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Babcia and Yia Yia!, Travel With Alex: Europe 101

Krakow 101

Oh, Krakow! You are one of the most under rated European destinations! How I love thee! My love story with Poland began when I was given Polish food as a child from my Polish family. It was very good and I happily ate all the pierogi while Happy Louie and his Polish Band played the Pennsylvania Polka to a frenzied mass of polka crazed people. Don’t believe me? Check out Jack Black’s amazing role the The Polka King!

Listen in to our conversation about Krakow on our podcast! Babcia and Yia Yia Travel The World is a great way to get all kinds of travel tips. Click here to listen to this episode and more!

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Over the years, my Americanized, immigrant version of Poland expanded to understand the pride and heartbreak of a people who had been torn limb from limb time and time again. From the Vasas to the Nazis, it seemed everyone wanted a piece of the breadbasket of Europe and really didn’t care about the people who were already there.

But just as the popular analogy tells us, like a phoenix, Poland rises from the ashes, dusts herself off, and bounces back better than ever. So, what makes Poland a traveler’s paradise? It has a little of everything, beaches and mountains, cities and rural countryside, museums and jazz clubs, castles and cooking classes. It is Europe’s best kept secret and I am about to tell you all about it!

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Now Arriving

Getting to your feet on the ground is pretty straight forward. Most touch down in Warsaw or Krakow and branch out from there. Poland is super welcoming.

  • Public Trains: While Polish trains work with the Eurail pass, they stand on their own. As with most train systems in Europe, they work very well and can get you to any city center efficiently. Trains are a definite plus when getting from city to city. Start here to explore all of your rail options.
  • Polish Uber: Uber is recently available in Poland mush to the dismay of traditional polish taxi drivers (who are very honest and sweet). One tap will get you from the airport to the main square for about $15.00.
  • Walking: All in all, the majority of destinations you plan on enjoying are well worth the walk. Consider your two feet or a couple of bicycles to be your best bet.
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The Three Sisters

Just a bit smaller than Texas, Poland is one of the largest countries on the continent and, as with most things, balances it’s size well. It’s dotted with three large cities from north to south along the great Vistula River. Gdansk is on the northern coast and is ground zero for the solidarity movement and Poland’s immigration story. Warsaw, the capital, is right in the middle, is home to the uprising story of WWII, Marie Curie, and Poland’s great palace. Further south is Krakow. In some ways, Krakow is the cradle of Poland’s history with its stunning Wawel Castle. Krakow is filled with Polish culture and history.

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Understanding The Basics…

  • Eye contact: You know how you grab a waiter’s eye in a restaurant? A quick flick of the hand or a knowing look between the two of you. While this is a completely acceptable method of getting the service you are looking for, in some parts of Poland, this will get you the cold shoulder. Why? It looks pushy and makes the waitstaff feel like you don’t think they are doing a good job. In short, it comes across as rude. If you are in a bit of a rush, simply let your server know that you’ll need to leave with an hour or so. They will happily accommodate you. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy the five star service!
  • Lively Churches: Poland is full of amazing churches, The history and architecture are a meld of national pride and overwhelming invaders making for an array of different styles and focuses. While all of these institutions are well worth the visit, be prepared that Mass will be held often as every one of these treasures is still an active parish. If it is, you have two choices: quietly skirt the sides and stay in the shadows as others worship or grab a pew and say a little prayer with everyone else. Either is just fine.
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  • Street Performers: Krakow is full of amazing street performers. The main square has strolling folk music, kids that are breakdancing their heart out, student musicians and more. Summer concerts and performances are plentiful and well worth your time. Enjoy!

