Blog:  Europe Spring Experiential Trip 2023

This spring's experiential education trip to Poland, the Czech Republic, and Germany provided historical and cultural context specific to the three countries visited and the world writ large in the 20th and 21st centuries. The curricular focus of this trip was to immerse students in the persons and events of World War II and the Cold War. Students visited notable places such as Auschwitz, the Schindler Factory, Prague Castle, the Town of Lidice, the Berlin Wall, the Reichstag, and Checkpoint Charlie. Students learned about the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party and observed memorials constructed to remember the lives lost in the global conflict. Discussions, lessons, and reflections emphasized perspective, causation, consequence, historicization, memorialization, and glorification.  

While in Eastern Europe, a typical day consists of a morning class focusing on history, architecture, contemporary politics, art, or literature. At the same time, the afternoon was divided between small group work and exploring the cities. Students were expected to:

  1. Read articles and historical accounts before they begin their trip and stay in each town.
  2. Watch the movie Schindler's List and read Night by Elie Weisel.
  3. Keep an interactive journal of their experiences while on the trip.
  4. Complete several small projects asking students to reflect on their experiences and knowledge.

Each student was responsible for writing and curating a substantial blog entry with personal reflections, focusing on the events of the assigned day.  

Blog 1: "Auschwitz" (Excerpts from a reflection by Annabelle Starr' 26) - 5.20.23

Today, we went to Auschwitz I and Auschwitz-Birkenau, Nazi death camps near Krakow, Poland. The history of these camps is both horrific and unimaginable, and upon entering, I could feel the weight of the past. Our history teacher prepared us by saying that there is no right or wrong way to feel when visiting, and that we should not judge ourselves for whatever we did feel. Maybe we would have a strong reaction or very little? I wondered how I would react. 

On the bus ride to there, we watched a movie about the horrors of the place. I was hit with the weight of the moment…us going to Auschwitz and going on this trip were no longer months ahead. The brick buildings were coming into view. We were here. 

There were so many visitors! Did they have a more connected history to this place than I did? Somebody must. Probably many. Once we got through the crowd and met our guide, I began to see the brick buildings up close. I also noticed the green grass and trees everywhere. If I hadn't known the history already, I might have thought the contrast of brick and greenery was beautiful. 


We walked under the entrance sign, translated to English as "Work will set you free," and my stomach lurched. Such an eerie saying, knowing that it was deceptive. We were now inside the once electrified, barbed wire fence. There were buildings everywhere, but we only entered a few. They were crowded with tourists and divided into groups of about 20 (like ours). On the walls were pictures of people unknowingly walking to their deaths, and each room told its own story – piles of pots and pans, suitcases, eyeglasses, and more. Belongings that real people owned. In one dimly lit room were thousands of pounds of women's hair. The Nazis used the hair for soldiers' socks, cloth, and felt - an entire room filled with hair, and it was only a tiny fraction of the victims. The next room was full of shoes…shoes worn by real people. Again, this was just a fraction of the total number taken. Our guide told us these amounted to just 5%. It was hard to believe that I was looking at the shoes of people who went through something so unimaginable. People whose lives were taken by the Holocaust…

The Holocaust can never truly be measured to its full extent and gravity. However, we try to do so by counting shoes. My stomach turned. It didn't feel real. I was actually there. And shoes, suitcases, and hair weren't the end of it. 

Outside, we were shown a wall that represented death. A wall where executions occurred. Today, there are flowers at the foot of the wall to honor those who were taken. From the wall, we walked across cobbled stone streets to a gas chamber. Somewhere I never thought I'd go. A chill went through my body. A Chill from the air and from the fear caused by the room. A lump formed in my throat at the thought of the helpless people whose lives ended here, where I stood. I couldn't understand. How can humans do this to each other? The 1940's weren't that long ago. I don't think I'll ever understand what it takes to drive people to do what they did. And I don't want to understand. 

While visiting these camps was very difficult, I believe that turning Auschwitz into a memorial is an effective way to help educate people today. Over 2 million people visit every year, which means that 2 million people care enough to learn about this terrible history. Perhaps this will be enough to prevent something this horrible from happening again. 

