Photos and Journal Entries of Extraordinary  Program 2015
Poland: History, Culture, People and Economy

April 13-23, 2015

Mentoring Academy Community,

Thank you for following our Poland adventure and thank you for your responses.  Although we are back, new photos are being added as well as student descriptions of their experiences.  This note will be removed when ithe journal is complete.


The exploration of Poland began with a short talk by Laura Weickowicz recounting her experiences as a high school student in Poland. four years ago.  Each student also chose a topic about Polish culture, art, or history and prepared a ten minute report for the school.

Departure From SFO



Wednesday, April 15th, 2015
  Visiting Students, Churches, Apple Plants, and Castle Ruins

The first real day in Poland was spent in general vacinity of the palac, including meals, a visit to a local high school, the country's largest apple processing plant, a church built in the 1500's  and the ruins of a castle from the 1300's.

Here is Julien's quick account.



Dobry wieczór z Polska Or, Good evening from Poland!

This is today’s journal of Mentoring Academy’s visit to Poland as a part of our Extraordinary Travel Program. Due to jet lag, most of us this morning got up fairly early, having breakfast at around 7. After a morning briefing, we took a bus ride to the local High school zespół szkół ponadgimnazjalnych im Władysława Reymonta in the city of Rawa Mazowiecka. Upon entering the building, we were greeted by the school director, a past student, and a teacher who briefed us on some aspects of the Polish education system and how it has changed over time, followed by the answering of some questions. As the the bell sounded, we walked through the crowded school, attracting many eyes, up to the third floor and into a classroom. A short time after, we were joined by many Polish students and prompted to begin conversing in  English. During these conversations, the students talked about many things ranging from sports, to how life and school differed between our countries.  At the end, we exchange contacts, gave our farewells, and got back in the bus.

We then set off for the church in Boguszyce which was built in the 1570’s, and has lasted ever since housing many original paintings from the Renaissance and a great example of gothic architecture. 

Then, we arrived at the Roja apple processing plant where we met the director, learned about the cultivation, storage and processing of apples in Poland, and, of course, tasted apples. 

Back to the Palac for a hearty lunch, then  we returned to Rawa Mazowiecka to see the Rawa Castle ruins, which were built in Casimir III The Great, in 1355 to 1370.






This small wooden church built in the early 1500's is an atristic masterpiece on many levels.  We spent nearly an hour and a half inside examining the wealth of artwork that has been integrated into the space.  The students recognized they were viewing important works unavailable anywhere else.


The ruins are all that is left from the castle that once was the fortification for the area.  Farmers lived inside the walled area.  The tall castle wall remaining is the home for the Duke who owned the castle and area.  Note the indoor / outdoor plumbing attached to the exterior wall high on the main structure.  Gives whole new meaning to peeons who lived below.


The President of the Roja Apple company, Roman Jagieliński, was an active member of Solidarity, became Deputy Prime Minister and Agricultural Minister in 1995-6 under Józef Oleksy while Lech Wałęsa, was President  after Solidarity forced the fall of the Communist state.  In "retirement" Roman Jagieliński,  leads Roja, the largest apple production firm in Europe. Roja is in the forefront of the apple industry, last year growing, storing, and delivering a half-million tons of apples and concentrate.  The apple industry is the largest industry in Poland.  He met with the Mentoring students explained the history, answered questions and showed us the plant.  Huge, thousands of tons of apples are in the no oxygen, nearly freezing storage units (60 units, each 40 feet by 80 feet, 30 feet tall: floor to ceiling apple crates).

Immense, imposing, and impressive are all words that describe the Palace of Culture and Science, a building in central Warsaw that is a beautiful landmark for all but the residents of Warsaw.  The Palace of Culture and Science was topped off on 20 June 1955.  This building was a gift for Poland from the people of the Soviet Union, who occupied Poland in the years after the second world war.  The origin of the building makes it an eyesore to residents, who suffered for years of communist rule, symbolized by the building, towering over the Polish people.  The building was built in just three years, making it the only building standing in Warsaw in the years after the city was razed by the Nazis.  The Soviets did not aid the Polish people in rebuilding the rest of the city.  After the communists lost power, the building was partially sold to private entities.  Now the building, with its 42 floors and 3288 rooms, houses the Academy of Science, five movie theaters, a number of radio stations and offices.  --Hanson


The Palace of Culture is the tallest building in all of Poland. Nicknamed Stalin’s pride. It was commissioned to be built as a gift to the Polish people from the Soviet Union, however it came to be viewed as symbol of communist oppression in Poland by the Polish people. Throughout the communist occupation of Poland, it was the site of many uprisings against the Soviet domination of Poland. While many Polish people view the Palace as an attempt by the soviet regime to further entrench themselves as the dominant force in Poland, it is an undeniably magnificent building and a shining example of Soviet Architecture. The inside features many large pillars as well as beautiful carvings on the ceilings and walls. Each room has a specially made Chandelier which cost thousands of dollars each to make and were imported from northern Poland. Construction started in 1952 and finished in 1955. It was initially used as a meeting place for Soviet Politicians and the Governor of the region of Poland. Since the fall of the Soviet Union the building has been open to the public as a museum as well as many other commercial uses.



