Well, I’ve done it again. I’ve promised a post way sooner than I can deliver one but the weeks just fly by in a blur over here… One minute I’m in Poland, the next I’m in the Czech Republic (No, that literally happened I went out for dinner one night with my Polish friend Domi and she just drove right over the border and right back and I was like mind blown…) But really, over the past couple weeks since I left the Czech Republic, I have gone from Poland, back to Vienna for a day, then to London and I am currently writing this from Lisbon, Portugal!
So, I know it’s been awhile but I have two posts coming your way so bear with me! The first of this set of two I’m promising is about my time in Poland! I was fortunate enough to spend about 2 weeks in Poland. In those 2 weeks, I fell in love with Poland and Polish culture. It is a country full of people with beautiful souls. I was lucky enough to get to know a few during my time there. But, I will once again tell my stories through the pictures I have taken! So, when we first left Prague to head to Poland, we took a few trains meaning we had a couple transfers. This is always extremely stressful, running from one train to the next but we made it to Krakow, Poland. Our first night, we checked into our hotel which was in the Jewish Quarter, the hotel was called Hotel Ester. And, for those of you who know me and my weird quirks well, you know why: I LOVE JEWISH HISTORY. I have always had a deep interest in the Jewish people from their biblical origin and onward. Therefore, this district just intrigued me so much. I was so ready to explore that first night we arrived and of course plans had been arranged for us for dinner. So, we unloaded our things and headed to an Oktoberfest themed dinner. This was my meal below:
MASHED POTATOES. SOOOO GOOOOOD.
This Oktoberfest themed dinner party was what welcomed us to Poland! It was awesome. We ate and danced and enjoyed our first night in Poland.
This room was filled with joyful dancing people. I had such a blast.
This was some graffiti I saw on the way to dinner, the Lion of Judah. (Significance: the Lion of Judah is the symbol of the Israelite tribe of Judah in the Book of Genesis. Judah was the fourth son of Jacob the Israelite and was the progenitor of King David. The Lion of Judah is also a phrase in the Book of Revelation representing Jesus, who originated from the tribe of Judah.) This is probably the coolest graffiti I have seen so far though.
The next day, we were given a lesson on Polish history and culture from a Polish woman named Marta and her husband a Minnesotan and a Bethel grad named Billy. His dad is actually a professor at Bethel. Marta and Billy met through the missionary group we were connected with in Poland. The group is called Josiah Venture, they have operations in many countries in Europe but we were connected with them in Poland. Josiah Venture provides English classes through each of their European locations but they are a faith based organization. Billy and Marta met in the Ukraine. They now live in Poland together and they were kind enough to show us around Krakow and share their insights with us! Above is a picture of St. Mary’s Basilica. We went to mass here which was a very interesting experience, it was all in Polish.
Above is a photo of the city center in Krakow. The long building is the cloth hall where merchants sell their items from both sides of the building. I bought some fur mittens there. And let me tell you, they are glorious.
Marta and Billy showing us around!
First, they showed us the Jagiellonian University, which is where Marta is a professor! The Jagiellonian University was established in 1364 by Casimir III the Great in Kazimierz. It is the oldest university in Poland, the second oldest university in Central Europe and one of the oldest universities in the world.
This part of the University is not utilized but instead remains a museum of sorts. This is the school that Nicolas Copernicus attended as well as Pope John Paul II.
The next thing we saw was this church which has a statue of each of the twelve disciples. I thought it was so cool.
Then passing through the Jewish Quarter we saw this.
And, this Jewish Cemetery.
The next day, we went to Schindler’s Factory. Oskar Schindler was an ethnic German industrialist, German spy, and member of the Nazi party who is credited with saving the lives of 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust by employing them in his enamelware. There is a famous movie about him, called Schindler’s List.
Before reaching the factory, we saw these huge chairs below. The chairs as I have read noted the scene in the streets after the ghetto’s ultimate liquidation of Jews in Poland, the poignant scene of furniture and belongings left behind by the people of the ghetto, the majority of which were either murdered in the ghetto or transported to their deaths.
