This spring break, some of our Grade 11 and 12 students had the opportunity to visit Germany and Poland. The aim of this 12-day excursion was to support student learning of the history of modern Europe. Through visits to government buildings, museums, cultural sites, and concentration camps, students explored German and Polish history and their experiences with state violence, ethnic conflict, and the tragedy of the Holocaust. The trip also included a significant service component, which involved working with terminally ill children in Poland.
In Berlin, our students visited Bundestag (parliament), Reichstag, Brandenburg Gate and the Berlin Wall, Fassbender & Rausch (world’s largest chocolate shop), Deutscher Dom and Gendarmenmarkt, Bebelplatz (book burning site memorial), Vis the Berliner Dom (Cathedral), the Holocaust Memorial, Tiergarten to Bendlerblock (German Resistance Memorial), and the Topography of Terror Nazi History Museum.
In Poland, they visited the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps, the UNESCO Wieliczka Salt Mines, Krakow and Krakow Old Town, Wawel Castle, Jasna Gora Monastery, the “Invisible” exhibition and the Warsaw Old Town, Palace of Culture, Jewish Museum, Warsaw Ghetto, and military cemetery in Warsaw. They also stopped by the Canadian Embassy in Warsaw and visited the Warsaw Uprising Museum.
A special highlight of the trip was the four days visiting and granting wishes to children with terminal illness or life-limiting conditions through Coalition for Kids International.
Learn more about the trip from the girls below, and view the full photo gallery.
DAY 1 – MARCH 12
Written by Sarah (Grade 11)
We began our adventure at 7:00 am sharp. As we departed from our dearly beloved we picked up our bags and embarked on the beginning of our journey. We were slightly disappointed when we didn’t run into Justin Trudeau on our flight to Montreal, but quickly got over it. By our second flight to Frankfurt, we had already begun to bond in a way unlike any other school trip or class would. We are excited to see where this path will take us and what will come of it.
DAY 3 – MARCH 14
Written by Rosa (Grade 11)
Today we visited the Holocaust Memorial, the Topography of Terror, and the Reichstag. Our day started with stunning views from the Ibis Hotel breakfast room. We took the train into Berlin’s city centre and walked to the Holocaust Memorial where we spent two hours exploring the moving exhibits and learning about the powerful personal stories of those affected by the Holocaust. After a quick lunch of bagels at the Authentic German “Coffee and Cookies”, we walked to the Topography of Terror – a museum located on the site of the former SS headquarters, next to a segment of the Berlin Wall. From there, we took a quick detour to Checkpoint Charlie. We then took a quick shopping break at HM, COS, and other clothing shops. We ended our day with a tour of the Reichstag, which is the seat of Germany’s federal government. During the tour, we harassed our tour guide with many inquisitive questions, visited the Parliament hall, and sat in the meeting room of one of Germany’s main political parties.
DAY 4 – MARCH 15
Written by Maya (Grade 11)
For our last day in Berlin, we took the metro to a church that had been damaged by past wars, and from there, continued to the amazing Museum of Art and the Museum of Ancient History. We remained there for a few hours admiring German art. We were lucky enough to get a tour of the museum by YHS’s very own Mr. Cropley! We walked from the museums to a small square that had a variety of options for lunch – including a donair shop! From there, we began our nine-hour journey to Poland by bus – we passed by rolling green fields and little towns. We finally arrived in Oswiecim. We were tired but looking forward to our stay in Poland.
DAY 5 – MARCH 16
Written by Cici (Grade 11)
In the Polish town of Oswiecim:
We had an early morning visiting the museums of Auschwitz and Birkenau, which were Nazi death/concentration camps in occupied Poland. An experienced tour guide walked us through the unimaginable horrors that many different groups endured under the racist policies of Nazi Germany, leaving our faith in humanity somewhat shattered but our conviction to never repeat history stronger than ever. One particular scene that stuck with us was the wooden bunk beds that crammed 24 females into one unit.
Following a lunch at the hotel, we visited the salt mines of Wieliczka. Polish people have mined salt at the site from the 13th century to the 1990s, so we were able to see a historical perspective of mining. Although the tunnels could be claustrophobic at times, we also saw majestic underground churches with religious reliefs carved on the salt walls.
We set out on the road again in the late afternoon, this time for the city of Krakow. We had a rather traditional dinner in the city and went for sweets afterwards, passing along beautiful old architecture on the way.
DAY 6 – MARCH 17
Written by Saskia (Grade 11)
Today we were able to get a tour around Krakow and explore places like the Jewish quarter, aristocratic churches, and memorials. Once we finished the two-hour tour we were able to have three and a half hours to explore the city ourselves. We went to restaurants to try Poland’s world renowned cheesecake and look at parts of the city ourselves. After our tour, we went back to the hotel and started the service aspect of our trip. We learnt about the groups we would be placed in and about the sick children we’d be helping. We wrapped their presents for a few hours and when it was finished we were able to walk back into the city or have an early night.
DAY 7 – MARCH 18
Written by Emily (Grade 12)
This morning we left Krakow and set off on our first day of visiting children. We split into two groups each of which visited three children to deliver gifts, play, and talk. Though the sick children varied in age, situation, and disposition, all of the children were incredibly kind and open to us. Our interactions with them ranged from playing with puzzles and My Little Pony to jointly fangirling over Sherlock and Percy Jackson.
