Striking Similarities

Last week, we had a wonderful lecture by Professor Stan Obirek. He discussed, among other things, what he considered to be the key, defining events of the country’s history.

At the end of the lecture, Professor Obirek asked us what the most striking thing has been on the trip so far. It’s a loaded question with many possible answers, but I think that mine would have to be all the similarities between the current political & social atmosphere of Poland and that of the United States. The current party in power in Poland, for example, is the Law & Justice Party (here called the PiS) which is a conservative right-wing party. Back in Lodz when we met with Professor Ela Durys, a colleague of Dr. Wright’s, she told us a little about the party and its actions. One thing she mentioned was that PiS replaced the members of a panel of film critics (who review movies at a film festival) with their own people. “Illegally, of course,” she added afterwards.

Another similarity I noticed is mentioned in a piece we read by Professor Michal Bilewicz, a psychologist at the University of Warsaw. In one section of this work, he discusses what happens in the “early stages of genocide”. He talks about hate speech, dehumanizing speech, such as comparing a particular group of people to animals or worse. During the Holocaust, this took form in the attitudes held by many that Jews were vermin, they were lice, they caused typhoid fever, and so on. Reducing people to the level of animals serves to take away their emotionality and disguise their innate “humanness” that would otherwise facilitate empathy for them. 

Arguably, we can see this same type of hate speech happening in the States almost daily. Our current president is… passionate about his beliefs and has no qualms about sharing them bluntly and publicly. Mexican (gang members) are “animals,” liberals are “snowflakes,” immigrants are stealing our jobs, and so on. We are all used to these lines of rhetoric and dehumanization, but stepping outside of my own country to read about & experience another has really opened my eyes to the potential danger of the attitudes & actions of our current administration. 

It seems like an alien, impossible outcome, but even Americans have created concentration camps for minority groups before (Japanese people during WWII, for instance), so we shouldn’t – and can’t – perceive ourselves as incapable of sinking to that level. As Primo Levi once said, “It happened, therefore it can happen again.” There is no longer room for allowing such hate (speech) in our social spheres. 


Final Thoughts

Today is our last day in Poland, and tomorrow we’ll be back in the States. It’s hard to think that we have been here less than a month but travelled to more than half a dozen locations across the country. Dr. Anes asked us in Gdansk what our favorite location was, and about half the group, including myself, answered Kraków. I do not think that I would want to change my answer, but now that the trip is over, it really is hard to pick a favorite place. Similarly, it’s hard to pick a favorite activity that we’ve been able to experience. While some days were very tiring, emotionally or physically, looking back on the past three weeks it all seems very worthwhile. We were able to attend lectures from amazing professors Ela Durys, Michal Bilewicz, and Stan Obirek, and experienced many locations with very knowledgeable tour guides. We even had the opportunity to meet someone recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations for helping to save a Jewish family during the Holocaust. Before getting here I was not entirely sure what to expect, but there was not a single day that I did not enjoy while being here.

I feel that I have learned a lot not only about Poland’s history, but about contemporary Poland and how it has been formed into its modern state. Much like America, there seems to be a lot to worry about for many people, but I would like to think that it will not last forever. With rising rates of nationalism and fear of outsiders, I’m glad that we are able to take part in a trip like this, and broaden our horizons a little more than they were before. I believe that anyone who is able should come visit places like Poland, where one can learn that a troubled past does not dictate a troubled future or present. I’m beyond grateful that I have been able to take part in this trip, and I can only pray that in two years, another group of students will have similar experiences. Thank you to Drs. Anes and Wright.

Spencer L

Last Day

Today is our last day here in Poland. I can only speak for myself, but today is a bittersweet day. I’m very sad to be leaving Poland, but will be happy to those back home that I love. This experience has been truly life changing and I have learned so much during our time here. I can honestly say I have a much better understanding of the holocaust and Poland thanks to Dr. Anes and Dr. Wright. This trip has been emotionally harrowing, but so worth it. I feel as though I am now more aware of the issues surrounding not only Poland, but also the United States. We have been blessed with so many opportunities on this trip and have had so many experiences here that it’s unbelievable. Getting to meet with Pani Irena and hear her story and visiting the camps was extremely difficult and inspiring all at the same time; getting to see so many different locations in Poland, visiting the presidential palace.  It’s hard to adequately articulate my feelings about each individual experience, but I’m grateful that I have had these experiences and have had the opportunity to learn so much.