After Schindler’s factory… and our second full day in Krakow… We were all exhausted.
So, the napping commenced.
Naps on naps on naps! IN THE STREETS, NAPS.
Then, following the naps we took vans from Krakow to Katowice, where we moved into the camp. Camp H2O, a christian camp facility owned by Josiah Venture. It was the nicest and most modern camp I had ever been to. It was lovely and here we settled in and prepared for the following week. Within that following week, we were to teach English classes through Josiah Venture at local schools.
CAMP. I LOVE CAMP.
Then, the week began and we started teaching. I was lucky enough to be put in a group with my dear friend Brooke. Here’s a picture of us from our first day of teaching! We taught English to middle school aged kids.
My teaching group consisted of the people below: DJ, Brooke, Cat, Ben, April and Laura. The woman next to me is Domi. She was basically our guide for our time teaching. She led us to our schools, provided us with snacks throughout our teaching days and was an overall angel. She is amazing. Domi is an orthopedic trauma nurse, youth group leader, and in my humble opinion, a saint. She has such a beautiful soul and heart for the Lord. Without her, Poland wouldn’t have been the same.
For some of our classes, our group had to split up into two smaller groups so we could teach more students in separate classes. This was my group Ben and April, both ROCKSTARS:
We had such a blast teaching English and getting to know all of the Polish students. They were seriously so awesome and we had the opportunity to be in a different classroom everyday at different schools meeting so many students. Below is a picture of some of our students from one of our classes:
They treated us with so much respect. These two asked for a photo with us, which was so shocking for us… but we were so flattered. Also, at the beginning of each class the students would all be standing until we told them to sit. They are such respectful students. I couldn’t have asked for a more enriching experience in Poland than teaching these students.
Let me share with you, one of my favorite students.. Matthew:
Matthew was so enthusiastic, very young but so excited about learning English. When I told him I was from Minnesota he wrapped his arms around himself and said brrrrr… it’s cold there, right? I couldn’t help but laugh because he was right… I responded with, yes, a lot like Poland, he nodded and smiled in agreement. He was so excited that we were in his classroom teaching. At one point when we were playing hotseat, a game in which the class is split in two teams and there is one person in the hot seat from each team, the teacher writes a word on the board and the students who are not in the hot seat are to describe the word to the person in the hot seat. The first student in the hot seat to guess correctly, wins. He was trying to explain in English to a classmate the word “school” and he kept yelling things in English like “teacher”, “books”, “students” and he finally yells “SO MANY CLASSES” and shakes his hands at the student… It was probably the most hilarious moment of my short teaching career. He was great.
Okay, so following our few days of teaching. Friday rolled around quickly and the majority of the 25 Bethel students went off to homestays with Polish families, except my group. We stayed at camp for Friday night because Domi’s youth group came and stayed over night for a camp follow up. We had a blast as you can see by the photo below, they hid toilet paper rolls all over the building and two teams went in search of them, Ben clearly was excited about this:
As were April and Brooke… and Domi in the background
We played all sorts of games like the one below where a person from each team had to unroll the whole roll of toilet paper with their mouth… This is Domi and her awesome sister Ania.
Then, we had some time dedicated to worship. April and Ben both led a few songs which was awesome.
Ben leading worship:
Then Saturday, the whole group went for a walk and had lunch and the students went home. This was our night to go to homestays, April and I went home with a student named Kasia and Cat, Brooke and Laura went home with Domi and Ania. This group below (Cat, Brooke, Domi, Ania and April) spent a lot of time together in Poland, I had so much fun with all of them.
Then, the homestays commenced! Saturday night after arriving at our homestays April, Kasia and I had dinner with her mother and sister and then headed over to Domi’s to hang out with the other girls. At Domi’s we all just laughed, talked and drank tea for hours, it was the best time ever.
Below is a photo of Kasia and April. April and I were blessed to be able to stay with Kasia and her mother and sister. Her father was out of town. Below is a photo of Kasia and April singing and playing guitar together.
