Exploring Jewish Heritage and Polish Culture
Posted 04/08/2019 03:30PM

Fifteen Whitfield students had the opportunity to explore Jewish heritage and Polish culture during a school-sponsored Spring Break trip to Poland, March 18-25, 2019. Along with two faculty chaperones, Michał Kwiecień and Carine Terras, the group traveled to Warsaw and Kraków.

“Carine and I are so proud of the students who mitigated the stresses of travel and the painful chapters of Polish and Jewish history with extraordinary dignity, grace, and poise,” said Michal Kwiecień. “It became clear very quickly that our school does a very effective job of emphasizing and modeling the key habits and values of cultural competence, ethical behavior, diversity and multiculturalism, and global citizenship.”

The itinerary featured a variety of sightseeing adventures that included historical glimpses into Poland’s multicultural and vibrant past as well as the history of World War II. For several of the student travelers the trip complemented curricular themes in their Human Rights and Genocide Studies class including the history of the Holocaust and Jewish history in the European diaspora.

“As a student in Dr. Kwiecień Human Rights and Genocide class, I had a lot of context about Poland before our trip,” said Caitlin Ash ’19. “We have talked about the Holocaust in great depth and being in Poland allowed me to expand upon my knowledge even more. Seeing the architecture both in Warsaw and in Krakow was very cool and we learned a lot about Polish history at the various museums we visited.”

In Warsaw, a city that was almost entirely destroyed by the Nazis in World War II, the group visited the Wilanów Palace, POLIN Museum, Warsaw’s Old Ghetto area, and the Warsaw Uprising Museum. The student travelers also enjoyed exploring Old Town and Łazienki Park and eating Polish food.

After three days in Warsaw, the group traveled by train to Kraków, which happens to be Dr. Kwiecień’s hometown. Unlike Warsaw, Kraków was preserved during World War II. The city features majestic architecture, the historic Wawel Castle and Cathedral, and the Wieliczka Salt Mine. The group also took a walking tour of the neighborhood of Podgorze which is the area of Kraków’s Jewish Ghetto during WWII and the former Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory which now houses a permanent exhibition about Kraków under Nazi Occupation 1939-1945.

The trip concluded with a tour of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, the former German Nazi concentration and extermination camp.

“This was of course the most difficult part of the trip for all of us,” said Dr. Kwiecień. “We’ve studied this history in a more abstract way and seeing Auschwitz made it real. Our students handled the experience with such grace and maturity. They asked insightful questions and engaged with our tour guide—it was the best of Whitfield.”

Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau was deeply personal for several students including Caitlin Ash ’19. “My family is Jewish, and we have talked about the Holocaust throughout my life, even when I was a young child,” said Ash. “Walking through the gates at Auschwitz-Birkenau was a very emotional experience for me. It is hard to explain the deep feeling that you get when you're there. It is one thing to learn and read about it in class but being there was extremely difficult and emotional. It is a visit I will never forget.”


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