GT in the EU

An extraordinary education

Month: July 2015 (Page 1 of 5)

A Thought on Kraków

Although many of us have returned to the states, the memories of Europe are still fresh on our minds. The last week in Europe we spent in Kraków – a beautiful, sleepy city in southern Poland. After arriving on Sunday, we were immediately met by our tour guide for a walking tour of the city we would be staying in for the next few days. A few of the stops on our tour included the main market square with its cloth hall; the Katyn Cross commemorating the Katyn massacre; the Wawel dragon; the Wawel Castle built in the 14th century; the Bishop’s Palace, where many Bishop’s have stood in a window to speak to the people of Kraków; and St. Mary’s Basilica, where we heard a trumpeter play a traditional song played four times every hour, on the hour. Throughout the tour, we learned of Poland’s history including its close ties to Lithuania, golden age, and time in the 19th and 20th centuries as a state-less nation.

Wawel Castle

Wawel Castle

Wawel Cathedral

Most Polish monarchs are buried here at the Wawel Cathedral. Each new monarch added a piece to the cathedral, which is why the different parts are so distinctive in style.

St. Mary's Basilica

St. Mary’s Basilica. Each hour, on the hour, a trumpeter from the fire department plays a tune four times from the top of the tower, once towards each direction. The legend goes that this tune was originally played by a trumpeter sounding an alarm as invaders ambushed the city. However, the player was shot in the throat before he could finish the tune, so that is the reason why the song seems to end before it should.

The tour continued on Monday but not before a guest lecture on “Polish Identity Construction”. To be Polish is not just to live in Poland but instead to have certain characteristics of a Polish Identity. This identity is composed of three things:

1. Polish culture including history and the language. As our speaker described it, true Polish were expected to know Polish as a first language and be patriotic for the Polish people, not for the regime they were being suppressed by.

2. The Roman Catholic Religion.

3. Collective Suffering. The Polish have always seen themselves as the noble sufferers – the ones who were oppressed and only fought just wars though other countries might tell history from a different point of view.

These characteristics are important because Poland grew in the 19th century as a nation without a state. The Polish had no state and therefore no citizenship, so it became important to define Polish identity as something else. In a time of oppression, borders were based on culture not maps.

However, after Poland became its own state again in 1989, it has become a much more diverse nation, leading the Polish to reconsider their culture and national identity. For example, how will Poland’s membership in the European Union shape its identity? In addition, many citizens of Poland are not Roman Catholic, something that used to be a major identifier of a Polish person. The Polish identity has begun to change and our speaker was not certain where it would be heading.

As globalization and intermixing of cultures continue, many nations whose identities were previously based solely on a common culture may also need to rethink their national identity. This seems to be less of a problem in America because America has always been considered a melting pot or mosaic of different cultures. For example, the recent influx of immigrants into Europe may lead to reconsideration of national identity so that these minority groups are protected as the European Union has bound itself to do.

After our lecture, we continued our tour from the previous day but this time moved into the historically Jewish area in preparation for our visit to the Schindler factory. We traveled to the Jewish quarter of Kazimierz (Don’t ask me to pronounce it.) and ate Zapiekanka, the delicious Polish “fast food” made by putting mushrooms, cheese, and, if desired, other toppings onto half of a piece of bread and then baking it for about 5 minutes. We enjoyed our cheap (8 Zloty!) lunch while traveling further in the Jewish quarter by the Isaac Synagogue and many of the locations where the movie Schindler’s List was filmed. Our guide told us the tale of how Isaac had a dream one night of a great treasure under one of the bridges in Prague. He journeyed there and began to search under each bridge for the treasure. He finally had one bridge left, but the bridge was unable to be reached because it was being worked on. He talked to one of the guards about his dream, and the guard said that was silly. He had been having a dream recently about going to Kraków and looking in the stove of a Jewish man named Isaac for treasure, but he was not about to travel to Kraków and look in every Isaac’s stove for treasure. Isaac quickly returned home and found the treasure right there in his own stove. The guide said that the story has a beautiful message – You may leave your home and travel far and wide for treasure just to return home and find it sitting right there under your nose. With that beautiful message, we moved on with our journey and visited the only Kraków Jewish Synagogue in use before moving into the Jewish Ghetto.