April and I brought gifts for our host family. I brought a twin cities t-shirt, a Minnesota mug and coaster. When I woke up Sunday morning for church and went into the kitchen, my host mother was wearing the t-shirt and drinking out of the mug! My heart melted in that moment. She told me she collected mugs which I didn’t know but was glad to hear.
My favorite moment from my homestay was when my host mother told her daughter Gabba to tell me (because my host mother didn’t speak English) that she could always tell what I meant by my facial expressions even though she didn’t understand my words. Overall, my homestay experience was an incredible blessing. Polish people are some of the most hospitable people I have ever encountered.
Then, Sunday night all the Bethel students returned to camp to get a good nights rest before Monday. Monday we embarked on a journey up a mountain to a ropes course! It was such a blast, climbing all day followed by dinner at a “hobbit” restaurant.
ROPES COURSE 🙂
Following our day of reunification at the ropes course and dinner, Tuesday we had a scheduled tour of Auschwitz, the concentration camp. I was very anxious about this experience, as I detailed in a previous post I have been reading holocaust survivor stories since 5th grade. I have only delved into the history of the holocaust through words and text because pictures were always too much for me, I would have nightmares or I wouldn’t be able to shake the images from my mind. This historical event is both the most tragic and overwhelming for humankind because it truly shows how brutal we can be to each other. I have always struggled with why and how it could have happened and so touring Auschwitz was something I had always planned to do but wasn’t sure when or if I could handle it. It seemed though, that my time was now whether I was ready or not.
The entrance sign to the main camp reads: Work makes you free. As if that was true for the prisoners of this camp…
The barbed wire fence surrounding the main camp was enough to make me shiver and shudder at the sight. I already felt a sense of panic come over me upon seeing it.
Our tour guide led us into the camp and into the buildings within the camp that held museum type stuff. Enlarged photos, facts, historical documents but this below caught my attention, this is filled with ashes of Jewish victims, it is a statue for remembrance:
This photo below is of cans of Zyklon-B which were administered into the gas chambers to murder the “prisoners” from the camp. Seeing all of these cans made my stomach churn… All I could think about was how many people just these cans alone killed. I cannot imagine how many cans there were overall…
Then, our tour guide led us into a room with a case… the case was filled, as you can see below, with human hair. The hair was the actual human hair taken off victims heads after their deaths in the gas chambers. This room physically made my heart hurt… The single rose placed in front of two tons of human hair was just a stark image of the horror that was the holocaust and the way in which we remember it now. The ability of humans to continue to hope after such a tragic occurrence is astounding and supremely beautiful. One holocaust survivor wrote in her recounting of her life, “Where there is life, there is hope.” When I read this years ago, I didn’t understand truly what that meant until I saw this. Despite this horribly tragedy that will stain humankind’s history forever, we must move forward and ensure that something so depraved will never take place again. To always love one another and harm none. To see this blatant image and not want to protect your fellow humans would be inhumane… When you see something like this that so clearly shows you what humans are capable of, it is frightening but also empowering because although we have the power to do unspeakable things in the ways of evil, we also have the power to do the most amazing and kind things out of love. The power of love will always overcome that of evil.
2 tons of human hair collected by the Nazi’s.
Following that we went to the open area between barracks 10 and 11 where people were routinely shot. This memorial was placed there for them.
The skull and cross bones, the watchtower, the barbed wire… These people were not prisoners but instead mothers, fathers, daughters, sisters, brothers, grandparents, cousins, friends, who had done nothing wrong but belonged to an “undesirable race”. It is sickening that the innocent lives of so many had to live this way… Like animlas, like prisoners.
Then following our tour of the first camp which had basically been turned into a museum, we went to Birkenau. Birkenau has basically been left untouched besides the memorials built in the back of the camp.
When we drove up to the camp, our first sight was this beautiful sky. To see this beauty in such a dark and terrible place was a very stark contrast, I was in such a flurry of emotions.
