Return To Poland

by Theodosia Robertson

Associate Professor Department of History
Krakow Stamp

Kraków, Poland

Travel As A Teacher

It’s a truism that travel is a form of education. In past eras, the sons (and less frequently, the daughters) of wealthy elites traveled as part of their education—or perhaps in place of college or university instruction. For decades “study abroad” programs have been a feature of American higher education, but usually accessible to a lucky few. The Wyatt Exploration program in the Department of History is changing that image at UM-Flint.

I first traveled abroad one summer between my junior and senior years in high school. “Back in the day,” relatives and neighbors were aghast at a sixteen-year-old setting off to explore Europe. The exhilaration of travel never left me; backpack, walking shoes and a big scarf—I am ready to go. This year—after decades as a solo traveler—came my first opportunity to bring students with me on the very first Department of History Wyatt Exploration trip.

A Global Gift

How did this happen? A generous bequest from founding UM-Flint Professor of History Dorothea E. Wyatt has established an endowment for the Department of History. Through the Wyatt Exploration program, one History faculty member serves as Wyatt Fellow and organizes a lecture series and companion events that coordinate with course offerings. At the end of the academic year, the Wyatt Fellow leads a fully-funded travel experience for a group of UM-Flint History majors.

The theme for 2009-2010 was “Poland between East and West.” Our destination? Poland’s former capital, Kraków. Site of royal coronations, home of Jagiellonian University (the second oldest university east of the Rhine), and cultural center from medieval times to the present—Kraków preserves Poland’s history as in no other Polish city.

Best Laid Plans

Our students had substantial preparation. In addition to their coursework, students attended the Wyatt Lecture Series in which distinguished visiting scholars brought Poland’s varied and dramatic history into focus. Keely Stauter-Halstead (Michigan State University) traced the heritage of Jewish civilization in her lecture, “Poles and Jews: A Thousand Year Conversation.” In his lecture, “Europe’s Other Heart of Darkness: Imperialism before Empire,” John J. Bukowczyk (Wayne State University) examined the partitions of Poland as a consequence of European imperialism before its export to other world regions. Brian Porter-Szűcs (UM-Ann Arbor) probed religion in Poland in his lecture “Catholicism and the Ideology of Homogeneity in Polish History." Award-winning writer, poet, playwright, and essayist Henryk Grynberg compared his own experience to that of other Holocaust writers in “Reality Surpassing Imagination: Why I Write Documentary Prose.”

In pre-travel orientation sessions students learned Polish phrases, discussed cross-cultural communication and what to expect in Poland, and exchanged tips on packing and currency. Travel information was stored on Blackboard, and a Facebook page kept the travelers in constant contact as the departure date neared.

Dramatic events occurred a month before we left Flint. On April 10, a plane crash near Smolensk, Russia killed 96 people including the Polish President; Poland went into national mourning. On April 14, volcanic eruptions in Iceland caused giant magma plumes that closed airports across Europe. Closer to home, hurricanes in the Carolinas unexpectedly cancelled our flight out of Flint and necessitated re-routing—we traveled in two groups from Amsterdam to Prague and then on to Kraków.

Krakow Stamp


Witam (welcome)

Our first day in Kraków, a walking tour of the Old Town and the Wawel (the castle mound with its palace and cathedral) oriented students to the city with its medieval cobbled streets, enormous Market Square (largest in Europe), and monuments virtually untouched by wartime destruction. By the second day, students felt at home in the Old Town and managed on their own.

Our next stop was Jagiellonian University’s Centre for European Studies for the first of three academic sessions, beginning with a lecture by Prof. Edyta Gawron about the history of Jews of Kraków. Then, with Prof. Gawron as our guide, we walked to Kazimierz (Kraków’s old Jewish quarter), and visited synagogues, Szeroka Street, the mikvah, slaughterhouse, and the ghetto in Podgórze. Through Prof. Gawron, students learned about the significance of Jews and Jewish culture in pre-war Poland. When two days later we traveled to Auschwitz-Birkenau, students could better grasp the immense human dimension of suffering in the Holocaust and the particular tragedy for Poland as a multi-cultural state.

Two more lectures at the Centre for European Studies provided students background on Polish issues: a lecture by Prof. Magdalena Góra on Poland’s successful integration into the European Union and my own lecture on Holocaust writer Henryk Grynberg.