Torun, 50 km NW of Warszaw, contains the home where Copernicus was raised and is the home of a remarkable gingerbread, which Chopin thought was the world's best.  His house today holds a museum in the upper three floors, and a very old gingerbread museum in the basement.  We were making gingerbread in his brick cellar which has never been renovated.

Thursday, April 16th, 2015
  The Palace of Culture in Warsaw
Thursday, April 16th, 2015
  King's Palace and Warsaw Old Town

The Nazi troops deliberately destroyed the ancient Palace of the Polish Kings mid way through the war.  Employees managed to hide much of the artwork and in the latter part of the 20th century contributions from all over the world financed its reconstruction.  It is located in Old Town.

Friday, April 17th, 2015
  Torun, Astronomical Institute, Gingerbread, and Koperniki's House

Warsaw has an extensive history  museum dedicated to recounting the history of Jewish people in central Europe.  Just prior to WWII more than half the world's Jewish population lived in Poland. We explored the museum from earliest times to the arrival of the Nazi's.  We left the WWII portion of the history for later.


Saturday, April 18th, 2015
  Warsaw Uprising Museum

Reaction to the Warsaw uprising museum  —john

I have long known a great deal about the events of WWII in Europe: the resistance in France, underground activities, the almost destruction of Paris, the battles, invasion at Normandy, enigma, etc.  With an uncle who spent years in a prisoner of war camp, a father serving in the Pacific and his best friend killed in the Battle of the Bulge, my memories are real and my interest in understanding it all has always been intense. But somehow, in all that I missed the fact that the underground in Poland was an important force, with more than 400,000 people actively resisting the Nazi occupational army.  Even worse, until we started preparing for this program, I was unaware that the citizens of Warsaw engaged the Nazi’s in a massive uprising all over the city.

The Warsaw Museum documents the events leading up to the tumultuous 63 day uprising, the brilliant tactics, battles, enormous sacrifices, and ultimately Hitler’s decision to completely destroy Warsaw and build a model German city in its place.
What was hardest for me was to be in the museum with a group of young people who, had they been in Warsaw in 1941, would have been soldiers defending the city, along with their younger siblings. Nearly all the young soldiers were ultimately killed in the battles or were murdered  after being captured (20,000 young people age 14 to early twenties captured and killed in one day). A total of at least 150,000 civilians and most of the several hundred thousand young people in the underground were killed.  Even younger boy scouts and girl scouts risked their lives running an improvised mail and currier service; many teens were involved in the reporting, printing and distribution of newspapers and in creating documentary newsreels for smuggling to the outside world.  They were essential to the resistance and the uprising. They, for two months, derailed Hitler's march into the Soviet Union.  And they died.  

Most important to me about visiting the museum, was the reaction of the Mentoring Academy students.  They were appropriately growing in understanding, questioning how and why it happened, and recognizing how fortunate we are.

With all that happened, invasion, occupation, systematic murder of millions of people, enormous destruction, then invasion by Soviets, another occupation, … how can Poland exist at all? —student

Your young people are quite wonderful, you know.  —john

  History of the Jewish People Museum
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Sunday, April 19th, 2015
  Cracow Castle, Saint Mary's Church, Underground City, and Night Views
Monday, April 20th, 2015
  Cracow and Salt Mines
At three in the afternoon, after an hour and a half hour drive from Krakow through grassy planes and desolate forests, we found ourselves at a reasonably mundane entrance. Ahead of us there were dozens of individuals assembled in groups, some scattered independently or in pairs, old and young alike; we were the only visible native English speakers in the bunch. Book stores and souvenir shops are scattered, tourists are loitering in the park by the parking lot taking smoke breaks and looking at photos. It all seems remarkably casual until we were brought to the entrance gate, reading “Arbeit macht frei” — Work will make you free; we were all then struck with a widespread apprehension, entering a solemn state that inherently suited the profoundly dark atmosphere.

Within two hours we had walked through numerous buildings which were once used to contain and murder over a million individuals. Walking up eroded steps, happening upon rooms with seas of hair, prosthetic limbs, luggage, shoes, and everyday cosmetics, we saw into a world that resembled more of a dystopian universe than anything that could have occurred on earth, much less in western society less than one hundred years ago. When confronted with the numbers, the humanity of the victims, and the very presence of the camp itself we begin to feel the incredible weight of these events. Towards the end of our time at the first camp we entered the gas chamber and the crematorium in silence, many in tears or simply dumbfounded by the atrocities that occurred in the very rooms we were now walking in. Regardless of how individuals in our group expressed this grief, a distinctly visceral experience was experienced by each of us.

Once we had made the kilometer ride over to Birkenau (Auschwitz 2), we watched the sun setting from the guard tower by the railroad that had  transported the condemned. Grass and flowers have grown around the area since, creating a powerful paradox between the mass destruction that occurred decades before and the new potential for life. The juxtaposition of the chimneys against the picturesque sunset was ultimately unsettling; that a place characterized by such horror, such sorrow could harbor beauty. In the quiet minutes we spent at the second camp we were able to reflect and let what we had just witnessed sink in. The final moments were grave, the procession back to the bus by the railroad tracks was sobering. As we drove away, we each left with an unfamiliar heaviness. We were transformed.      
  Auschwitz and Birkenau