Highlights of Poland

Throughout the two weeks we’ve spent in Poland, we have had the chance to experience many new things. We’ve tasted unfamiliar foods, seen beautiful, historic buildings and heard the accounts of many Polish locals. Below, we have detailed a few of our most memorable trip moments.

Rynek Market Square

Christmas Market in Rynek Square

Christmas Market in Rynek Square

Old Town Krakow is centered around Rynek Główny (Rynek Square for us English-speakers). During our first week in Poland, much of our down time was spent exploring all this beautiful plaza has to offer: shops, restaurants, pubs, historic monuments and more. We attended mass at the square’s church, St. Mary’s Basillica, and shopped for souvenirs at the Cloth Hall market. We tried out underground restaurants featuring traditional Polish food, and learned about the square’s giant head monument while on our city tour.

Festival of the Epiphany crowd

Crowd surrounding the Nativity reenactment during the Festival of the Epiphany

My favorite visit to Rynek Square was during the Festival of the Epiphany. Before we even reached the plaza, we could tell we were in for an exciting day. A Christmas market was set up outside of the Cloth Hall, where small small stands sold trinkets made in Poland and every variety of Polish food you can imagine. The smell of sizzling meats, fresh pastries and hot drinks was enough to distract you from the Parade of the Three Kings taking place nearby, where they handed out tasty gingerbread cookies. A large crowd had gathered to watch a live Nativity display, and a few of us spent a while among the crowd listening as they sang familiar Christmas carols in Polish. It was amazing to see a city come together to celebrate religious holiday so dear to their hearts, unlike anything I’ve had the chance to experience in the States.

Maria Opatz

Churches of Poland

St. Mary's Basilica in Krakow

St. Mary’s Basilica in Krakow

With roughly 90 to 95% of Poland’s population being Catholic, it would be a major challenge to walk the streets of Krakow or Warsaw and not run into a church or chapel. The religious monuments of Poland have stood their ground for centuries yet remain extravagant, reverent, and a true sign of the country’s dedication to God and in some cases, a memorial to their past.

When we had the opportunity to go to mass at St. Mary’s Basilica in Krakow, we entered to the sight of many dedicated locals worshiping on the feast of the Epiphany. Our eyes were immediately redirected to the towering ceilings covered in gold, colors of blue, and paintings of religious figures. The entrancing smell of incense filled the air and the deep sounds of an all-male choir echoed through its walls.

A wall of a church showing bullet holes from a former Nazi execution.

A wall of a church showing bullet holes from a former Nazi execution.

Jumping forward a week to our arrival in Warsaw, we saw a memorial located right outside Old Town that honors the courage of the individuals who fought during the Warsaw Uprising. Adjacent to the memorial is a church that was rebuilt post WWII; however, its foundation remains. The front wall of the church has kept its original form and serves as a symbol of remembrance. Four hundred and thirty innocent Poles were shot and killed against its steps. Bullet holes still parade its side. Sadly a total of 200,000 lives were taken during this rebellion lasting from 1940-1943. With a church in its place, it ensures that although these lives were taken, they will never be forgotten.

Nick Gral


Our class spent a whole day at Auschwitz and Birkenau. This day will be imprinted into our minds forever.

Entrance to Auschwitz

Entrance to Auschwitz

As soon as our class stepped past the gate into Auschwitz, there was an instant silence that came over all of us. While walking down the roads connecting each barrack, we could only hear the soft, somber voice of the tour guide along with snow crunching underneath our feet. Each step we took got us closer to the next building holding what seemed to be a worse fate than the last. We walked down the stairs of the death block, warped and so warn down from the hundreds of thousands of people that had taken these deathly steps before us into the gas chamber. Unlike them we were able to go down into these chambers and live to talk about the experience.

Vent where Zyklon-B would dispense in gas chamber

Vent where Zyklon-B would dispense in gas chamber

These chambers were bone-chillingly cold and empty. All that could be seen were the holes in the ceiling that would release Zyklon-B, killing some instantly and others in less than 20 minutes.

Even though Auschwitz is now empty I could still imagine the screams of the prisoners taking their last breath, one no easier to hear than another.

Walking into Birkenau brought a similar, sick-to-your-stomach feeling. Once in Birkenau, it was obvious that there was no escaping this place. The amount of space that Birkenau took up was unimaginable—Auschwitz was large but nothing compared to Birkenau. You could easily stand in the middle of the camp and barely be able to see the barbed wire fence holding you in.  Here, you could only walk through a few of the barracks because the majority of them were destroyed by the Nazis (along with the gas chambers and crematories) at the end of the war. We were able to see the chimneys and displaced bricks

Panoramic of Birkenau

Panoramic of Birkenau

throughout the hundreds of yards the camp occupied. Walking past the trenches, another barrier for the prisoners, it was easy to imagine the smell and stench this camp exuded.

