The final day of the Holocaust Study Tour 2016! Last night after dinner, back at the hotel we had to say goodbye to Shalmi, who was leaving early today. We had a talent show with a “Shalmi rap” and an incredibly accurate and hysterical Shalmi impersonation. We gave him our individual thank you letters and said goodbye to this wonderful Holocaust educator who had taught us all so much during the past two weeks.
This morning was another beautiful day – sunny and warm. We spent the morning with our guide, Paulina, walking and learning the history of Krakow and the Wawel Castle district. Our first stop was Castle Hill to see the fire-breathing Krakow dragon and and were reminded how it came to be the symbol of the city. The dragon didn’t seem to be in a fire-breathing mood, so we continued on inside the walls of Castle Hill where the Wawel Cathedral [more formally known at the Royal Archcathedral Basilica of Saints Stanislaus and Wenceslaus] looms over the plaza. Stanislaus is Poland’s patron saint.
Built in the mid-14th century, Wawel Cathedral is primarily gothic. Yet each successor king wanted to add to it, using whatever was the current style, so the cathedral is a combination of many architectural styles.
It is the Polish national cathedral and has been the traditional coronation site of Polish kings. Karol Wojtyla, said his first Mass in the crypt of Wawel Cathedral on November 3, 1946. In 1963, he took over the cathedral as Archbishop of Krakow, later becoming Pope John Paul II. A statue of Pope John II stands outside Wawel Cathedral. Wawel Cathedral is also the burial site of the most important royal leaders of Poland.
Before entering the cathedral, Paulina pointed out an odd assortment of massive bones which are chained to the wall above the door. While some claim these to be the bones of Smok Wawelski (the Wawel Dragon) they are believed to be a blue whale, woolly mammoth, and rhinoceros, or all three. It is believed they have magical properties, and are credited with protecting the city from destruction during centuries of Polish partition and during WWII when Krakow was not damaged, while almost every other major city in Poland was decimated. She said that it is believed that when the bones fall, it will be the end of the world.
Inside Wawel Cathedral we saw some of the tombs of the greatest royal leaders, including Wladyslaw Jagiello, the Lithuanian prince who would begin the Jagellonian Dynasty. All of the kings’ tombs have a canopy symbolizing heaven, a carved likeness of the body of the ruler with a sword and orb, and all kings facing east as it is the symbol of the rising sun, in Christianity, resurrection. Beginning in the 17th century, Krakow was no longer considered the capital of Poland, mostly because logistically, for travel and communication, having the capital further east, in Warsaw, was more efficient, but Krakow remained where royal leaders were coronated and buried. Paulina said Warsaw is said to be the brain of Poland, and Krakow the heart. We saw the tomb of King Kazimierz after whom the Jewish Quarter is named. It was he who brought Jews here in large number and built the economy. It is said that when he became king Poland was made of wood, and when he died, Poland was made of stone.
Paulina told us that unlike Warsaw and most other Polish cities, Krakow had not been destroyed by the German army as it occupied Poland, because the Nazis had decided to make Krakow their headquarters. Most buildings in Krakow, therefore, are the original buildings. Why? Many Poles spoke German because 20 years earlier it had been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire whose primary language was German, and Krakow also had a large German population, so the main offices of the German occupying government were in the Royal Palace we would soon visit.
We saw the Royal Palace, home of Hans Frank, the Governor-General of occupied Poland during World War II. The Palace is best known for its magnificent collection of elaborate tapestries that were woven in Brussels, Belgium. Each square meter of these tapestries took one year to weave. During the war it was known that Hitler wanted to acquire these tapestries and bring them back to Germany, so they were smuggled out of Poland and found their way to Canada where they remained until the end of the war when they were returned.
Walking down Castle Hill to the town below, we were shown the home where Oskar Schindler lived in Krakow. We also saw the statue of Tadeusz Kosciuszko, who helped the Americans during the American Revolution, and viewed plaques in the wall of Wawel Castle which were placed in honor of people who helped the restoration of the Castle.
From here, we walked back to the market square, the largest square in Europe dating from the mid-13th century. In the middle stands the huge Cloth Hall [so named because this is where linen was traded], which serves as the oldest shopping mall in Europe.
Our last stop was St. Mary’s Basilica, which has the largest altar piece from the Middle Ages. We arrived just in time so see the daily opening of the altar piece at 11:50, and then Paulina explained the story of the altar piece which depicts the life of Mary, mother of Jesus, on two huge panels, and the death of Mary in the center. It was known that Hitler wanted to add this piece to his collection, also, so an attempt was made to save it as with the tapestries. It was dismantled and smuggled out of the city but they were caught in Eastern Poland and the altar piece was taken. After the war, it was returned to Krakow and reconstructed, with only one piece missing, a candle that a discipline should be holding as he is blowing it out, symbolizing the moment of death of Mary.
Paulina then told us we could climb the 300 stairs to the tower of the Basilica and several of our more intrepid members bought tickets for an afternoon “hike” to be able to see the glorious views of the city. As it approached the top of the hour, the bugler appeared at the window of the tower and played Hejnal Mariacki, [Saint Mary’s Dawn also called the Krakow Anthem]. It is played every hour on the hour, four times in succession in each of the four directions.
