Character education has always been an important aspect of a Gill St. Bernard's education. From pre-kindergarten through Upper School, teachers strive to impart a simple message to their students: one person's actions can make a profound difference in the lives of others.
For the 16 students who took part in a unit trip to Poland last spring, where they visited historical World War II sites—including Oskar Schindler's enamelware factory in Krakow—this lesson was brought to life.
Schindler is credited with saving the lives of his Jewish employees during the five-year Nazi occupation of Poland. "Even though Schindler's motives were not as pure as those portrayed in the movie Schindler's List, he saved 1,500 people, and thousands of descendants of those people survived," says Sharon Poticny, the English teacher who co-chaperoned the trip. "Those numbers resonated with our students."
The trip was a profound and moving experience for teachers and students alike. The students visited museums memorializing the Holocaust, toured the port city of Westerplatte, on the peninsula of Gdańsk, where the first battle of WWII was fought between Polish and German invading forces in 1939. The also spent time at the Warsaw Museum, which depicts the occupation and the Warsaw Uprising in 1943, and the museum at Auschwitz-Birkenau, which commemorates the largest Nazi concentration camp where approximately 1.1 million people were killed.
For Jonathan Riccardo '17, a history buff since the fifth grade, the visit to Auschwitz was eye-opening. "To see what actually happened in the world at that time and walk the land where those terrible things took place was incredible," says Riccardo. "You have to be there to fully understand it. There are cases of thousands of shoes from everyone who was put into the gas chambers. I was so shocked that I couldn't even cry. It was hard to be there, but it was the most important part of the trip."
Hannah Lazar '17 agrees. "I'd read books and knew about Auschwitz," she says. "Growing up, your entire life, the Holocaust is a big part of your Jewish identity. But this was different. I never really understood the scale. It's hard to communicate how terrible it was."
Although the students said the emotional toll was difficult at times, none of them regrets having chosen the unit trip to Poland. Poticny offers, "The students came face to face with some difficult history on this trip. But amid all that suffering is also the message that one person can make a difference in the lives of others. Life can be meaningful."