum. The ways the information was displayed was extremely creative, from glass with lights or tangible objects like a telephone. As we continued, we toured the museum and learned about what led up to the Warsaw Uprising and how the Polish people stayed strong and fought against the Germans for freedom. The Germans believed the Uprising would not last more than a day; it lasted for 63 days. The numbers of people who were involved, injured, or killed were shocking, and the torture and terror that was committed against them were unimaginable; I was disgusted by some of the things I heard. Of how they tortured people for information, how the aid came much too late, and how the people were not only treated as vermin, but disrespected in ways I could not imagine. The most shocking part to me was this; many of the people involved in the uprising were like us; teenagers, from 14-17 years old. It further showed the strength of the Polish people and how much some are willing to sacrifice for freedom and liberation.

An interesting experience we had was when we had a chance to experience some of what they had to go through; the way they escaped through the sewers. A replica was in the museum, and we ventured through 20 meters in the pitch black and in silence, then afterwards with the lights on. In reality, the people who escaped through the sewers travelled in complete silence, in darkness, and continued for miles on end. Although it was just a simulation, the taste gave a lot of perspective as to the difficulties and intensity of what the Polish people had to go through in fighting for their freedom. 

One of the things the tour guide told us that I will never forget is this; she said, “a young girl, less than 18 years old, was captured by the Soviets. She was tortured for information, and [sacrificed everything]. Her last words were “tell my grandmother I behaved as I should.” She never told the Soviets anything.” It sent a chill down my spine as it did to many people in the group. Despite unimaginable pain, struggle, and the sacrifice, the young girl like many others fought to keep others safe, and freedom on the horizon. 

Before I end this long journal (I am sorry for that by the way,) I would like to mention the respectful and the wonderful thing the Warsaw Uprising museum did; they built a beautiful wall with all the names of everyone who fought in the uprising. Many of us walked passed it, and it was a touching way to commemorate the courage it took to fight for freedom. 


Sunday, April 1 (evening)

Today we had the chance to go to Copernicus University. First we learned about how technology helps archaeologists find important information in a forest. In a forest you cannot use a drone to find this information because of all the trees and branches.  We also learned about archaeology in Poland. It was really cool to see the delicate pots they found. They were black and white, most of them had different designs. I had never seen anything like that, so it was a really cool experience. I felt like I was taking a class in Poland. 

It was so kind of Dr. Kolyszko and the two doctoral students to take time from his Easter Day and explain the artifacts in the university. I found it very interesting to see the difference in the artifacts from many years ago and now. Back then they had similar bracelets, but the combs were completely different. The combs were mostly made by hand back then and had very detailed designs carved into them. After the university, we went to a new small museum. The museum was built from a burned down church. In the museum we learned how paper was made back in the old days in Poland. We also saw the old school desks that had ink inside of them. Today was also my birthday. It was very nice of everyone to sing Happy Birthday. We all enjoyed a surprise delicious chocolate cake from the best bakery in the city. I couldn’t have asked for a better day. Later some people went swimming including myself. The pool was big and had a nice jacuzzi. 


Sunday, April 1 (Easter Sunday)

We all had to get up very early this morning because Easter mass in Poland takes place at around 8 am. Everyone had to dress up very nicely in order to fit in well at the church. Unfortunately, it was raining, so we had to bring raincoats and umbrellas on our commute to the church. Once we arrived, we met a Polish priest who told us that he had lived in Minnesota in the past, and knew about The Polish Mission. From the outside, the church looked extremely ancient, with a plethora of dilapidated bricks and a massive tower touching the sky’s borders. Since we were the first ones in the church, we watched as civilians entered. Each one either performed the sign of the cross, and/or knelt before the altar of Jesus Christ. However, the actual sermon was in Polish, so we were not able to understand the content. Still, the singing and praying allowed us to grasp an important part of the Polish culture. I also noticed several altars in the back of the church that were made of pure gold, with paintings of Jesus and his followers adding beauty to the structures. The church’s decorum was quite incredible. The sermon was succinct, lasting about 45 minutes, allowing us to return to the hotel to finish packing. Afterwards, we ate breakfast and left our hotel. A few people were late, but we are now on our way to the city of Torun. As I am typing this, we are on the highway, surrounded by green countryside. Many are asleep, including Nikhil behind me. Most likely, they are aiming to be well rested for our tour of a university later. JJ told us that our tour guide payed some contribution to the revered movie “Braveheart”, so it will be a huge honor to meet him. In the next section of this blog, you will be informed of our first night in Torun and our visit to Copernicus University.