We had lunch and then time for shopping for souvenirs, climbing the tower of St. Mary’s, walking through an open air market, before heading back to the hotel to prepare for our final dinner this evening. Shortly after arriving back in the hotel, the skies opened up and we experienced a thunderstorm. It waited until we got ‘home’ — we have certainly lucked out on the weather front this trip!!
Student Trip Reflections:
This trip was a once in a lifetime opportunity and I thank myself and all the people that pushed me out of my comfort zone so that I could experience this unique educational experience. To be able to learn about the atrocities that happened during the time of the Holocaust in the locations in which they happened is something that changes a person. Along with the education we received, we were able to relate the faults of the past to the problems of the present. This is something that will be a great asset to the students who had the devotion for this trip.
During this fantastic journey, I have learned more than I ever expected to in a short amount of time. I learned the history of the Jews, the injustice that occurred, and the road that leads to being a better person. This journey helped open my eyes to the world around me and never take for granted what I have right in front of me.
The most important thing I will take away from this trip is to appreciate everything that I have in my life and to make myself a better person as a result of all that I do have. I will take with me the names, the stories and the lessons that will forever be a part of my being.
When I was at school and heard stories of others who went on this trip, I could only imagine what it would feel like to be standing in the presence of a survivor or how a knot would form in my stomach when looking into a book which contained the all too familiar names of victims from the Holocaust or how a tear would roll down my face when looking at a wall displaying pictures of innocent people enjoying their lives. Experiencing this tour for myself has made the history I have been taught and the stories I have heard become so much more tangible, something that is difficult to do when reading from a textbook. The opportunities I have had on this trip have broadened not only my comprehension of history, but expanded my perspective of how I will view my life and the lives of others with more empathy and deeper understanding.
For two weeks, I’ve done nothing but look at the subject of the Holocaust through an outside perspective. I didn’t live throughout the period of the Holocaust, but I’ve tried to take a step back and put myself in the situation of those persecuted and try to understand their perils. This subject is so much more than a page in a textbook, it’s emotionally and physically connecting with various places, memorials, museums to create a brand new perspective on not only the Holocaust but the current world issues.
The Holocaust Study Tour has taught me the importance of the power of one person or any person taking the chance to do the right thing and the potential impact that decision can have on one’s life. Life is fragile, someone can be taken from you in the blink of an eye.
Though this trip is entitled The Holocaust Study Tour, the things that I learned from this once in a lifetime experience ranges so much wider and deeper than just the Holocaust. Going into this trip I knew it would be something that would extremely impact my life but I never expected it to alter the way in which I view history, the present, others, and most importantly myself in the way it did. From learning about the history of the Jewish community to physically getting the chance to talk to Holocaust survivors and walk the same halls and steps as they did, this trip became so much more than just a “study tour”; it became something that truly gave me a new perspective on life and humanity itself.
This whole trip has been a roller coaster from happy moments to really sad ones. I didn’t think I would learn this much about not only the Holocaust but also everything that ties into it. I am so happy that I got to experience it because I got to learn so much, see amazing things and meet wonderful people.
The Holocaust Study Tour was a once in a lifetime experience that I could only dream about, and it finally became a reality where I was able to not only learn about Jewish culture and history first hand, but learn about humanity on a level I never imagined possible. With the help of speakers, survivors, guides, and the other students on the trip, I am able to leave this journey with a new perspective on life. Now I have an appreciation of the history, as well as a want to tell others about all that I have learned so our society could protect the world from having a tragedy like this from happening again.
The Holocaust Study Tour has made me realize how much more I have to learn. The world is constantly changing and evolving. The minute you think you are done learning is when you are truly mistaken. I have learned that while the Holocaust is technically “History” it still alters and shifts the contemporary world and everybody living in it.
Learning about the systematic abuse, racism, and gradual violation of supposedly God-given rights that affected the Jewish people throughout the time period preceeding and including the Holocaust made me realize how important the protection of human rights is. The changes in Nazi Germany did not happen over night, there were many warning signs on the twisted road to Aushwitz, and I hope now I will be able to identify and speak out against such signs in our world today.
With these two weeks of both historical and humanitarian immersion in the Holocaust, I’ve learned to question the motive and morality behind my own actions and the policy of my nation. I know the Holocaust could have never happened with a single person, but only through the collective consent of the voters in that democratic form of government. Having met survivors face to face, hearing the horrors they were forced to endure firsthand, I think I’ll be more inclined to speak out when I see a similar series of events beginning to unfold.
Going into this experience, the main question that stuck with me was “How could this horrible event occur in such a progressive and democratic nation?” Through the experiential learnings on this trip, such as survivor testimonies and site visitations, I realized that I was viewing the events leading up and including the Holocaust with the benefit of hindsight. Moving forward, I now know to dig deeper and understand the times which preceded the events that occurred rather than just the events themselves.
Overall, this trip has been nothing but a great learning experience. The past two weeks has really made me look at the world differently. Meeting the refugee teenagers in Berlin opened my eyes to their real situation and their need for a better life and how our world can help solve that problem, not contribute to it.
This trip has been absolutely amazing. Even though I didn’t go on it to see beautiful sights and meet amazing people, I did both of those things. But even more than that, I’ve been questioning things and looking for answers that I know will come in time. I am ready to return to the United States and further my research on the Holocaust and expedite my journey to understanding this time in history.