What To Do

  • Food Tours and Cooking Classes: Krakow is a food mecca! Don’t believe me? Just take a look at the next section for a sampler. It is totally worth checking in with a great local guide to get a true feel for all of the yummy choices that are yours for the taking. There’s great street food, communist Milk Bars, fabulous fusion and classic polish cuisine all within the old town. Add to that the fabulous Jewish district of Kazimierez and Krakow become hard to pass up for any true foodie.
  • Royal Mile: Krakow’s stunning main square sits in the middle of the old town’s Royal Way. Along this route are plenty of churches, museums, shops, art galleries, and restaurants all winding their way up to the crawn jewel, Wawel Hill.
  • Can’t Miss: Check our the DaVinci masterpiece Lady With Ermine at the newly refurbished Czartoryski Museum. The painting, which is a contemporary of Mona Lisa, is an incredible example of Davinci’s talent. The further story of theft and reclamation prove to be quite fascinating as well.
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  • Royal Beginnings: At the end of the Royal Mile sits gorgeous Wawel Castle. The complex can take a full day to explore with numerous museums and the main cathedral. The cathedral holds the tomb of Poland’s most famous king: Kazimierez, a tribute to Chopin, and the bell tower is fun to climb and get a serious view of the city and it’s lifeline, the Vistula River. Be sure to seek out one of the seven chakras on Earth. The staff may not love it but it’s fun! Also, get down to the river bank and find Smok the fire breathing dragon.
  • Klezmer and Kazimierez: About a ten minute ride away from the old town (which is surrounded by the Planty park) is the old Jewish neighborhood of Kazimierez. Here on the square, you’ll find synagogues, mini museums, and restaurants that often have live traditional music called Klezmer music. You often hear this style with a heavy clarinet sound. From here, walk over the Bernatek footbridge and toward the old Jewish ghetto where you will find Schindler’s factory and the Eagle Over The Door Pharmacy.
  • The Main Square: Dominated by St. Mary’s Basilica (check out that blue ceiling and unbelievable alter piece), Krakow’s main square has quite few treasures to explore. Start at the cloth hall in the center. Go up for a lovely art museum, go down for an underground museum on the archeology of the city. Shop at ground level for all of those polish faves, and go out on the balcony for a lovely drink looking over the hustle and bustle of the square. Use the square as a jumping off point to explore the old town streets full of churches, shops, small museums and plenty of landmarks that relate to St. Pope John Paul II.
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Taking on Polish cuisine…

  • Pierogi: Every culture has a filled dumpling and the Poles are no different! Pierogi (yes, that’s the plural) can be filled with sweet or savory choices. Order them all. Eat them all. You won’t regret it.
  • Zurek: A “sour” soup served in a bread bowl may sound like a great Winter treat (and it is) but don’t discount this wholesome soup in the Summer. It’s all good!
  • Zapiekanki: This is basically Polish french-bread pizza. and it’s great! Perfect for a grab and go lunch to eat in the Planty or at the riverside park under the castle.
  • Lody: Poles love their Summer ice cream! And it is good! Plan on enjoying ice cream as the city wakes up for its evening stroll.
  • Steak tartare: Slavic sushi. Tartare is high quality minced beef served with several seasonings and usually topped with a raw egg. Don’t be so fast to pass on this regional delicacy, consider it the escargot of Poland!
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Exploring Second Cities…

Part of the charm of Poland are all of the individual towns that polka dot the landscape. Each little community has a little city center usually with a train station and plenty to keep you interested. Some of the top contenders are…

  • Poznan: Close to the German border, this tidy town has an interesting history and continues to enchant with its old town and educate with its Jewish quarter tour. It is also a great jumping off point for those who want to visit the Boleslawiec Polish Pottery factory or the Church of Peace: both are great stops if you have the time.
  • Wroclaw: This work-a-day college town might not seem like much to begin with but dig a little deeper and you’ll find an enchanting town ready to welcome visitors. Check out the over 300 little statues all over town that give personality to the wheres and whens you will encounter. Try out the food tours and enjoy all of the yummy treats followed by a shot of cherry vodka.
  • Torun: Smell the gingerbread in Copernicus’ hometown and wander the streets of this charming little college town. Torun is a great half way mark between Warsaw and Gdansk. Whther you are taking the train and spend the afternoon or you choose to spend the night, count Torun in and you won’t regret it!
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Day Tripping From Krakow…

As you expand your horizons from greater Krakow, there are a couple of amazing spots to consider. Every popular guidebook will give you the 411 on the details for these particular places. These were among the family favorites.