"Those Who Do Not Remember the Past are Condemned to Repeat It." - George Santayana

Blog 2: “Wieliczka Salt Mines: Krakow” by Rider Abbott ‘26  - 5.21.23

“I’ve been a salt miner for approximately 16 years now. The air down here is cold and thin…many of us have trouble breathing in these deep, deep caverns of our own creation. Very recently, we opened a large cavern, but water poured in immediately. This has caused the salt to create a large pond turning it into brine. Of course, this is a major setback for all of us and will require calling in more men. The work never stops…

 St. Kinga’s Underground Salt Cathedral

Sadly, we recently attended a funeral for our dear friend and fellow miner, Stanislaus. He perished during a large explosion that also injured many. And the deafening blast caused a multitude of younger, inexperienced miners to lose their hearing. Due to our respect for Stanislaus, his years of service, and superior skill, we honored him with a statue made of salt in our largest cavern, St Kinga’s Cathedral. And let me tell you, this is a high honor. Only special statues and reliefs are carved here – Copernicus, the Pope, Mieteslisky’s admirable tribute to Da Vinci’s Last Supper, etc. I was fortunate enough to be asked to be the lead sculptor on Stanislaus’s statue. It was an honor, and now he will be remembered forever.”

Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” (carved in salt)

I was inspired to write this vignette after visiting the Wieliczka Salt Mines just outside of Krakow. Learning the history of these incredibly important (and lucrative) mines was fascinating. They are more than 700 years old and were mined until 2002! What a nice day trip, especially after yesterday's intense trip to Auschwitz.  

Copernicus (carved salt) visited in 1473 A.D.

 Wieliczka Salt Mines, 430 ft. below ground!

Blogging from a Train: “Our Last Day in Krakow” by Briar Schultz ‘26  - 5.22.23

Today we started with a casual morning of packing because we are traveling to Prague in the afternoon. Once we got out of our hostel, we put our luggage in lockers so we could go to breakfast and then to visit the Plaszow Concentration Camp. We went as a group to a cool cafe called Cakester. It was a casual and hip cafe in a Renaissance-style building near the Old Town Square. We sat upstairs where there was a very low ceiling – so low that we almost had to duck (Rider did). We had a view of the street and sidewalk, and we could watch all the people. I chose to have a sweet breakfast…a crepe with apple, cinnamon, and fruit sauce. I loved it, but I liked everything I had here. I’ve discovered that the food is exponentially better than in the U.S. 

After breakfast, we left for Plaszow and took the public tram (about 15 minutes). After walking for another 10 minutes, we were in the camp. This was a camp right in the city of Krakow run by the Nazis during WWII. It was also the camp where the movie “Schindler’s List” mostly took place. But it didn’t feel like a camp – at least not like Auschwitz-Birkenau. When we first entered, we came upon an old, run-down house over 100 years old. Near the house was a sign and map giving information about the concentration camp. The map shows what it used to look like, and this was really helpful because it looks nothing like it used to. 

There wasn’t a ticket office or visitor center or anything. Other than the old house at the entrance, there was nothing but trees, grass, and bushes. As we walked through the lush, vast fields, we tried to imagine what it was like as a camp. This was difficult because it is pretty now. Without that sign and other signs throughout, people would never know what happened here. They would probably have picnics and be clueless. But thousands of Polish and Jewish people lost their lives here. 


We continued walking through the fields as a tractor mowed grass in the background. This used to be a concentration camp? “Schindler’s List” helped to visualize it, and so did the information signs and Gary’s explanations. After a few more minutes, we got to sign #10 near a huge monument. We learned that the monument was built during the Communist era and is known as the “Memorial to the Victims of Fascism.” The Communists wanted to show they were the heroes/stars against Fascism. It is hard to describe, but we took many pictures. 

While there, I also learned that Oskar Schindler saved many people from this camp by having them work in his factory (which we visited last night). This camp is so different from Auschwitz, but I’m glad I went. From Plaszow, we got our luggage, had lunch at the train station, and boarded our 2:30 pm train to Prague…which we’re on right now. This is my first time on a European train, and it seems like a great way to travel. Next stop: Prague! 

Blogging from Prague “The Art in Architecture” By Sage Barnes 5/23/23

Today we visited St. Vitus Cathedral also called Prague Castle. My neck currently hurts from spending over an hour staring at the high walls, stained glass windows, and ceiling.   One of the things that interested me the most about both the church itself and the stained glass windows was the meaning and reasoning behind them. Before entering the church, Gary talked about how the gigantic structure itself brought people to Christianity. Because many people had never seen a building so massive and tall, they felt it must be built by God. The church had stained glass windows all over. The windows all had detailed and colorful pictures of stories from the Bible. Peasants in 1300 CE were not able to read. The stained glass windows acted like books, telling the people of the most important stories in the Bible.  

