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Student Spotlight: Fall Break in Poland

 

Before I arrived in Rome, before I had even heard what other study trips were being offered for the Fall 2014 semester, I had already set my heart on the Poland study trip. A year ago, my best friend of 17 years had been a part of this excursion and she had urged me to go, claiming it was the best trip JFRC offered and that “everyone who didn’t go was jealous.” I was sold.
October tenth finally arrived, and we Ryanaired our way to a tiny airport an hour outside of the city center of Warsaw. Going into the city by bus opened my eyes to suburban and rural areas of Poland, which, oddly enough, reminded me of my home in Chicago.

Warsaw was an autumn wonderland: red, orange, and yellow leaves spiraling down from tall trees, fountains bubbling in the misty morning air, and plenty of parks to enjoy these fall spectacles in. Our tour guide, a self-proclaimed patriot named Adrian who was kind enough to give us the tours for free and also herd us on and off public transportation, led us around the city showing us where the uprising had occurred and where the Jewish ghetto once stood during the horrors of World War II.

Once our time in Warsaw was up, all 14 of us packed our things and crammed into tiny train compartments that fit eight people each. In these train cars, with our bags tucked neatly overhead, I found myself reflecting on the strength of our JFRC community. Sure, some of us were friends beforehand, but only two days into the trip and I was already feeling an incredible and unique bond with my travel companions, and that bond would only grow as the week went on.

Following a three-hour journey, we started our Torun experience with an incredibly moving documentary called “Ghosts of Rwanda” that would set the stage for the Human Rights and a Just Society Symposium and left me sobbing in a very cold movie theater.

The main event of Torun was held at Nicholas Copernicus University, we had the immense privilege of being a part of the symposium. There, Carl Wilkins, the only American to stay in Rwanda during the genocide, his wife Theresa, and a panel of other international lawyers shared their unique views on genocide and what has to be done to prevent it and the necessary steps that have to be taken in the attempts to fix a society that has gone through such terror.

That night, we had one of the best dinners of my life (just a huge skillet of meat, vegetables and pierogi, so many pierogi!) and attended a gathering with the Loyola alumni at a lovely Polish brewery where they serve gingerbread beer!
The next day we mentally prepared ourselves for an emotionally taxing day as we set out for Auschwitz. There is so much that could be said about this experience, but I think I can sum it up in one word: vital. I truly believe that it is vital for us as humans to travel to this place and see and learn about what the prisoners and the people who died there had to go through. It is important to keep the stories of these brave people alive so that we can ensure that something like the Holocaust never happens again. The most unusual thing about the camp, though, was its incredible beauty. Surrounding the barracks where people suffered and prayed for salvation are towering trees just now changing color with the season. All around, these beautiful leaves fall on the brick and dirt roads leading through camp as if the Earth itself was trying to apologize for what horrific things happened there. For the entirety of our journey through this solemn place, hardly a word was said.

Auschwitz was a truly transformative place. After delving into a place of true evil and horror, I was able to feel a stronger bond with those JFRC students who had chosen the same fall break trip as I had for many of the same reasons. It turns out more than just a small portion of the global population care about human rights, and this simple, small fact made me feel so much closer with not only my companions, but also the world.

From the beginning to the end I found that every bit of the study trip was infested with magic. I was able to experience a refreshingly beautiful and hopeful country with truly amazing people, and I hope JFRC continues to offer this absolutely life-changing trip for years to come. Thank you JFRC for providing your students with such a wonderful and transformative experience!

 

By Shanna Johnson, Class of '16