  • Wadowice The birthplace of St. Pope John Paul II is the perfect day trip. Explore his home, parish church and charming square then visit Kalwaria Zebrzydowska monastery where he dedicated his life to the church.
  • Wieliczka Salt Mine Descend deep into this UNESCO heritage site for an experience like no other. Part art installation, part medieval history, this unexpected marvel of engineering tells the story of how miners of salt became prolific artists that celebrated the triumphs of their lives where they spent the majority of their time. A perfect morning trip from the city center.
  • Auschwitz Birkenau What can I say? The infamous moment in Polish existence is the Nazi invasion of September 1939. It is, by far, the saddest chapter of the Poles. The role that Auschwitz played in this atrocity can not be over stated and visiting will be quite emotional. But visit you must. I truly think that it is our duty as travelers to understand these moments in history so that we can better understand the times we live in now. You are already here. How could you not go?
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The Great Outdoors

Poland offers plenty of other amazing opportunities away from the city center. Some of our favorites are:

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  • Zakopane Just south of the Krakow region lie the Tatras mountains. Bordering both Poland and the Czech republic, it provides an amazing mountain escape from the “big city”. Central to that escape is the hamlet of Zakopane. This little resort town is a joy to visit with its apres-ski vibe.
  • Masuria Well overlooked, the lakes region to the north and east has long been a vacation stronghold for the polish people. With plenty of water fun, there’s tons to keep you interested in this lovely part of the country.
  • Sopot From the mountains and lakes to the beach! Sopot sits just beside beautiful Gdansk and is a Summer playground for locals and visitors alike. Check out the long pier and the fabulous restaurants as well as the local amber vendors that sell their beachcombing treasures.

The Ultimate Two Week Starter Kit:

Alrighty, you are ready to plan! Check out our handy dandy checklist to start customizing your own itinerary for the trip of a lifetime! Don’t forget to listen to our podcast with all of this information and more to make your trip to Krakow unforgettable.

  • Fly in to Warsaw
  • Explore Warsaw
  • Gdansk
  • Sopot
  • Malbork Castle
  • Take the train to Krakow
  • Explore Krakow
  • Day trip to Auschwitz
  • Take a day trip to Wieliczka Salt Mine
  • Day trip to Wadowice or Czechehowa
  • Overnight in Zakopane
  • Zakopane
  • Finish in Krakow
  • Fly out of Krakow

One Pot Kielbasa

This one pot kielbasa recipe is a family favorite and is a simpler take on the classic dish that is served in Poland. While people often add other ingredients like mushrooms or root vegetables, this dish pares it all down to a simple flavor profile. With only 4 ingredients and 1 pot, this is an easy way to put dinner on the table!

  • 1 jar sauerkraut
  • 1 14 oz can applesauce
  • 3-4 rings of kielbasa
  • 1 bag of potatoes

Chop the potatoes into inch to inch and a half sized cubes and add them to a large pot. Add sauerkraut including the juice and the applesauce. Put the pot on high while you cut the kielbasa into pieces. From ¼ inch coins to bigger chunks, the size is up to you. Add to pot and cover. Stir every 5 minutes or so making sure to pull from the bottom for even cooking. Cook for about 40 minutes or until your potatoes are just the way you like them.

Kielbasa Recipe Comfort!

I’ve been making this dish for more than 25 years. If you ask my kids for some comfort food, this is super high on their list. This one pot meal is perfect for a cold, rainy day. Scoop a steaming spoonful into a big bowl, grab a blanket and curl up for a good movie.

Polish food is all about nourishing the stomach while nourishing the soul. Cold winters needed to be fortified and the Polish figured it out- fast! This dish is cousins with the much more famous hunter’s stew called Bigos. While this is super simple, Bigos takes quite a few more ingredients and triple the time. But make no mistake! Whether you choose to go simple or go big with Bigos, it’s all delicious!