Saturday, March 31 (evening)

After touring the solidarity center and having a delicious lunch, we began to tour Gdansk. Having stayed in the city for a few days already we had seen many of the cities landmarks already. However Wojtek (a life long inhabitant of Gdansk) was able to shed a new light on the meaning, and the origin of these sites. From the largest medieval crane in the world, run by giant internal wooden wheels moved powerfully by 4 men at a time, to a statue of Neptune designed by a Dutch artist drawn to Gdansk by its wealth accumulated while in the Hanseatic League, we were able to understand and appreciate our beautiful surroundings.  Wojtek was an amazing tour guide who because of his life in Gdansk was able to describe the changes the city had gone through from the communist era, to modern day. In addition to all of the famous sites in Gdansk Wojtek took us to St. Mary’s street, which some people call the most beautiful street in Poland. It truly was amazing. The street was lined with colorful tightly packed town houses, four stories high. Every building had a stone patio, decorated with ancient stone gargoyles. Along the street stands full of Baltic Amber shined. After our tour we had an amazing dinner on the sea. Some of us closed out the night with an amazing trip on the Ferris wheel, and we even tried some Polish Chinese food!


Saturday, March 31

Today we visited the Gdansk shipyard, the birthplace of the solidarity movement within Poland.  We visited a memorial that was build outside the shipyard(and interestingly without any support by the government), and went into the Solidarity Center.  At the center our tour guide explained the context behind the event as it originally was a shipyard strike that spread throughout Poland and resulted in the communist government giving into the demands made by the workers.  For me, much of it was a new part of history which I had not heard about and definitely interesting.  It was very popular also with as many as 10 million people joining the movement.  We also learned other things related to the recent historical event such as life during the polish communist government, the role of the Pope John Paul II, and the martial law in 1981 given down by Moscow to surprise the solidarity movement.  The tour guide also shared stories of his childhood during this period of time, like the time he saw memorial built in commemoration for victims.  Around this time his brother got in trouble lighting a fireworks(teenagers).

At the end the museum had the solidarity symbol made of hanging cards with messages written by visitors from all sorts of places, and yes, we did put up our own cards on the wall.  We also stopped by the gift shop in the solidarity center(I saw lots of kids with souvenirs).  Next, we had lunch in the center along with some yummy cheesecake(seriously I hope to get more of that stuff!).  Finally, we went in the building the agreement was signed before departing the building for the other activities of the day.  The center was a fantastic experience and I look forward to sharing it when we get back.


Friday, March 30 (evening)

Sopot is a very nice town. It was a little cloudy but it was still very beautiful with many tall colorful buildings (including one very warped and crooked one). It’s a little bit like an open air mall. We went to the pier. Not just any pier, THE pier. My favorite part of this place is that it is so close to the sea. I need to be near the sea. It calls to me. The whistling wind blowing through my hair and the spray of the Baltic salt on my face. I belong to the sea and the sea belongs to me. In fact, many of us went to the beach, took our shoes of and felt the cold water sting our feet. It is an experience I will always remember.


Friday, March 30

The day began with us waiting for Mr. DeZwaan since he slept in and was late for the bus. Once we reached the Malbork castle or zemek, we could see how massive it was and how fortified it was to fend off any attackers. It was interesting to see how much had to be rebuilt after WW 2 left only 50% of the castle in ruins. Malbork castle dates back to the 1200s and even earlier maybe. Around 1410 there was a conflict between the Polish king & Lithuanian and the Teutonic Knights of Germany. These knights became arrogant, wanting to take control over as many states as possible. To counteract this, the Polish king and Lithuanian army pursued these knights and drove them to Malbork castle where it was under siege for around two months. This battle was later viewed by Stalin as an ongoing battle connecting to WW 2. The architecture of this castle was very mixed, with some Neo-Gothic and more Renaissance era. It was interesting seeing how the Grand Master monks had run the castle in later years. Also how protected it was as the castle has never been taken by force with the two moats (now dried up) and extensive gates to ensure there were no unwelcome guests. Later we ate at the local restaurant inside the Castle grounds before we had free time to walk around and take more pictures. Now we are traveling to Sopot!