Then, I saw the tracks for the rail cars. I have read about them extensively… People being packed into them, with no air to breathe, no space to sit for days, no food or water and a bucket to relieve themselves in. They were packed in these conditions until they arrived in the camp from wherever their original home was that they were so forcibly ripped from.
Looking at these tracks and reflecting on how many people were transported here on them was an overwhelming thought, to think that this modern invention that provided so much good in other parts of the world (like bringing families together, making travel possible) was such a terrible and integral piece to the Nazi’s plan.
There were candles placed along the tracks as well as flowers in remembrance. It was as if everyday people make pilgrimages to this place, to remember, to continue to mourn, to learn about humankind’s history, I hope this place always has flowers and candles… It deserves our attention and remembrance. We must always remember those who perished in places like these so we can always be mindful and intentional to protect our fellow humans from the few who are consumed with evil, the ones with the capabilities to confuse and brainwash the masses into committing such heinous acts. We must always remember.
I couldn’t shake how the beauty of the sky contrasted the dark aura that surrounded this place… It was like the sun was trying to penetrate the cloud of despair that will forever hang over this stretch of land. It broke my heart completely.
Our tour guide then brought us to see a set of barracks where 100’s of people were packed into these small bunks. I have read stories about these bunks breaking with people in them and killing them, people watched their family members perish due to these bunks.
As the sun descended into the trees, my heart was sinking as well. I couldn’t handle this place, or comprehend the intensity of the emotions flooding inside me. That such tragedy could happen in a world that I live in, nonetheless was produced by fellow humans… It made me sick.
Looking over the expanse of this place, I realized just how many barracks there were, enough to fit tens of thousands and I became very aware of how huge the Nazi’s plan was. This frightened me, that a group of people could gain so much power that they were able to slaughter million after million and continue to get away with it… It made me afraid of humankind’s capabilities. Looking over a camp of this magnitude and reflecting on how much depravity took place here is overwhelming for any human being… to visit a place like Auschwitz and not leave in a total state of distress is almost inhumane.
Upon my exit of the camp, I felt a sense of panic escape me… I didn’t realize while I was in the camp how afraid I had been deep down. I felt that at any moment a Nazi might come out and start rounding up my group… To think that people from all walks of life perished in places like these is so frightening. There was no one to stand up for anyone at that time or it meant death for you as well… It hurts my heart to know that genocide still happens to this day. I pray to God that as humans who share the earth, we learn to love one another despite and because of our differences. Differences are beautiful and we should be learning to embrace them rather than condemn people for them.
Following Auschwitz, we all made our way back to camp. That night, Domi came and picked up Cat, April, Brooke and I and we debriefed about our day. It was a lovely dinner filled with laughter and conversation.
Wednesday we had a group dinner with the leaders from H20 (Josiah Venture) and our Bethel group as a goodbye. This is some of the people at dinner:
And Thursday, we left Poland for Vienna, Austria. Saying goodbye to Domi, Ania, Kasia and all of the people at Josiah Venture brought me to tears. I come to love a place by the people I meet there and the people I met in Poland were some of the most amazing human beings I have encountered. I miss them all so very much but I believe we will meet again one day.
From Vienna our Bethel group was splitting up for ten days! We were embarking on different journey’s for free travel. Free travel is ten days to travel wherever you want in Europe on your own dime. That is what has led me to Portugal. But before I was in Portugal, I went to London. My next post will be about my time in London! Just as an update, I will be leaving Portugal tomorrow to spend the weekend in Vienna. My whole group meets back in Vienna on Sunday to head to Millstatt, Austria to live in a castle for three weeks. My parents will be coming to Europe November 1st, they will meet my group in Salzburg, Austria (Where Sound of Music was filmed) for the weekend and then come back to the castle with us for two days. I cannot wait to seem them and explore Europe with them!
This continues to be an exciting adventure each and everyday. Each day is different and I learn something new almost every second. It’s an overwhelming and beautiful journey filled with laughter and tears but I am growing and learning so much about myself all the time. Thank you all for the support and for following my crazy journey! I am going to try and post again on Saturday. Thanks for bearing with me y’all. Until next time! Take care.