One of the stories that was highlighted in this church was the story of St. John Nepomuk. He brought trust to Prague and is the patron saint of confessions. The reason he became a saint was because he was murdered for keeping the religious laws of confession. He refused to tell anyone, even the king, information that was shared to him in confession. The story of his death begins as the queen, Wenceslas' wife, went to confession one day. Her husband was untrusting of her, and thought she might be breaking the ten commandments. Wenceslas asked St. John to tell him what she said. Saint John would not, so Wenceslas had him killed in the Vltava River.  

One of the reasons I thought this story was so interesting was because I had not heard of it before. But also because St. John's tomb was in the church. And his tomb was incredible.   The tomb is made of solid shiny silver. The tomb is being lifted off of the altar by four angels. The angels are taking St. John to heaven. A statue of St. John holding a crucifix is on the top of the tomb. I was very surprised with how much silver was used to make this tomb. There was a lot of gold in the church, but this was the only piece that was a different metal.   We bumped into St. John again later, when we walked across the Charles Bridge. There is a statue of him right in the center of the bridge that you are supposed to rub in a specific spot and make a wish. I hope my wish comes true.  

I was fascinated by so much in the church. The artwork was incredible. One piece I took to heart was the realistic wood carving of Jesus on the cross. The statue showed his scars and cuts. The emotion it showed was crazy; you could tell he was in pain and was filled with sadness. But I was struck by the gold ring over his heart. It's a gold adornment and recognizes his holiness after the torture. This church has been a highlight of Prague so far. I did not expect it to be as interesting as it was. You should definitely put this on your bucket list.  

When in Poland… (Yes we are in Prague now, but no one was assigned to blog today, so I thought I would put myself in the students' shoes). 5.24.23 Emily Durkin

When we discuss experiential education, the first thing that always comes to mind is places. Going to the place. Being in the place. Experiencing the place. And yes, while that has been a primary focus of this trip, each place would be incomplete without the food. Food brings us together when we sit and eat in each other's company. It also gives us independence when we find something we want and don't have to compromise for others. We eat often. And discovering something that might be amazing, our new favorite food, has brought added energy and excitement to this trip.  

When in Poland, eat perogies. These small pressed pouches are packed with intense flavor (or sometimes just flavor). Though attributed to the Polish people, specifically the name, they resembled dumplings of Asiatic cuisine and were thought to have been introduced to Eastern Europe through trade during the middle ages. On our first night in Poland, Gary and I decided upon perogies. We found a quaint little spot down a side street off Old Town Square in Krakow. Upon walking in, I was struck by a hint of familiarity. The decor was reminiscent of my great aunt Lilian Czybulski's, Philadelphia row house. She was Polish, and so were all the families on her street in Philly. As I enter the dining area, I start to think that her choices in home decor must have been a Polish thing. Lots of red velvet furniture with wood accents, cuckoo clocks, very large pictures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, table cloths that don't seem to work because they might as well be large doilies, and food inevitably falls into the holes. This was familiar.  

We had trouble deciding on just one variety, so we created a sampler. We ordered three different types of Pierogi. The traditional pierogi, also known as the Ruskei (the Polish use that name less because of its reference to Russia), is filled with potato and cheese and served with sour cream. These were a good introduction to the pierogi, but a bit bland for my taste. The potato was a smooth consistency, and the cheese added a nice spark of flavor. The little side dish of sour cream was the real star. On to pierogi number two…  

Pierogi number two was named a word I can't quite remember, nor could pronounce. As were most words in the Polish language. My new philosophy on ordering has become… when in doubt, point it out. I've done a lot of pointing at menu items on this trip thus far. I've been courageous and daring with my choices in cuisine, not so much with my attempts to learn the language of my ancestors. These perogies were large and in charge. There were fewer of them on the plate, but they took up way more space. And there was a nice plump pile of pickled carrots smack dab in the middle. Pickled carrots. Yum. It's hard to say exactly what was in these perogies, I know for sure meat, and I am pretty sure lamb. As soon as I closed my mouth after the first savory bite, the meat just vanished, melting quickly but intentionally in my mouth. I needed another bite. One down. The combination of flavors was delectable, bolstered by the sweet dollop of sour cream on the top. After eating the first one, I looked at Gary, there was a shallow smirk on his face. A familiar look. Yep, he likes them too. From there, it was a fight to the finish. In the end, we were civilized and divided them evenly. Three apiece.   

And well after that description, why would you want to hear about pierogi number three? It had some meat in it? And a lot of coriander. Thumbs down.  