Visiting Poland is a delight for the senses! Amazing sites, super welcoming people, and plenty of great food make Poland the best kept secret in Europe.

Study Hall: Essays On Travel

It’s the little moments.

It’s amazing how often we reflect on experiences that we have had. A memory wanders from the back of our mind and slowly draws a smile across our face. We fondly see mental pictures of the people we met and the places we’ve been. That memory continues to delight as we relate the anecdote to others that were not privy to these little moments.

I was recently reading Seth Kugel’s Rediscovering Travel when this very thing happened to me. I was sitting near my father reading an excerpt from Chapter 2 aloud when that little flutter in the back of my mind started taking form. Stronger and stronger, I remembered that little country farmhouse in rural North West Poland where chickens clucked at the kerfuffle our car made as we pulled up. The farm’s resident dog was so excited to see us strangers that he began literally bouncing up and down. Standing in the doorway to welcome us was the most polish babcia I had ever laid eyes on. Full of purpose and pride, she came over to us and welcomed us to her home. I’m sure she felt her piece of paradise was humble. I, on the other hand, thought it was straight out of a fairytale.

Schleb.

The more I looked around, the more I saw. Were those bunnies in a hutch by the pond? Is that another older dog who had no patience for the younger hopping pooch? Is that a little baby PONY?! I was hooked! But, as much as all of these furry souls were calling me to play in the amber wheat fields that we had just driven through, we were there for a much different reason: bread. Bread and schleb. Our newly minted Babcia was going to teach us how to make traditional polish bread- and she was serious about it.

Her lovely daughter joined us around a worn wooden table that had to be well over 100 years old in the lean to just beside the house. Her halting english was welcome and we peppered her with questions about farm life, about how things changed since the fall of communism, and when was that pony born? Babcia counseled us on proper dough kneading in polish and once we had the hang of it, the conversation turned back to life on the farm.

The art of translation.

Had they had a good harvest this year? Why yes, the weather had been favorable! What is the dog’s name? Luna. Does Babcia teach bread making often? Yes, but never to adults. Pardon? Yes, normally the local schoolchildren come. No adults, ever? None, we were the first and the only Americans that had ever been under the careful bread making charge of Babcia- the ony Americans she had ever met! Well, color me red, white and blue! When we finished the kneading process, Babcia marched us over to the hearth in the barn where a fire had been stoked to perfection. In the bread went and Babcia announced that we needed to wait 45 minutes. what to do with 45 minutes…. hmmm…. maybe Luna had some ideas.

Farm dogs do know how to have fun.

Better yet, maybe Luna could introduce us to her fellow farm buddies! Six bunnies, a romp with Luna in the wheat field, a ten minute buggy ride and 45 minutes later, the bread was done! This excursion got better and better! First, a pony and now snacks! Our warm bread was sliced and we were instructed to smear it with schleb. What is schleb? Well, for lack of a better way to put it, it’s fat. What lardo is to central Italy, schleb is to Poland. We schmeared that bread with schleb and dug in. Can I just say that there are moments in life that make you take stock of every bite you’ve ever taken and regret every single thing that was pre-wrapped? This was that moment. This was that memory.

Yes, this was that diamond of a memory that will always make me smile. We couldn’t have asked for more. A glorious day on a rural farm with Luna introducing us to the baby pony and all of the sweet little bunnies and ducks and pigs and even the old milk cow that had contributed to our delicious treat. When our time to leave arrived all too soon , our Babcia wrapped othe rest of our bread up. Then, she sent us off with a wave and an invitation to come back whenever we were in the neighborhood. We may just take her up on that! After all, it’s not every single day that you gain a new Babcia in your life!

Memories.

Memories like this always make me think that in our quest for the perfect trip, we sometimes miss the big picture. We miss out on the moments that take us away from the check list of sites that we all are guilty of depending on. Why do we insist on following the herd? The easy answer is because it’s our comfort zone’s preference. But, maybe it is a deeper sense of fear that drives us straight to the Eiffel Towers of our travels.