About 67 years ago these camps were filled with hundreds of thousands of prisoners awaiting their fate. Instead, these camps are now filled with tour groups and only the rubble of and stories of what was.

Sarah Laughlin


IMG_1765Warsaw was completely different from Krakow in that it is a much larger city with a faster pace. We were moving quickly to validate our tickets and to jump on and off the confusing public transportation system in order to not end up trapped inside. The transportation helped with the freezing cold temperatures which allowed us to see our breath, much like that of the many smokers we encountered as we inhaled their secondhand smoke.

We celebrated our arrival with a dinner with students from the University of Warsaw where we enjoyed a variety of Polish delicacies from pirogues to kebabs to chicken cooked in

DSC02538every way imaginable. The clinks from our glasses as we saluted our new friends will be a life-long memory.

While these celebratory times were not few and far between as the images of Old Town after the Second World War silenced us as the entire area was in cleared from German bombs. The tour of the Warsaw Ghetto really humbled us as our tour guide told us of the tragic death of thousands of Jews.

Jennifer C. Bailey


Day Four: Auschwitz-Birkenau

Today’s excursion was undoubtedly the most emotional experience of our travels thus far. A two-hour trip of mental preparation through Krakow’s countryside led us to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest German concentration camp of World War II. It’s next to impossible to express the eeriness lingering throughout the camp, the final destination of over a million Jews, Poles, gypsies, POWs, and other targeted groups. It was amazing in the most haunting of ways.

"Work will set you free"

“Work will set you free”

A young Polish woman led our tour. It began as we walked through the camp’s notorious entrance gate, which read “Arbeit Macht Frei,” (translating into the horrifyingly ironic phrase “Work will set you free.”) Auschwitz, the first of three camps built in the Auschwitz-Birkenau network, has created a museum of sorts within the block barracks. Each block contains an exhibit with artifacts from a different aspect of its history: everyday life, living and sanitary conditions, plundered goods and more. Within these we saw shocking amounts of remains from the camp’s prisoners, including over 80,000 shoes, artificial legs, eyeglasses, suitcases, and—most disturbingly—the shaved hair of an estimated 140,000 individuals. Though many of us expected the museum would make us cry, we found ourselves sick to our stomachs first.

Our group was then led through gas chambers and crematoriums, torture chambers and cells for medial experiments. We saw gallows where peoplewere hung in public, and the execution wall where individuals were shot. Scratches of the prisoners covered the walls of the buildings where they were strategically killed using Zyklon-B. Though everyone in our group had studied these placed before, we found that the horror really hit home while standing in the exact places that hundreds of thousands of people were brutally murdered only 67 years ago.

The firing wall in the Auschwitz death block

The firing wall in the Auschwitz death block

After our tour of Auschwitz ,we continued on to the Birkenau camp. This size of the camp was astounding; though most of the wooden barracks have collapsed over time, over 300 brick furnaces stood in their skeletons. The wooden barracks were built in the later years of the camp’s existence, when the S.S. realized that it was more efficient and inexpensive for the prisoners to build them using wood instead of brick. You read that right–they were forced to build the stable-like huts they would then suffer in. We were able to tour an unaltered brick barrack, as well as a recreated wooden one. Seven hundred people were crammed in each—five per small bunk. We shivered in the cold while donning warm jackets, scarves and boots, and imagined how exponentially more miserable it would have been if all we were allowed to wear was as thick as pajamas. We saw a rail car that held hundreds of prisoners, and stood in the spot where doctors impassively sent the arrivers to the left or the right—to immediate death, or to death by excessive labor. Though the majority of the gas chambers and crematoriums had been in this camp, the Nazis destroyed them after the liberation to remove the evidence of their cruelty.

Train tracks running through the largest camp, Birkenau. People traveled for hours or days crammed in small rail cars without food , water or fresh air.

Train tracks running through the largest camp, Birkenau. People traveled for hours or days crammed in small rail cars without food , water or fresh air.

At the end of the railroad running through the middle of the camp, a memorial to the prisoners has been constructed. Plaques in all 22 languages of the individuals held and tortured read, “Forever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women and children, mainly Jews, from various countries of Europe.”

The entire experience wasone I won’t ever forget. It’s entirely impossible to imagine how these mass murders went without discovery for so long, or the absolute despair experienced by the prisoners in the camps. However, as our guide explained, the most important thing is not to imagine what it would be like—it’s to remember the tragedy so it will never happen again.

Maria Opatz