In doing all of this we got the opportunity to explore a little bit of the Polish countryside and learn about the lives of these families and Polish people in general. We were graciously welcomed into each home and continually fed with pastries, bread, tea, coffee, juice, and much more. We also attempted to learn some basic phrases and words in Polish (some more successfully than others) such as hello, goodbye, thank you, my name is, etc.
In the evening we wrapped more presents and prepared goody bags for our visits to children at a rehabilitation centre tomorrow.
DAY 8 – MARCH 19
Written by Annabelle (Grade 11)
We started off our day with a nice, hearty breakfast at our hotel and then set off in the van at the far-too-early hour of 9:00 am. My group, along with Mr. Cropley, went on a long drive to a more rural area of Poland to visit 16-year-old Sandra. On our way there we saw a camel which at the time seemed very out of place, but as it turns out there is an actual desert in Poland. We met with Sandra and her family and learned about their lives and told them about our own. It was incredible meeting a girl as inspiring as Sandra, as she was our own age and liked many of the same things as us, but is from the opposite side of the world, living a completely different life, battling a vicious disease.
Like all of the children we have met thus far, Sandra never let her disease define her or set her back at all. She continued to follow her passion (which was dance), and live as normal a life as she could — all with a big smile on her face. Meanwhile, Ms. Grant’s group was embarking on a similar journey, meeting other children in circumstances similar to that of Sandra’s. Afterwards, both groups made our way to a Rehabilitation Centre for children. Here, we had the honour of attending and participating in a talent show that the centre had put on where many songs and dances were performed. Special shoutout to Rainy and Saskia who blew the crowd away with their incredible song performances (standing O for both of them, as well as an encore performance from Rainy).
Following the show, we got the opportunity to hand out goody bags to the audience and conversed with them in our broken Polish. I swear I have never been hugged so tightly or sincerely as I had then. These children and their families were so grateful that we had come to see them. Their immense gratitude nearly sent us into tears; it was so beautiful. The nun who ran the centre gave us a tour of the facilities after the show. The place was incredible with multiple rooms with special purposes: a salt room and massage room, a sensory room for the most severe of illnesses that looked like a dream room, which had a waterbed, flashing lights, different sounds, and images etc. Following this visit, we made our way to a very famous Polish Catholic Church where we saw the notorious “Black Madonna”. It was one of the most elaborate cathedrals we had seen on this trip and was known as a famous site of pilgrimage for Catholics.
The rest of the day consisted of eating dinner and then heading to the hotel to wrap more presents and then sleep as we were completely exhausted from this jam packed day! Overall very busy, but a great day.
DAY 10 – MARCH 21
Written by Emily (Grade 12)
Today was our final day of granting wishes to kids and visiting families. Our group visited a young girl who wanted an Xbox, a young, non-verbal girl who got a tablet that would help her communicate, and a young boy in the hospital who received an electric keyboard. However, it was not the gifts but the laughs and conversations that were the most memorable. During our dinner in Warsaw, we spoke about our most memorable moments of the trip. The strength and hope of the families really stood out for us. We’ve had a really meaningful service experience that is hard to be described without sounding hyperbolic, but it is safe to say that meeting these kids have impacted our lives and shown us the power of genuine human connections.
DAY 11 – MARCH 22
Written by Ariana (Grade 11)
This morning we left the Wiktoria Hotel in a town called Wiargowna, and drove for an hour to Warsaw. The first thing we visited was the military cemetery for all the Poles who had served in the Polish military since the early 19th century. It is one of the largest military cemeteries in Europe. We visited the memorials of the soldiers who fought in WWI and WWII, the Boy Scouts who participated in the war effort, as well as the Katyn massacre memorial. The Katyn massacre was a mass execution of Polish nobles and aristocrats by the Soviet Union that took place secretly in the forest in 1940.
Next, we drove for 15 mins and stopped at a local cafe for a quick snack. We arrived at “Invisible” where we spent an hour in pitch black, darkness led by a blind person to experience what life would be like if we could not see. We had to find our way around by sound and touch. Although it was challenging and claustrophobic at times, it made us realize and appreciate the value of sight. We went through multiple rooms which simulated different settings, such as an apartment, a street, a museum, and the forest. We also had to identify the different Polish coins to order food and eat in the darkness, which was very interesting.
Then we ate lunch and headed off to see the Warsaw Uprising Museum. At the museum, we learned about the Warsaw Uprising in great detail. It was a battle that lasted 63 days to liberate Warsaw from German control. We also watched a short 3D movie called ‘Miasto Run: City of Ruins’ which portrayed Warsaw in the aftermath of the uprising.
After spending about three hours at the museum, we ate a delicious Italian dinner at a restaurant called Videlec. We ended the night with ice cream and a relaxing walk around the beautiful Old Town in Warsaw, and then drove to our hotel (Hotel DeSilva) in a small town called Piaseczno koło Warszawy on the outskirts of the city.
DAY 12 – MARCH 23
Written by Lizzy (Grade 11)
Today was our last day in Poland before heading home. We started our day by heading to the Canadian embassy to meet the Canadian Ambassador to Poland. While we were there we discussed highlights of our trip and had a chance to ask the ambassador some questions. After this, we headed to a museum that focused on the history of Judaism. For the last part of the day everyone was given free time to explore the streets of Warsaw and find a place to have dinner. This was one of the only afternoons where our umbrellas would have come in handy. Many of us stayed inside waiting for the rain to let up. After the day was finished everyone headed back to the hotel to prepare for our early departure back to Vancouver the next day.