Maybe it is the fear that we will be let down- that the reality of what we will do off the beaten path will fall far short of the hopes and expectations that have invaded our trip planning minds. Don’t get me wrong, I do think we need to discover the depths of the Coliseum and watch the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. Those travel moments have a firm place in travel. They are icons for a reason and they do create memories but they are not the only pieces that fit into the travel puzzle. So, when you start planning your next trip, leave a little room, just a little, for the magic. The moments that make you smile when you think of them years later. They will never let you down, ever. And isn’t that a lovely thought?

Intro To Travel Lit, Study Hall: Essays On Travel, Travel U for Kids, Travel With Alex: Europe 101

Travel U: WWII and Kids

The four major American wars that plagued the 20th century have been at the forefront of our history lessons for years now. World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War all took a huge toll on our societies and the generations that came just after these tragedies watched adults regroup, rebuild, make mistakes and learn lessons. With first hand accounts from family members who were there to the ever present media and our textbooks, we adults know the story pretty well. However, this isn’t the reality for today’s kids. They don’t have the same connections to this recent history like we did.

Forgotten

More and more, today’s school children have been given a sped-up version of the events. They have little chance to connect to the tragedies that befell our globe. Moreover, we are far more sensitive about what kids should and should not be exposed to. We feel the need to monitor all of the information that our kids take in. We morally want to ensure that they are ready for each stage of information that those young minds receive. The war was a big deal. It had a lot of horrible moments. It also had its share of brave and patriotic moments too. What age is appropriate to start relating the stories of the war? Where does one even begin?

We all know the very basics and that must be laid out- the wheres and the whens, but, what can we say about the far bigger issues of wartime death? And blind ambitions of a megalomaniac? The pacific aggression for oil domination? And probably most seriously, the holocaust. When is a child ready for such information? Perhaps, there is a way to be clear and truthful with kids while taking baby steps to introduce what the world was like during arguably the most analyzed war in history.

The Homefront

Perhaps the first stop to make in this story is the home front. Finding moments that connect young kids with stories of other kids is an amazing first step. One such story is the sacrifice that families made to help the “boys overseas” by planting Victory Gardens. These gardens allowed the national food supply to direct trendy, new-fangled canned food toward the fighting forces. As families back on the home front planted small backyard and windowsill gardens to keep healthy. Victory Gardens became so important that the entire National Mall in Washington, D.C. was converted into a Victory Garden until 1945. There are a couple of amazing Victory Gardens that you can visit today. They include The National Victory Garden at the Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. As well as the Victory Garden at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.

One great resource for connecting kids to the sacrifices of the homefront is the wonderful literature that has been provided by outstanding children’s authors. A great example of this is “Meet Molly” by Valerie Tripp. This American Girl series brings the reader back to 1944. It narrates topics like Victory gardens, the British children’s evacuation (named Operation Pied Piper).It also explains how day to day life was different during wartime. Note that some of the links below are affiliate links. I only recommend products & brands I love and that I think you would love, too!

The NAS Pensacola Aviation Museum is another great homefront resource. It has a small but mighty exhibit devoted to the homefront effort. Many other military museums do not push the homefront movement to the side as it was key in helping us gain the upper hand and eventual victory.

The Treasure Hunt

As kids gain maturity and start to understand the realities of what World War II meant to everyone, another story from these dark days surfaces. Hitler, the megalomaniac, was after accumulating all of the “good stuff” for himself. This included the artistic treasures all over Europe. He felt entitled to take whatever he wanted and many were worried about these priceless works of art. The concern grew so much that toward the end of the war, the Allies created a group of experts. The soldiers were sent to track down missing works and repatriate these masterpieces back to their rightful owners. This band of brothers were called The Monuments Men. Check out their story in this great play by play book “The Greatest Treasure Hunt in History” by Robert Ehler.

If your teens and tweens are interested, go a step further and check out the amazing movie “Monuments Men” that is based on this heroic true story. Then check out some of these amazing artworks in person. The Bruges Madonna, The Ghent Alterpiece, The Last Supper, and Lady with Ermine are all must see moments.