We learned of the difficult times in the Ghetto and how only those who were able to work and received a blue working stamp had even a chance of surviving. The living spaces here were cramped and the rules strict. Many parents were separated from their children because while the parents were able to work, the children were still too young, and parents would oftentimes decide to stay with their children and face an earlier death or deportation than leave them behind. Our guide reminded us that whenever we think we have hard decisions, just remember that there were and are people who have to make much harder decisions, and we should be glad that are choices are simpler in comparison. I think this struck home for a lot of us, and the Memorial of Empty Chairs in the center of the ghetto reminded us of the vanished Jews of Kraków. Before the second world war, nearly 60,000 Jews lived in Kraków, which was a fourth of the total population. During the war, most Jews left or were deported, and now the Jewish population of Kraków stands at a mere 200 people. After having such a thriving Jewish population, so little of that piece of Kraków culture now remains.


Memorial of Empty Chairs

Our last stop was the Schindler’s Factory museum. Jews during the second world war had a much better chance if they worked, and working in the Schindler factory was one of the best jobs available. In addition, Oscar Schindler worked to keep his Jewish workers out of the concentration camps for as long as he could, pretending to change the production of his factory to arms manufacturing so that it would be essential to the war effort. His story and the story of his workers led to the movie, Schindler’s List. However, not everyone in this area decided to help the Jews. They did not all decide to be heroes, and we should not have expected them all to be because these same people would have been risking their own lives to help others. We were reminded of the difficult decisions many people had to face during this time. However, there were some bright spots. Schindler helped Polish Jews as did many others, and we learned beautiful tales of how people had put themselves in danger to help Jewish sufferers of the Holocaust, whether that was food, safety, or simply a tale of hope that a friend or family member was still alive.

Construction of the Jewish Ghetto. The Ghetto was built to look like a graveyard as a cruel way to make the Jews feel like they were already dying.

Construction of the Jewish Ghetto. The Ghetto was built to look like a graveyard as a cruel way to make the Jews feel like they were already dying.

Brussels — Goodbye for Now

It’s Thursday, and we’re back in Brussels! It was nice coming back to some familiarity—it felt a little bit like coming home. Of course, this doesn’t distract from the fact that I am extremely excited to go home home! The conversations at dinner are slowly turning into excited discussions about what each of us plan on doing once we return. Some of us plan on getting Zaxby’s during the drive home, while others plan on getting their family to bring them their favorite chicken meal straight to their airport pick up. Some are more desperate for fried chicken than others, I suppose. I’m afraid I’ll go into a sugar shock after having a sweet tea, or maybe burst into tears of gratitude when given a free refill. #reversecultureshock

Since we’re going back soon, I thought it would be appropriate to list a few of the European things we’re going to greatly miss while we’re in the USA:

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Auschwitz. Last but not least. Undoubtedly the heaviest and most solemn visit we have done during this program. I believe that it was an eye-opening experience for all of us, and maybe for some a life-changing experience. It is hard to find words to describe all we have seen during our tour of the concentration and extermination camps, but I will try my best.

We arrived in this very green, beautiful place, filled with flowered trees, birds singing, under a wonderful blue sky, full of life and nature. Yet, we were soon to be walked through areas where, seventy years ago, the worse atrocities and brutalities source of mass murder had been committed.

Our tour guide brought us in a couple of the barracks, or “blocks” as they are referred to, that are found in Auschwitz I. He was very effective I think, in giving us a great deal of information in a very solemn way, which I really enjoyed. The first thing that we must remember is that Auschwitz I was the original concentration camp that was built by the Germans. It was meant to separate the aliens to the Reich, such as the Communist or the political dissidents, mostly Polish, or enemies of the Aryan race, such as the Jehovah Witnesses, but also the “useless people” such as homosexuals and gypsies, that represented a “burden to the state”, and of course the “inferior races”, especially the Jews. It was not meant, at first, to serve as a center for industrial and systematic mass murder; the prisoners were brought to the camp for work. It was done in harsh conditions, for sure, and the SS had no pity, as they reserved brutal treatments to the innocent victims – but they were not directly assassinated in gas chambers. This came only later.

