Led by High School History Teacher Brody Fredericksen, IB/AP European History and Modern European History students traveled to Poland for a heartrending tour of both Warsaw and Krakow during the week of February 28–March 3. The group visited Old Warsaw, the Warsaw Ghetto, the Nazi SS Headquarters Museum, the Polin Museum of Polish Jews, the Warsaw Uprising Museum, the Stare Miasto, the Madjanek concentration camp, the Galicia Jewish Center, and the Auschwitz concentration camps.
Ekaterina Plotnikova shares her reflections from this emotional journey.
By Ekaterina Plotnikova ’18
There are some places and images you cannot forget once you’ve seen them. Some places leave you full of wonder, and others—completely speechless. Some pictures are bright and happy, and others are just so dark, they sit inside your head for the rest of the day, without any comments, just quiet and calm.
If I were to describe what I felt in Poland, I wouldn’t be able to put it down on a piece of paper. I have never felt this way in my whole life, and the only way to feel it is to see it with your own eyes.
I have heard a lot about World War II. I always liked history and enjoyed everything related to it. What I’ve realized now is that I never put my heart into the facts I’ve been studying in detail. I’ve read books about the persecution of Jews, but what I saw in Poland was nothing compared to the written historical memories.
The first day in Warsaw, we visited the Jewish Ghettos. Most of them looked like large old buildings. Unfortunately there are still some inhabitants, and their life is in danger because of the old housing constructions. We saw the walls of the ghetto. It’s hard to imagine how all the Jews lived in them without any food and water access. We saw a couple of synagogues, and it was quite interesting to learn about Judaism. For example, all Jewish people could come to synagogues to stay and hide. Also the Star of David refers to the six directions: South, East, North, West, Up, and Down.
The second memory I have from Poland is one of the most vivid ones. I’ll never forget visiting the Warsaw Uprising Museum 1944, where we were told the history of Poland. Our guide was talking about the USSR and what Russians had done to harm Poland. I was left speechless; never in my life have I felt so defensive about my own nation. The message was so powerful that I was almost suffocated by the information I was told. All the horrible facts and events the guide was speaking about touched my heart deeply from the inside. Only then did I start to realize how biased history can be. Only now am I realizing how much of a patriot I am.
Silence was the only way to show deep respect to the loss of human lives.
In a couple of days we arrived in Lublin to see the Majdanek concentration camp. It’s hard to describe to someone who’s never seen it before. It’s a horrible place situated on a large territory, with a lot of empty space. Many buildings were destroyed by the Nazis just before the Soviet Army arrived to liberate Poland, so the camp did not seem that huge.
However, the Nazis kept the gas chamber and the crematorium. It’s heartbreaking to walk into those rooms knowing there were humans killed inside. In the gas chamber, which was employed because it was the cheapest way to commit a mass murder, there are still blue stains from the substance. The crematorium is not large, but the spirit in there is intimidating. Sometimes I felt like I couldn’t listen to the guide anymore; it was too hard to focus.
There are a lot of rooms for storage that are in the form of wooden barracks. Prisoners had to lose their identity by giving their clothes, shoes, and hair away. The ones who were selected to work left their personal belongings behind. The Nazis later sold them or kept them in storage. That is where I could see 40,000 pairs of real human shoes. The image is still not leaving my head.
There is also a large cupola built by the Soviet Army on top of a little hill formed from human ashes and soil. Now it’s a memorial, but the Nazis used to fill it with the ashes from the crematorium. They believed it would fertilize their soil well.
The next day we traveled to Krakow and met the survivors. One woman we had a chance to listen to was kept in Auschwitz from the age of three to five. In that camp, the Nazis gave all prisoners tattooed numbers on their wrists, so the survivor has one as well. She told us the story about her grandparents being immediately selected for the gas chamber. Her mother was a strong worker, but she did not make it through the march of death. The woman still remembers her mother’s hands, and how she took care of her by bringing absolutely anything she could to the children’s block. After her speech I could not react to anything: what if it were my mother and me, my grandparents and my family…
Finally we came to Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau. Right now those are my least favorite places in the whole world. The first camp is enormous—just perfect for mass murder. There are many blocks of buildings, which also have prisoners’ belonging and even women's hair that had been cut. I saw very small pairs of shoes that used to belong to little children who were also kept in there. I saw pictures of starving children, and they were all crying. They were kept in a block with dirty beds, cold conditions, with lots of diseases inside. It was very hard to stay strong and alive.
It is so easy to raise a future generation of murderers
if our history is not passed down to our children.
When we walked through the gas chamber and the crematorium, we could not speak. We saw prisoners’ cells and where they were kept. There were blue stains on the walls again. Ashes, again, were used as fertilizers. Silence was the only way to show deep respect to the loss of human lives.
Auschwitz-Birkenau was unbelievable. It was mainly destroyed but still very emotional to see. There were cold beds, built in small spaces for a lot of people at once. During the morning roll call some prisoners died because of the bad conditions they had been kept in during the night.
I think every person needs to have this experience. It’s so important to understand that this is our history. We always need to think that it could be any of us, and we are so lucky it’s not the case. We should never let mass murder, genocide, and holocaust happen again. It is so easy to raise a future generation of murderers if our history is not passed down to our children. We all have hearts, and no matter what, we should stay human. Pray, cry, laugh, live, stay human, and never forget.