Blog 3 – Jayson

While in Gdańsk we took the time to visit the Solidarity museum. This museum was interesting in relation to the others we visit on this trip; Throughout our travels, many of the museums, memorials, and historical sites that we spend time at are dedicated to the acknowledgement and remembrance of tragedy. We’ve spent time at three sites of former concentration and/or extermination camps as well as several museums dedicated to remembrance of the holocaust and World War II. All of these are reminders of deeply troubling events, and contribute to the polish narrative of Poland as the “Christ of Nations”. However, the Solidarity museum was different. While there were certainly events at the Solidarity museum which referenced tragedy, the focus of the museum was the formation and success of a once-labour-union-turned-social movement.

The history of the movement was interesting as well. The museum told the story of a shift in power resulting from the actions of the people (occurring, of course, after many years and in a mix of conditions from which a successful movement could arise). From the first exhibit, those who visit the museum are met with a tangible representation of the goals of the movement – doors on which the 21 demands were printed, a physical manifestation of the demands of the members of a society, a particularly powerful and moving historical icon and part of the UNESCO Memory of the World register. The museum was an altogether worthwhile experience and a welcome portion of the field study experience.



Highs and Lows – Solidarity and Stutthof

I have taken many photos since being here in Poland, but today there was a very distinctive difference between one set of photos and the next. We started our work day by visiting the Solidarność museum, and followed it with a trip to Stutthof concentration camp. In my camera roll I have a photo of the Solidarity museum, immediately followed by the “death gate” at Stutthof. Both represent important parts of Polish history for drastically different reasons and seeing them side by side is jarring. Visiting both of these places in one day helped to further cement the work that we have been doing here through our classes, and how incredibly varied Poland’s history is. In a span of 40 years the country dealt with concentration camps, Soviet rule, political uprisings, and now somehow has to come to terms with all this today, all within some people’s lifetimes.

The Solidarity museum was upsetting and uplifting. There are images of young men who were killed during the movement, and there are speeches from John Paul II asking for peaceful resistance. A quote from the Pope during one such speech was “do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” I think that because the Solidarity movement reminded me so much of the Civil Rights movement, and other American resistances, it was easy to be emotionally influenced by it. It was hard to walk around and see these men and women fighting back against a system that was repressing them and showing no mercy, but it was made easier by knowing the ending of the story.

Visiting Stutthof was upsetting, and not uplifting. Similar to Solidarity, I know the ending of the story. When visiting, one of my first thoughts was how beautiful it looked. The meticulous brick buildings, the ornate wood carvings on the front offices, a functional fountain in the large, open lawn. However, these feelings are quickly cut short when you can see what’s past these buildings and the fountain; when you can see all the way to the back of the camp. The clear care that went into building the SS quarters compared with the camp inhabitants quarters is disgusting. The barracks that housed thousands of “inmates” could have been thrown up in a weekend, with thousands dying just from the living conditions. Part of me feels like that’s why the Nazis even bothered with all the fanciness at the front of the camp, it was to have something nice to look at that wasn’t the crematorium, the gas chamber, and the sick and dying just feet from their beds.

It has been a very long and varied day.

Spencer L

European Solidarity Center photographs

We started the day by visiting a new museum on the scene since the last trip in 2013. In fact, this museum, library and organizational space was under construction at the time of our last trip.

I was very moved by the museum’s exhibits. The power of people in general and the incredible tenacity of Poles in overthrowing communism could hardly be more dramatically presented and the exhibits are profoundly immersive, more so than in the previous, smaller and underground (literally) museum exhibit called Pathways To Freedom.

Dr. Wright taught class in the museum cafe and then we were on our way to Stutthof.

– Dr. Anes