Hello from Kraków and from Oświęcim,
Our traveling group has spent a busy week listening intently in classes, learning their bearings around Kraków, and attempting some simple greetings in Polish. At the same time, trips to Wawel Castle, the salt mine in Wieliczka, the Jewish Quarter in Kazimierz, or today to Oświęcim (known to most of the world as Auschwitz) provide each person not only the opportunity to walk through a metaphorical history book, but to come face to face with a side of our humanity that pushes the limits of our very understanding. It is one thing to read about the Shoah (perhaps the more appropriate word for Holocaust) or watch a movie, but it is an entirely different matter and experience to stand in Block 11, enter the gassing showers, or see first-hand the scale and scope of how 1.5 million people were systematically killed over a four year period. It is some quite different to watch the movie, Schindler’s List, and to walk in the very space those events occurred. Tomorrow as students visit the museum, one which provides a stunning, multi-sensory, and unforgettable walking exhibit, most will never forget that 48 hour period of their lives. It is such a profoundly different set of circumstances when you realize that most of what you see, touch, or feel has been in existence long before Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, or America for that matter was founded.
That is what happens for most students when they push the boundaries of their experiences, either geographically or educationally, and, of course, a study abroad allows for both. As we walked 4 kilometers in the Wieliczka Salt mine, Joe Davis, a sophomore Supply Chain Management major and ZCOB LC mentor, noted the mine was the most amazing sight of his life. As we stood in the expansive chapel, which is both 85 meters below the surface of the earth and 50 meters high, students stood speechless and in awe of what they were experiencing. I would encourage you to go online and look at the mine, but be ready to sign up for next year’s trip. Remember that people have been working in the 9 levels of the mine for a millennium. Remember that much of it was excavated and carried out by hand for centuries. Consider the fact that the Nazis used it as an armament factory during the Second World War because no one could see it. Consider the fact that at one point, 70% of Polish national wealth was based on this commodity we pour on our food.
How do you manage 50 people? Dr. Julie Vandivere, professor of English and director of the BU Honors Program, and four student mentors have Telegram down to a science. The group has also done things to enable communication and cohesiveness. The entire group, divided into subgroups, spent part of New Year’s Day attempting to escape game rooms. Some were more successful than others, and for the sake of transparency, the faculty leaders also participated on their own and failed miserably. So having a Ph.D. is no guarantee of success, and having multiple Ph.D. in one room might be a disadvantage, but those of us who had never experienced Escape Rooms before learned a great deal. Each day brings a new experience or challenge, but being someone familiar for at least some of us, makes anything manageable. While I have not personally been to the mecca of NYE experiences in the states, Krakow’s City Centre surely does the last night of the year well. The revelry of 70,000 people from all over Europe is certainly festive and something anyone in attendance will not soon forget. However, you do not have to be out for NYE to experience something very different as you walk the streets of the Middle Ages city. Snippets of conversation overheard have included responses like “They park on the sidewalks; people actually pay attention to the ‘don’t walk’ signs; or the food is amazing.” . . . and I can attest to that. Food is flavorful (even street food), well prepared, and very affordable. If you are hungry in Poland, it is your own fault.
Today students have reflection papers as well as outlines for their final papers due in most of their classes. They are working hard, but learning that creating appropriate and thoughtful documentation is more demanding than they expected. I have found this to be a common experience as I have returned for a fourth year. Focus and critically thinking to synthesize their own majors into what they are being asked to examine takes some work, but analysis and synthesis are critical components of being a global citizen. That might be the most important metamorphosis that is occurring, 24 hours at a time. As I read news back in America and simultaneously glance at the headlines here in Kraków, somehow 140+ characters do not illicit the same importance for the occupants of Eastern/Central Europe. That is not a political statement, merely an observation. As one student noted last year, “It is a big world.” Each day as we travel, the reality of that statement is more completely understood by our varied little group of Bloomsburg students. On Friday, the 5th of January, we will board the bus for a weekend trip to Lviv, Ukraine. In spite of being a somewhat traveled-person, this will be my first time to the Ukraine. I am excited to travel farther eastward in Europe. Central/Eastern Europe has an important historical connection to our immediate area of North Central Pennsylvania. This is also an important learning moment for many students who have those connections. Each day is a new osmotic experience and when we return, the cumulative effect of our shared time will make each of us thoughtfully different people, but much of that difference will only be realized as we continue our individual journeys in the months and years ahead.
Thanks for reading. More from the Ukraine.