What we witnessed in a couple of those barracks, and that I found the most shocking, is those immense heaps of belongings that were automatically taken from the prisoners as soon as they set foot on the camp. Here we start to see the cruelty and dehumanization that the Nazis used against every single detainee to satisfy their horrible ideology. Physically, the people were dehumanized: their hair was shaved, both for men, women, children and the elderly, their golden or silver teeth were removed from their mouths, their clothes were removed, their names were taken away from them and instead, all they possessed and represented was a number – firstly written on their uniform, and later tattooed on their skin, as it is used for beasts. Then materially, the Nazis took all of their belongings: their suitcases, their shoes, their combs and brushes, their hot pots, their blankets, their glasses… Here we see how tragic this was for all of those deported families and individuals, who brought their suitcases and all of their goods with them before departing, because they believed that this was going to be a simple relocation. They did not know what was awaiting them. They had hope. But eventually their hope was soon to be destroyed. The conditions were so harsh, the beating by the SS, the underfeeding, the cold, the heat, the lack of space, the smell and the hygiene, that the life expectancy was terribly low in Auschwitz I. We witnessed this when we walked through one of the corridors of the barracks, as on the walls hung some pictures of the prisoners, with their date of birth, date of arrival at the camp and date of death. Some were only kids when they arrived, and none of their stays at the camp exceeding a couple of months…

It was shocking and impressive to be able to see piles of the original belongings that the detainees had brought when they initially came to the camp. I felt disturbed by some of this, and I think it is understandable, and necessary, in order to feel the importance and weight of historical events that have marked the history of mankind. It was also tough to walk on the path that led to the gas chamber and the crematorium of Auschwitz I: only a part of our tour for us, but for many of our equals, for many innocent people, the last steps of their lives. It is hard to realize how many of those unfortunates were packed in these rooms at once. It is unimaginable for us to picture mass murder like this, but still it happened and this tour was a great way to make us have a more concrete approach to this type of sadistic activity.

Our tour guide also explained to us very well how the Nazis organized themselves to disguise some of their practices. For example, the transport and distribution of the gas used for the chambers was all done through vans and trucks having red crosses on them, to make them seem like nursery and pharmacy goods for the camp. Also, dramatic irony lies in the fact that those poor detainees were sent to the gas chambers with the belief of being sent to showers, to be washed. It is even more cruel, when you think that they did not even know they were going to lose their life, so they did not even have time to say farewell to any of their friends or family members, they were treated like objects really.

Then, the rest of our tour was in Birkenau, also known as Auschwitz II. This extermination camp was built between 1941 and 1942, and its exclusive purpose was the industrially massive murder of Jews and enemies of the Reich. After the Wannsee conference of January 1942, thousands of Jews and enemies of the Reich from all around Europe arrived in small cattle trucks through the railway lines that led to Birkenau. Systematically and immediately, there was a choice made by the SS officers: those who were valuable for working in the “lager” were deprived of all their belongings and registered, and then sent to the barracks, and those who could not work – children, elderly, sick people – were directly sent to gas chambers. No rights. No voice. No respect. They were not human beings anymore, and this is why it is so important to go to Auschwitz and listen to the guide, look around yourself, and imagine all the atrocities that were perpetrated, and finally stop to think.

We walked around some of the 360 acres of land that contained over 180,000 prisoners at its peak, in which everyday died thousands of people guilty – according to the Nazis – of being Jews, political dissidents, “useless” to the Reich or simply foreigners. We observed the ruins of the gas chambers and the crematoria of Birkenau, where so many perished, and we respected the silence around those. Finally, we were brought in some of the barracks where the prisoners slept every night. I remember our guide explaining to us briefly the conditions of their daily life: it was impossible to get comfortable rest, because there was no room for everyone to lie on their back; the prisoners could only go to the toilets once a day and those were infected with dysentery and smelt terribly bad; some who did not have the chance to reach the toilets just kept everything in their pajamas, and they could not wash them, they could not shower, so all of their straw bed got dirty too, so the barracks smelt awful too… Also, everyday, the prisoners had to smell the smoke of human skin being burnt, out of the crematoria. They always wore the same clothes – winter, summer, rain, snow – and had to cope with the extremely harsh temperatures of the winter with their pajamas only. They led a terrible life, and all of them went through terrible suffering, and unjustified and irrational criminal treatment that should never be perpetrated again in history of mankind.

