UNI students study in Poland

Three University of Northern Iowa students learned the importance of national identity while studying in Poland for two weeks this May.

The students were enrolled in the capstone course Being National, taught by UNI associate professor of history Konrad Sadkowski, who is originally from Poland and has taken students there six times. The program was based in the historic city of Krakow with ituni students in polands unique Old Town full of cobblestoned streets, restaurants, cafes, shops and nightclubs. 

According to Sadkowski, the purpose of the program was to instruct the students about the origins and importance of modern national identity.  By taking the students out of their comfort zone and to a foreign country, and specifically by contrasting the civic-based American identity with the highly ethnic-based Polish identity, he taught them about the central role of national identity in today's world.

"This whole issue of national identity is very important I think," Sadkowski said. "Americans are very centered on their own country and their own culture.  But we live in a world that's already highly globalized and becoming more so, so students in Iowa and in this country really have to be exposed to the world and international issues."

"My goal for the course is to show students what national identity is and how they themselves became American.  'Americanness' comes out of certain ongoing cultural, social and political processes, which themselves are based on past historical developments.  People of all nations have their own processes of becoming national, and if students can appreciate that, they'll better understand themselves and the linguistic and cultural richness of the world."

The students began examining national identity from the moment they arrived in Poland through readings, class discussions and journaling, and through daily excursions in Krakow and several trips beyond the city.  A considerable number of their excursions were related to the Jewish past in Poland and the Holocaust, since the Jews have left an indelible mark on Polish identity, Sadkowski said. 

In Krakow, the students visited Wawel Castle, the burial site of Polish kings and other major historical figures; St. Mary’s Church, including its tower and famous altar; the National Museum; the Wyspianski Museum and the Ethnographic Museum. 

They also visited four of Krakow's seven synagogues; the "old" and "new" Jewish cemeteries; the Galicia Jewish Museum; the Plaszow concentration camp; the site of the Krakow Ghetto and the gate of Schindler’s Factory, made famous in the 1993 film "Schindler's List."

On a brief trip to Warsaw, the students visited the Warsaw Uprising Museum; the Royal Palace, which by chance had da Vinci's famous painting "Lady with an Ermine" on loan from a Krakow museum; the Jewish Historical Institute; a fragment of the Warsaw Ghetto Wall; and the Palace of Culture, a "gift" from Stalin to Poland in the early 1950s.

A key visit for the students was a trip to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and death camp.

"It's always a very powerful visit for the students," Sadkowski said. "You are there at the epicenter of the Holocaust."

"Auschwitz was an unforgettable experience. Just walking through the camp, you see the location of such horrible conditions and the suffering of so many innocent people. The exhibits had heartbreaking photos of so many skeletons," said sophomore elementary education major Katie Terrell, one of the students on the program.

In addition to their stirring and memorable visits to Holocaust sites, the students visited more fun and uplifting locations and saw performances of the Krakow Philharmonic and the Krakow Opera.

At the Wieliczka Salt Mines, established in the Middle Ages as a source of wealth for the Polish monarchy and Krakow, the students explored a vast underground complex of rooms and chambers carved completely from salt, some of which are now restaurants, cafes, shops and chapels.

The favorite visit of the students was to Zakopane -- Poland's most famous ski resort. The students went up two mountain peaks and played in the snow, and enjoyed the town market and its many products from the region’s sheep and wool industry.

"We went up one of the highest peaks there," Sadkowski said. "One still had snow drifts on it of six to eight feet tall. It was a lot of fun for the students to walk around in the snow toward the end of May."

"Climbing the mountain peak in Zakopane was one of the biggest thrills I've ever experienced," Terrell said. "The view was breathtaking."

No matter where the students visited in Poland, they were experiencing something different and new. Visiting Poland opened the door for them to really observe the role of language, history, religion and other factors in the construction of national identity.

Sadkowski said his favorite part of the trip was observing the students and seeing how they responded to Poland.

"Most UNI students are from Iowa, so they're not exposed to big, old cities, and Krakow is relatively large and quite old," Sadkowski said. "For students to just walk around and see and touch 600-800 hundred-year-old buildings is amazing.  It's something you can't get in Iowa. It's just a really eye-opening experience for students.  It's very different from what they are used to."