I'd like to think that this meal was inspiring and that I am going to go home and try my hand at making perogies. Nope! Because here's the thing about places, places become special; oftentimes, they are the only places, or the best places, or the right places. Taking perogies out of Poland, for me, means moving a little piece of Poland out of place.  

Final Blog Post from the Czech Republic: "Cesky Krumlov" By Ruby McHarg '23

On our last full day in the Czech Republic, we went on a day trip to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Cesky Krumlov. Just 2 hours from the city, it is located in southern Czechia, also known as the Sudetenland. Although there were many tourists in the town, it was less crowded than Prague and a nice break for us. Since we had no tight agenda, we could stroll and experience this stunning medieval town. After a quick look at the views from the ancient ramparts, we descended into town, where we had a nice group lunch. "Bonding and togetherness," I pondered. With such a small group on this trip, we often decided to stick together. I was excited to see how we might bond during our visit. For me, the most meaningful aspect of TMS trips is learning with your friends. No matter what kind of lesson it is, you've got someone to lean on, someone to laugh with, and someone to reflect with. Group learning isn't intentionally placed into the curriculum, but in the end, it just makes sense to learn together if you've got to take on the world together. 

After lunch, Durkin and Gary gave us free time to experience Cesky Krumlov by ourselves – time to explore. 

"I want gelato," Annabelle proclaimed. She had that infectious grin on her face…the one that looks like a smiling fox. The rest of the group immediately agreed. We all fell in line behind her and skipped down the cobblestone street. Sgraffito-ed buildings towered over our heads as we navigated the unfamiliar territory. We didn't find the gelato at first, so Rider suggested we retrace our steps. "If we keep looking, something ought to reveal itself," I said to him, eager to wander in this magical place. I turned to check on those around me. Briar was stalling at every restaurant door, tongue lolling and eyes wide with desire. "We just had lunch!" I thought. But that was Briar…always hungry. Rider was beside him, but of course, more interested in every candy shop! We girls, led by Annabelle, revolved around each other like planets in the solar system. Sage ran ahead, giggling gleefully, her steps echoing on the stone and off the stuccoed buildings. Classic Sage. 

Matteo and Sydney M. strolled side by side, eyes peeled for any signs of the delicious frozen treat. Suddenly, Annabelle and Sydney G. squealed excitedly and rushed towards a pint-sized medieval cottage. Gelato! The shop smelled of light sugar and cream, and the walls were covered in Italian flags. We crowded into the small space and ordered our favorite flavors - pistachio, tiramisu, dragonfruit, vanilla, and more! The perfect follow-up to lunch. For a moment, we stood in front of the shop. The Sydneys wrapped their arms across my shoulders, and Annabelle squeezed in beside us, almost smashing her face in my gelato. The rest of the group huddles around us. Sage kisses Annabelle's cheek playfully. The girls giggle in unison. "You guys are weird," Briar remarks. I can tell he doesn't really mean it by his friendly smile. Tourists navigate past us, but we don't feel a need to move. Gelato cones are passed back and forth to friends who want a taste of everything. Matteo makes a joke about Briar's voracious appetite. Of course, he's done with his cone already. I look up from our group for a moment to take in the views again. I'm so lucky to be here with the people I love. Sydney M. pulls me in closer like she's thinking the same thing. "Where should we go next?" Sydney G. asked, to no one in particular. Like a flock of sheep, we made our way down the street… That's the thing about togetherness. You don't need to know where you're going as long as your friends are beside you.  

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a Poem by Sydney Gallagher 5.28.23

Obelisks like caskets,

There are no headstones but I stand in a graveyard.

The final days of them haunt me, 

the silent sufferings in solitude hidden behind the sun.

Who am I to complain about my swollen feet, 

I am not in the train cars, 

Scrambling, clawing skin, pulling hair, 

Begging for a stolen breath that doesn't even taste fresh.  

Bile sprinkled on my calves, 

Corpses splattered in the floor, 

And bowels plastered on the walls.  

Where are my morals when I moan that is miss my brother after two weeks, 

When eighty years ago, 

A girl similar to me did not have the liberty to hug him goodbye.

This is the secret to perspective:

Its hidden in a mirror maze of:




And acceptability to open mindedness1. 

And O that mirror maze…

It has so many dead ends, 

That you begin to wonder if there is even an exit.  

I stared at the written words on the floor, 

Were they the last this child wrote?

Judyta Wyszniacka, 

Twelve years old, 

Murdered by the Nazis, 

Scribbled to her father:

"I am saying goodbye to you before I die. 

We would so love to live, 

But they won't let us.

And we will die." 

Twelve years old and facing death, 

I am seventeen and terrified to lose my life.