At the nearby Wieliczka salt mines, one of the Europe’s great mineral deposits mined since the 13th century, students learned about salt as part of medieval Poland’s resource wealth and about pre-modern mining technology.

Students rode to Nowa Huta, “New Foundry,” a socialist workers’ city near Kraków. Built in the 1950s as a counter balance to bourgeois Kraków, Nowa Huta’s geometric design and massive apartment buildings typified Soviet central planning, the goal of which was to shape the new socialist man.

In Zakopane in the Tatra Mountains, students experienced a mountain ski resort and summer vacation spot that was also an artists’ colony up through the end of the 19th and early 20th century, famous for its distinctive wooden architecture. Students also saw traditional wooden architecture in Wygiełzów, a skansen (outdoor museum) south of Kraków, that houses 18th to 20th century Polish peasant buildings, a church, and a Polish gentry manor house. At Ojców and Pieskowa Skała students walked in a small, very bio-diverse national park with a distinctive form of limestone rock. Castles there formed part of a medieval defense system called the “Trail of Eagles’ Nests” erected in the time of King Kazimierz the Great (14th century).

Our last excursion was a raft ride on the Dunajec River, a tributary of the Vistula River that runs beneath limestone cliffs in the mountains of the Pieniny National Park bordering Slovakia and an ancient trade route to Hungary. Cool weather and heavy rains made the trip quick this year (an hour and a half) on the swift river. We ended with hot “mountaineers’ tea” (tea with a shot of cherry liqueur) in Szczawnice.

Krakow Stamp

Dunajec River

Forever Changed

By the day of our return to Flint, students had bonded as a group and despite the 3:30 am departure time, they were upbeat. The final segment of our flight from Atlanta was delayed. Twelve weary students slept on their backpacks, played cards, or roamed the airport with their food vouchers. Their aplomb in the face of travel challenges contrasted with our anxious departure two weeks earlier. Students’ development in knowledge, skills, and attitudes was already observable. They had been taking notes, keeping journals, and taking countless photos; all of them were more knowledgeable about travel basics and essential interpersonal communication. They had had an experience in which knowledge of a foreign language (in this case, Polish) was invaluable, despite the prevalence of English.

Throughout the two weeks, students engaged in conversations with other History Department faculty able to meet us in Kraków—professors John Ellis, Ami Pflugrad-Jakisch, and Roy Hanashiro. During meals, on buses, and while walking, students talked in small groups or one-on-one about their experiences on the trip. Since our return, family and friends have shared the Wyatt Kraków experience through students’ blogs and family reunions over the summer. Students’ photos are still being uploaded to Facebook.

The Wyatt Exploration expanded my own life. I first set foot in Poland, in deep snow at a Warsaw train station on a cold January day. Under communism, Poland was none too safe a place for lone Americans to wander. The ensuing years allowed me to observe at close range the last decade of communism, the rise of Solidarity, the election of Karol Wojtyła as pope, and finally in the 1990s the emergence of “Europe’s other lung” as an integral part of the entire continent. My Poland years resulted in graduate study, and today teaching at UM-Flint. Never did I imagine that my own journey might come full circle to lead a group of students to the place that was once my second home, Kraków. The Wyatt program allowed me to share my knowledge with UM-Flint students, and it has been a joy and satisfaction.


The Old South

The 2010-2011 Wyatt Exploration Program, “The Old South: An American Story,” will focus on the pre-Civil War American South. UM-Flint Assistant Professor of History Dr. Ami Pflugrad-Jackisch has been named Wyatt Fellow for 2010-2011. In May of 2010, Dr. Pflugrad-Jackisch’s book Brothers of a Vow: Secret Fraternal Organizations and the Transformation of White Male Culture in Antebellum Virginia was published by the University of Georgia Press.

The Exploration

Many of the key events in southern history occurred in Virginia. As part of the 2010-2011 Wyatt Exportation trip, UM-Flint students will explore southern and Virginian history with visits to the Jamestown Settlement site, the battlefields of Yorktown, Colonial Williamsburg, Berkeley Plantation, Historic Richmond, Monticello, and the American Civil War Center at Tredegar Iron Works.