Joseph Corey - Warsaw, Poland
While studying abroad in Warsaw, Poland, I had the privilege to attend a council meeting of the European Democrat Students. I left Warsaw with a Polish delegation and spent four days in the city of Gdansk with other students from Europe, Israel, and Turkey. The council meeting addressed the fascinating and pertinent issue of "European Roads to Freedom." Learning about this topic, in the city of Gdansk, was a truly surreal experience. This beautiful city, located near the Baltic coast, was both the starting place of World War II in Europe, and the birthplace of Solidarity, a Polish labor movement which lit the initial spark of freedom across the former Soviet bloc.
To reflect upon man's constant struggle for freedom, in both past and present, the council meeting began with a chilling excursion to Stutthof, a former Nazi labor camp. Nearly one-hundred-thousand individuals lost their "right to life" within the camp's walls. In Poland alone, six million people had their life story cut short by the despotic and tyrannical schemes of other nations. Poland has been justly referred to as "God's Playground," and its national story remains a horrific testament to the results of modernity's plans for political grandeur and utopia.
Moving beyond World War II into the more recent past, the council addressed the authoritarian rule of the former Soviet Union. During this period there was unjust deportation of civilians to the gulags, nonsensical resettlement plans, intrusive secret police, stifling intellectual censorship, and egregious state ownership. To shed light onto this difficult period, former leaders of Solidarity relayed their personal experiences of organizing a peaceful movement to oppose severe government oppression and unbearable living conditions. Lastly, the speakers emphasized that it is important to remember that tyranny finds ways to exist when the foundations of liberty are no longer renewed or revered.
In order to connect Europe's past with the present, a journalist from the country of Belarus told us the story of his three-year imprisonment for merely speaking the truth about his country's government. In Belarus, it is not possible to hold demonstrations, work for a truly free press, or even to speak one's mind. He beseeched those in attendance to return home and remind their fellow citizens that there are many who fight daily for freedom, even in Europe's backyard.
The final and most exciting event was an hour long meeting with Mr. Lech Walesa, former leader of Solidarity, first President of post-occupation Poland, and a Nobel Peace Prize winner. Mr. Walesa is an extremely important figure in modern history, yet he speaks with tremendous humility and conveys the presence of a close friend. He readily admits that in coming to power as President, he had the background of an electrician and not the training of a political scholar. What he lacked in formal political education, he made up for with an abundance of charisma, virtue, faith, and bravery, which allowed him to face numerous tribulations in opposition to communism. Most importantly, he expressed the necessity for understanding between nations, and the importance of individual freedom.
Besides a tremendous exposure to history and current events, the greatest reward of the conference was the connections I made with other students from around the world. I became much closer with many of my Polish friends, and built a network of open doors with students from other nations. In fact, once such friendship led to a study tour of Israel, where I was hosted by the President of the Israeli delegation. Even though the conference was only four days, I learned a great deal, enjoyed unforgettable conversation, and increased the chances for further opportunities abroad.