Final Reflections

As the trip has come to an end and we are back in the United States, I find myself reflecting on the past 3 1/2 weeks, and how it went by so fast. I could not have asked for a better first experience abroad with an amazing group of individuals. Reflecting back on the academic side of the trip, I return home much more knowledgeable about various different topics that involve the country of Poland.

One of our main focuses of the trip surrounded the Holocaust, why it happened, and the different political issues that follow it today. We read various different articles and books  for both psychology and political science that helped us understand these things. We also visited three different Nazi German camps and travelled to different cities to see the sites of Jewish pogroms. Also, we learned about different minority groups located in Poland such as the Tatars and Orthodox Christians. Finally, we ended on the issue of abortion in Poland and how it is illegal except in certain cases within Poland and how the Catholic Church may play a role in shaping these political values. Not only did we spend our time in classrooms, we also went out and about in many different cities from south to north in Poland visiting places that helped us to better understand the country.

We got to try many different kinds of foods and eat ice cream almost every night which was personally my favorite part of the meal. The beautiful architecture and how presentable every little business, house, and store were was definitely something to see. While we had very eventful days everyday and met wonderful people, my favorite day was touring the Presidential Palace and meeting with a Righteous Among the Nations, Irena Senderska-Rzonca. Overall this was the trip of a lifetime and I hope to bring the Polish culture home and explain to my family and friends how great this trip was and why certain things are happening in Poland today. I would like to end this blog post by extending a thank you to Dr. Wright and Dr. Anes for leading a wonderful field studies trip.

-Gabi Hancock

Wladyslawowo and Hel photographs

Our last two days were spent relaxing (after one last morning class of Dr. Wright and mine) and taking in the sun in Wladyslawowo and souvenir shopping and seeing the seals at the University of Gdansk research station in Hel. Sunrise in this part of the world at this season is at 4:00 am and sunset is 9:30 pm, so we had a lot of daylight to work with.

– Dr. Anes

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Blog 4 – Jayson

With the Witt in Poland field study drawn to a close, I could not be more thankful to have participated in such a wonderful opportunity.

From an academic standpoint, there was so much to learn from the trip. We learned about the conditions that led to the Holocaust, and examined whether the motivations behind the Holocaust were based on economic motivations or antisemitic attitudes. We examined the evolution of political narratives in Poland, and how a country could maintain a national identity despite that country having long periods of occupation or control from foreign powers. We studied the history of a variety of cultural and religious groups throughout the country, and how each of their histories intertwine with the overall history and narrative of the country. We studied the way that Poland is seen from other parts of the world, and whether that affects that way that Poles see themselves. Oftentimes we examined in what ways the politics of Poland were similar to and different from the politics of the United States. We met multiple professors, who each contributed to these topics with added expertise allowing us to understand what we were learning from a better viewpoint. There was so much to learn, even spending nearly a month in Poland makes one feel like they’ve only just started understanding the size of any of these topics. The trip easily leads one to further study.

However, the trip was also enjoyable as a life experience even outside of an academic context. We had the opportunity to meet so many people who were kind and welcoming of us into their country. We had time to enjoy amazing, beautiful places, from enormous cities to national parks to sunny beaches. We got to try many new foods, not only trying out food unique to Poland but also discovering the similarities and differences between similar foods in the United States and Poland. We got incredibly close to a group of 11 people, helping each other through the inevitable confusion of managing in a completely unfamiliar environment.

The trip was worthwhile in nearly all aspects, and I’m very glad to have participated.

Treblinka Reflections/Comparisons

Last week, we visited Treblinka on the way to Bialystok. It’s definitely one of the less frequented concentration camp museums, and one that I barely knew about before this trip. It stands in the middle of a forest, with a small 3-room museum near the entrance. One room summarizes the events of WWII, showing propaganda posters and flyers that was common during wartime. The second room displayed some pieces of Jewish graves, and the final room displayed photographs and artifacts from WWII. Lining the walls were photos of Treblinka during the time of its operation, including photos of the German workers. (One is Franz Stangl, who we have been reading about in a book called Into That Darkness by Gitta Sereny.) Additionally, there were several glass cases containing some items that had been found in the camp during archaeological research (pieces of jewelry, dishes, and so on). There were also stories of a few of the prisoners with handwritten journal entries & letters. 

After visiting the museum for about half an hour, we walked down the rocky path toward the memorial site. Alongside the path, there is a symbolic railroad track to represent the path that the prisoners took to arrive to the camp. The entire memorial site is represented through stones – not arranged or organized in any particular way, different sizes, jutting up out of the ground in random places. In the first section of the site, different stones represent different countries from which people came to Treblinka. There is a large stone column in the middle of this section, then past that there is a large black block in the grass between the two sections. The block is made of burnt glass taken from the destroyed cremation chamber (?), and along it, people had left flowers, flags, and candles honoring the dead. Finally, the last section of the site has hundreds of stones representing cities/villages/towns from which people came to Treblinka. The size of the stone is correlated to how many people were taken from that site. 

It was an incredibly surreal, emotionally taxing experience. During our walk and even the first section of the memorial site, there was a constant low buzz from the flies/bees that had made themselves at home. However, as soon as we stepped foot on the second section, the buzzing stopped, as if even the bugs knew this was a sacred place to avoid out of respect. We were left in complete silence save the light crunching of gravel under our shoes. Because it’s such a small and rarely visited site, there was nobody else outside when we were, and there was nobody guiding us through as was the case when we visited Auschwitz. We were left alone with our thoughts and the dizzying number of stones. Because of this, visiting Treblinka was more emotional for me personally than visiting Auschwitz & Birkenau. Navigating my way through the maze of stones, being careful not to disturb the small rocks & candles people had left for their loved ones, one word kept resurfacing in my thoughts: senseless. The killing, the hatred, the blame – all senseless. I thought about all the different types of people that had been killed, how much potential they could’ve had, how much they could – and would – have accomplished if given the chance. I thought about how close we may be to something like this happening again, given the right circumstances. I thought about what I would do, what I would’ve done during WWII. I thought about Franz Stangl, who admits during his interview with Gitta Sereny that over time he grew to see the prisoners as “cargo,” no different from cows being led to slaughter. I thought about the Germans, drinking and laughing and ignoring the consequences of what they were doing. I thought about the prisoners, Jewish and otherwise, and how frightened they must have been, his disgusting their living conditions likely were, how mothers were trying to care for children while worrying about their literal life incessantly. Mostly, I thought about my family and friends, and how that could’ve been us had we been born in a different time, in another world. 

Treblinka was hands-down one of the most impactful parts of the trip, despite only having been there for an hour. It has been (and still is) hard to process, especially alongside Auschwitz & Birkenau. Auschwitz had a more factual, angry energy to it, as if to say “here’s the harsh reality of what happened; here’s what they did to these people.” Since Treblinka, we have also visited Stutthof. I can’t say much about it, except that it was deeply, incomprehensibly, viscerally sad. It was old and quiet, and it felt as if even the buildings themselves were mourning what had happened. Maybe it was because it was late in the trip and I had/have less emotional energy to process everything, or maybe it was just my state of mind on the days we visited each camp, but each one felt different, gave a different feeling, told a different story. Of all of them, Treblinka still stands out to me the most for its sheer underrepresentation, but all of them were equally impactful in different ways and I am so grateful to have had this opportunity.

-Maddie