Thursday, March 29 (evening)

Today we visited the island of Westerplatte. This was the area were the first shots of WW 2 were fired and Poland defended themselves for a whole week from the Germans (they were only ordered to fight for 12 hours). On Westerplatte, we saw the symbolic graves of the 15 national heroes who died during this siege. Also, we visited two memorials, one for what happened here, and one for Polish Pope John Paul. The key message from what we learned is best summed up by this quote from our tour guide, Wojciech, “politicians start wars, but innocent civilians pay the highest price”


Thursday, March 29

Today our first adventure was the exciting World War II museum. While it was not a very humorous adventure, it was very interesting to listen to all the history and (for juniors and seniors) be able to connect it to what Mr. DeZwaan has taught us 🙂 I think this experience has broadened our perspectives about the topic because while we know what we learn in school, it helps to see a concrete environment where the events took place. After finishing at the museum and seeing memorials, we returned to our hotel where we exchanged money and visited the small downtown area of Gdansk near our hotel. The Ferris wheel previously mentioned was ridden, a good experience enjoyed by all. Next task: get Mr. DeZwaan to ride the wheel with us 🙂

-Giselle & Maia

Wednesday, March 28 (evening)

We arrived in Gdansk after a pretty short flight over from Warsaw. When we got on the bus, we met our driver and we drove to the hotel while passing notable Polish businesses like KFC and IKEA. At the hotel, we quickly made ourselves ready for dinner. After that it was a short walk to the restaurant. While we didn’t see much of the city, we saw a glimpse of it as we passed some old brick buildings. At the restaurant, everyone feasted with the whole event taking around 2 hours. I think the most impressive part of the evening was the trip back from the restaurant; we could see the old town lit up along with a not-so-old Ferris wheel. I think after seeing all that, we are all excited to really delve into Gdansk tomorrow.


Wednesday, March 28

Today, we landed in Warsaw and finally began the polish part of our Poland Journey!!!!!! The flight from Chicago to Warsaw went by in a breeze and the Dreamline Plane was truly what dreams are made of, according to Hilary Duff, a teen icon. Currently we are awaiting the final flight to Gdansk, we had 3 hours to explore the Warsaw airport and try the airport cuisine! For example, the McDonald’s had chicken nuggets that were quite foreign and delicious. Everyone is super excited and happy to be here and we can’t wait for the rest of our trip!!!!! See y’all in 12 days 🙂


Tuesday, March 27 (evening)

Hello people from the other side, my name is Caroline and i will be telling you all about day 1!!!!! Yay! *cue the applause* Today, we left at 1:30 pm from IA and arrived at Chicago by 5pm. Everything went smoothly and no one went missing…yet. As I write this we are about to board so hopefully I make it through the flight. I’m excited to experience the culture and history, less excited about the airplane food not going to lie. Well anyways I should board! Bye!!!!!!

PS let’s hope I sleep 🙂


Tuesday, March 27

Hello everyone! Welcome to our trip to Poland news feed! If you’re not in the know, we at The Polish Mission are SOOPER excited to be partnered with International Academy, on a special joint effort field trip to Poland! Curator JJ Przewozniak, Summer Camps Director Robert Mazur, and IA history teacher Marc DeZwaan, just began a 13-day adventure to the homeland of our founder, Fr. Józef Dabrowski! Polish Language Coordinator Marzanna Owinski is with us remotely back in Michigan, on constant stand-by for support. So for the next couple of weeks, our regular Polish Mission newsfeed will be taking a back seat to day-by-day blogging by the students of IA. Please enjoy the exciting commentary, stand by for pictures posted at our regular photo album, and we’ll see you when we get back!