As our guide told us, we should remember. We should always talk about it when we see something wrong. We should never remain silent; we should never ignore a crime. Because if we do, we might give way to crimes with a scope that we could never imagine.

I think that after this experience we should all realize how lucky we are to have been born in an era of freedom, in countries where human rights and democracy are inalienable principles that are the bases of society. We should think twice before we start complaining about an issue of frivolous importance, about any type of issue eventually. We should be eternally grateful and thankful for all of what our ancestors have done to fight for justice and basic rights, to triumph against tyranny and brutalities, to preserve their identities as human beings, despite the attempts of dehumanization. Auschwitz-Birkenau, and every concentration camp, reminds us of a past that had been ignored and approved by many, of a past that should never repeat itself in the future. Yet, some countries still perpetrate genocides – Rwanda – and very little is done, because of ignorance and oppression. For this reason, we have to remember, to study what happen, to go and see it with our own eyes. We need to wake up; we need to be shocked to understand history and its scope on our daily lives. I am convinced that this strong experience will never leave any of us indifferent to the crimes of genocide and against humanity that were perpetrated there.

How To: EU Study Abroad

Since the program is nearly over, I decided to compile an overly sentimental and much too thorough list of tips for future EU study abroad-ers. Enjoy!

  • Things to bring
    • An umbrella and a raincoat, everywhere you go: Among the many positive qualities that Brussels possesses, consistently sunny weather is notably missing. You will get rained on, guaranteed.
    • A gift for your host family: It’s hard to shop for people you’ve never met, but bringing them a gift is a really thoughtful way to say thank you and it will help you start the summer off right.
    • Good walking shoes: Your feet will hurt anyway.
    • Sweaters: Brussels is at about the same latitude as the middle of Canada, so it will be colder than you think, especially at the beginning of the summer. Also, the sun will rise really early and set really late so be prepared for that weirdness.
    • Not much else: Believe it or not, there are stores that sell clothing and toiletries in Europe. If you’re not sure you should bring something, leave it at home. Your beanie baby collection will be waiting for you in August.
  • Things to do
    • Be independent: You’re an adult and you can choose how to spend your free time. Don’t do something just because your friends want to. Within the bounds of safety, don’t be afraid to explore on your own.
    • Make a plan: Aimless wandering sounds fun, but when you’re tired, hungry, and lost you’re going to wish you’d spent 15 minutes on Yelp before venturing out of the hotel, I promise.
    • Get to know Google Maps: The little blue dot that tells you where you are even without wifi is a shining beacon of light in a dark world. Google Maps is your new best friend.
    • Participate, pay attention, ask questions: Firstly, participation is a huge portion of your grade. More importantly, though, this is likely the only opportunity you’ll get to speak to so many amazingly qualified people from around the world, so even when it’s hard to stay engaged during a three hour lecture, drink a cup of coffee, suck it up, and make the most of it.
  • Things to not do
    • Expect free water and bathrooms: Europeans apparently do not consume water and therefore do not need to use restrooms. They take advantage of Americans’ dependence on such silly luxuries by charging for both.
    • Lose patience with your classmates: The program is full of smart, amazing, globally aware people with big personalities. 10 weeks with the same 25 people can be a lot, but study abroad friends are the best friends.
    • Expect study abroad to be a vacation: Studying abroad can be hard. There is work to be done, though it’s definitely more fun than normal Tech work. Living away from everything familiar for an extended amount of time is not sunshine and rainbows all the time. There will be growing pains, but there’s nothing better in the long run.
    • Take anything for granted: It doesn’t get any better than this.


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