This past weekend, I had the incredible experience of traveling to Kiev, Ukraine with one of my classes. We are learning about the struggles Ukrainians faced in World War II, something that until now, I had no idea about. Learning about things in a classroom is one thing, but actually traveling to that country is a completely different way of learning. It was easily the longest, and most exhausting weekend of my life but I am extremely lucky and grateful that I had the opportunity to visit and learn the things we did, not just about WWII, but the current war as well.
We left Prato at 8:45 on Thursday morning, got a flight from Pisa to Munich, then had a 5 hour layover that consisted of us attempting to really understand the current issues in Ukraine and how it relates to WWII. We didn’t arrive in Kiev until 10 or 11 pm and didn’t eat dinner until about midnight. With the help of our new friend, Taras (who works for the American Councils office and organized out entire weekend), we got to try some Ukrainian dishes on our first night there. The food was good and unlike anything I’ve had before – mushrooms are very popular. After a very long day of airports, planes, and walking, we finally got to go to bed at around 2 am.
Of course, we didn’t catch a break and needed to be up and done with breakfast by 9:15 which involved getting up at 7:45. Now, me being me, I was paranoid that my alarm wouldn’t wake me up so I didn’t sleep as well as I should have. It was also just my luck that the cold I had/still have was at its peak, making me more exhausted than I should’ve been. Breakfast was delicious though, I tried a number of different breads/pastries, some were better than others but a favorite of my friends and I was fresh croissants.
We started off our trip by visiting the Great Patriotic War Memorial, which we learned has the year of the war starting in 1941 because that’s when the Soviets entered the war, but in Ukraine, it began in 1939,
and the Memorial in Commemoration of the Famines’ Victims (меморіал пам’яті жертв голодоморів в україні).
We talked about Babi Yar (the execution of 100,000 and 150,000 Jews living in Kiev) and Holodomor (the famine created to wipe out the Ukrainians, killed between 2.5 and 7.5 million people in 1932-33). We went to the museum below the memorial of Holodomor and learned more even more about the tragedy, how people suffered and what they did in order to stay alive. We got the experience of ringing the bell to honor the victims of Holodomor and to not let them be forgotten.
There are quite a few symbols on the memorial, the main one being the crane, a bird celebrated by Ukrainians which represents love, freedom, life, and eternity.
In front of the memorial is a statue of a little girl holding pine that is dedicated to all the children who died in the 3 famines in Ukraine. The pine symbolizes death and was once used to keep sickness away and ensure joy.
Next, we had the pleasure of seeing the elaborate beauty that is Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra (Києво-Печерська лавра), also called the Kiev Monastery of the Caves. It was built with incredible detail and was more colorful and vibrant than any church or cathedral I’ve seen (which, thanks to my mother, has been quite a few).
We walked around, lost Schmidt and half our group, and got scolded by Vitalii first for following him around (he called himself Moses, we were like lost puppies or ducklings), then for not keeping up with him. Everything here seemed to be created with such an elegance that doesn’t exist in America, colorful, bright, and just asking to be admired.
After lunch we went to the Museum of the History of Ukraine in World War II. Two of the first things you see are a monument depicting the 1943 Battle of the Dnipr
and the Mother Motherland.
Before going inside, we also got to see a fairly extensive display of Soviet aircraft, missiles, boats, and tanks but I’ll spare you the pictures for now because there are quite a few. After spending lots of time looking at these, sitting in the aircraft, and sending Iyana home sick, we finally went into the actual museum. Unfortunately for us, we never actually made it up to the part about WWII. When you first walk in, there is an exhibit about the current war going on in Ukraine. We spent all of our time in the museum here learning more about war and the struggles the rebels experienced. We met Volodymyr Runets (Vova), a war correspondent for Channel 24 and his colleague, Yevgeniya who is also a war correspondent but for Channel 1+1. She put together the the exhibits about the current war which included Ukrainian flags from soldiers, some torn up, some bloody, but each of them with their own story. There was a before and after of the equipment that they were using, which was basically anything they could get commercially (instead of helmets, they had hard hats and a little first aid kit which would not be very helpful if needed). Western nations have been equipment and first aid kits to the Ukrainian army (no lethal weapons) and providing training to soldiers and others who may need it. There were images of some of the dead, proof that Russian forces were actually in Ukraine, and so much more. It was truly incredible how many things were on display considering the fact that this was all about the current war. Yevgeniya was talking about everything she could and many questions were asked. We experienced a true language barrier with Yevgeniya speaking in Russian and Vova translating (very, very well). It was easy to see how passionate and strongly they both felt about educating others about the current war, so much in fact that most of us didn’t even mind that we didn’t get up to the WWII part.
About an hour and a half later, Taras was looking very stressed as we left the museum to get to the University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy to have a discussion with students and professors from the university. It was eye opening to discuss how we learned about WWII differently. For example, we are taught that America won the war but they were taught that the Soviet Union won the war, it depends who you talk to. They also learned about the social aspect of the war because it effected their country differently than it did America. In school, we only learn about the tactical side, what army did what at what time. It was surprising to see how we were all around the same age but had such different backgrounds in terms of our primary/secondary education.
After one of the longest, most educational days of my life, it was finally time for dinner. We went to the same place we did the first night, but had completely different food. We were joined by some of the Ukrainian students we had just talked to, as well as Vova, and a friend of Schmidt from his undergrad days who has lived in Kiev for 15 years. Dinner was definitely an interesting experience. After not feeling well for most of the day, I only had chicken soup, but then Schmidt bought Kellie, Jenna, and myself a bottle of Georgian wine simply because he wanted us to try it. It was easily the best wine I’ve had so far, and we were definitely very appreciative. After dinner, most of us realized that this wasn’t going to be just any run of the mill school trip, this was going to be a rare experience that would probably never happen again.
I’ll probably write about day 2 over the next couple days, so you have another long and wordy post to look forward to 🙂
My Last Post: When in Rome