In July, Middle School English teacher Jessica Hecht and students and teachers from all over the region traveled to Poland through the Classrooms Without Borders program. This is her story.
The adventure started even before we got there. I, along with other teachers and students from the area, had been preparing for our trip to Poland for months. We attended meetings, watched movies, and even met with an historian to make sure we understood what we were about to see. Needless to say, we couldn't wait to get there, but wait we did. We waited four hours in the Pittsburgh airport only to have a 30-hour layover in Chicago because of a terrible storm. This was truly a bonding experience where students and teachers became equals in exhaustion and frustration. This bond became invaluable as we leaned on one another for support while touring ghettos and concentration camps in Poland.
There was no chance to get our bearings once off the plane. We immediately boarded a bus and went to the Warsaw Ghetto, the sight of the uprising, and learned about the Treblinka extermination camp.
Early the next morning, we boarded a bus and took the three-hour ride to Lublin, near the hometown of Howard Chandler, a Holocaust survivor who joined us on every step of the trip. He walked us in his footsteps and showed us the very place where he was separated from his family and saw his brother murdered. The courage he had to take us there and let us know his story! No one will ever forget his story, and I look forward to sharing it with everyone I teach. There are so many aspects of his story that resonate today: the courage to survive, the ability to face fears, and what can happen when hate takes over a group.
We also toured Majdanek death camp, Auschwitz work camp, and Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp. It would take far more than one blog to describe the vastness of the camps and organization that it must have taken to create such factories of death. These moments were made even more personal when Howard, who is in his 70s, stood on a beam in a barrack at Birkenau in 100 degree heat and told his story of his entire experience at the camp. As the teens and teachers wilted in the heat, Howard did not break a sweat. He stood unflinching and gave personal details about the very place we were standing. He said surviving the camp was pure luck, but as we watched him unflinchingly tell his story, we knew it was more.
Not only did we learn about World War II, the victims of the Nazis, and the history of the country, we also learned about the hundreds of Polish people who risked their lives to save others. We even got to attend an award ceremony to honor “righteous” people who risked their own lives to hide Jews during the war.
Of course, there were moments of pure fun as well. We went to a musical festival and danced all night in a Krakow square; we ate and ate and ate traditional pierogies, schnitzel, and Lodi (ice cream); and we toured the salt mines and shopped in the Krakow square.
Thank you, Sewickley Academy, for allowing me to have this once-in-a-lifetime experience. Before this trip, I had never left North America, and now, I can call myself a global learner. Because of this hands-on learning experience, I know I will be a better teacher and bring a whole new perspective of the world to the classroom.