In this memorial, 

I've gained perspective and lost answers.

I feel both guilty and grateful for all that I have.

But is that not why we

Pay our respects to history?

To feel this discomfort

And vow to be peaceful for as long as possible?

If I want to remember one thing

From this memorial, 

Its that nothing is promised, 

So i must rejoice in both my 

Pain and pleasure that I feel today.

I feel it all today.  

Day 1 in Berlin: "The Third Reich: History Comes Alive" By Matteo Ebbitt '25

Until the Mountain School, all of my history classes focused on dates and statistics. However, this class (IB History) has taught me that learning can be fun and engaging. We focus on concepts such as perspective, causation, and change. Why and how…not just what and when. And to end this course on this trip is incredible. It brings it alive. 

Other than a few local field trips, learning history in a classroom is all that I've known. Being in these three European cities has truly brought to life much so much of what I've learned. The Holocaust, the causes and consequences of WWII, appeasement, the rise of Fascism, and much more. Today's focus was on the Third Reich (the Nazi Regime), and we explored this while on a bike tour. 

Starting the tour, we could already see evidence of WWII all around us. The Luftwaffe building (now the Ministry of Finance), the newly-remodeled Reichstag, and most striking of all bullet holes. Bullet holes were obvious in buildings throughout the city, marking the waning days of the Third Reich. I did not expect to see this. I learned of the fierce block-by-block, building-by-building street, gun bullets between the Nazis (what were left of them) and the Soviets (the first allied soldiers to enter Berlin in 1945). 

We saw the now-gleaming Jewish synagogue that was heavily damaged by the Nazis and completely repaired buildings that were targeted on Kristallnacht in 1936. Why was there so much hate? I had time to think about these things as we biked between stops, but no answers came to me. I have to say, though, that when we stopped at the site of Hitler's bunker, everything became much more real. There we were, standing in the courtyard of a nice apartment complex, and fifty-five feet below us was the bunker. The place where the most horrible man in history committed suicide because he didn't want to face the consequences. All I could think about was how surreal it felt to be standing here (the bunker is long gone) in a courtyard where he and an incomprehensible era ended. Looking around, you could never tell that this was where Hitler died – there was simply grass, asphalt, and people watering their window flower boxes in the apartments above. The fact there were no signs or markings indicating this seemed fitting for a man responsible for such terrible acts. 

As I have tried to do during this trip, I put myself in someone else's shoes (perspective). I tried to imagine being a German citizen or one of those he and the Nazis hated (Jews, disabled people, and so many more), but it is nearly impossible. I do know, though, that so many people suffered, and I recognize how fortunate I am. 

Gary has told us that we study history for many reasons, but one of them is to learn about the human condition over time. People matter. Each one of them means something. This was such a dark time, but I am glad I have a better understanding of the atrocities of the Third Reich. Most importantly, I have a better understanding of their victims.

Berlin: "The Wall: Breaking the Chains" By Sydney Martin '25

Today, I got to walk among the best-preserved section of the Berlin Wall, the "East Gallery." The Wall was originally built by the East Germans (with permission from the Soviets) in 1961 to divide East (communist) and West (democratic) Berlin. As I walked down the wall, maybe 2 or 3 blocks total, I was surprised to see all of the amazing art. I didn't expect it to be so good. Not only was a lot of it done by talented artists, but it made us think. There were political messages, anti-war messages, and things I didn't really understand, but all of it was interesting and moving. It was hard to believe that this was built to keep people in a place against their will. Of course, back then, it was only a concrete wall…no art. 

After we visited it, Gary and Durkin gave us a journal assignment to draw and explain

something that we would put on the wall if we were given a section. I thought for a long time and decided to draw chains coming out of the infinity symbol. I added leaves to my concept which represent the olive branch…the ancient Greek symbol of peace. To me, this drives out evil spirits and also represents the Goddess Eriene, a goddess of peace. With her help, the chains (the Wall itself) can be broken and people will be free. My section of the wall would create an opportunity for all the spirits who died while trying to break out of their cage to finally fly free. My art is the place where they can break free. 

I didn't know what to expect before visiting the Wall, but it was different than I thought. Concrete, not very colorful, boring, and bland. To my surprise, it was the exact opposite. These old remnants of something that separated so many lives were filled with color, joy, and hope. As I thought about it more and more, I found myself relieved that so much warmth was brought to such a cold place. This wall brought much more emotion to me than I thought it would, and I'm incredibly grateful that I got the opportunity to experience this part of history. 

Click here for a photo gallery.