Anne’s Story

Probably the most famous path to understanding World War II is Anne Frank’s story. Uplifting, hopeful, devastating and sorrowful all at once, 14 year old Anne takes us through those last days of the war from her point of view. Her words are an important first step to understanding the horrors that sent 11 million people to their untimely death. Anne’s father, Otto, thought his daughter’s words were so authentic that he granted permission for their publication as he was the only member of her family left after the war was over. Reading this with a young person with enough maturity is an activity worth undertaking. Anne’s hideaway behind the bookcase is one of the most visited sites in all of Europe as her story is an everlasting call for peace.

Anne Frank House

The Escape

For many European Jews, escaping seemed the only way to stay alive. This was true for some very famous authors. Margret and HA Rey of Curious George fame were literally able to make their escape from occupied France thanks to a little curious monkey. Author Louise Borden spent a few years tracking down this great escape and does a great job explaining how George came to be and how he assisted the Reys. A perfect read for the primary set.

Another very famous escape chronicled was that of the Von Trapp family. Rogers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music may be a musical but looking just a bit deeper, there is so much more. The captain and his family had to deal with the Third Reich’s invasion of their hometown. Escape from this oppression was their only option. While the real Von Trapps did not climb every mountain with the aid of singing nuns, they did have a harrowing escape and make for a very good discussion about standing up for what is right.

For the Kids

One of the most important things we all need to get across during any conversation about war is the lengths adults will go to in order to protect young people. In fact one such event was “Operation Pied Piper”. This military evacuation of children from England had many kids fostered by families in both Canada and the United States. Little remains of the operation that removed thousands of kids from their homes. This happened in London and other dangerous locales like Guernsey. Check out the Imperial War Museum’s collection of interesting artifacts about this unprecedented action. Use it as a way to let your kids know how adults think about kids even when things get crazy.

Probably the most famous moment that came out of this was a very young Queen Elizabeth’s speech to the children of the Commonwealth. It was broadcast everywhere and her last words were “Come on Margaret” to her younger sister. This small line became a popular saying when things got extra tough. People would look at each other and say “c’mon Margaret”. They also said “keep calm, Margaret” and “carry on Margaret” when everyone needed a bit of extra encouragement. This eventually morphed into the famous “keep calm and carry on” slogan we are so used to!

The princesses motivate the country's children during WWII

Early Connections

While each and every child needs to find their way through the WWII story at their own pace, ensuring that these early connections are made is a great first step. These stories will not only lay the groundwork for deeper understanding of far more unsettling conversations to come. As a teacher, my general thoughts and this is in no way scientific or exact in nature, kids can start handling this kind of information starting as early as the first grade with Victory Gardens and the home front. Third graders can learn about Operation Pied Piper.

Count on most fifth graders to be ready for the Monuments Men story and perhaps more. Middle schoolers who are showing signs of maturity are ready for Anne Frank and a visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. This museum is an excellent example of how history can be accurately told while keeping in mind its visitor’s age. The museum took great care to ensure that parents have a little control on what information their kids are exposed to as they keep concentration camp footage in viewing boxes that are just tall enough to keep the footage out of sight until each visitor is prepared to see it.

A Deeper Dig Into Non Fiction

Perhaps one of the hardest parts of learning about the war is the reality that there were a lot of people who followed a lot of bad guys. But, learning that a phenomena like this can happen may be one of the most important lessons young minds can take away from this time of history. One good resource for this is World War II for Kids by Richard Panchyk. The book has a complete overview of the war and 21 activities that expand any knowledge base.

First Hand Experience

Lastly, many families are interested in visiting the concentration camps (and other World War II sites) in Europe. Should kids go to see a place like Auschwitz? The answer is simple and complex at the same time. My first reaction is no way. Kids are not ready to understand that a set of old buildings are the site of such unimaginable horror. They will want to be a bit loud, run a bit, and ask where the bathroom is like kids do.

In short, it is the rare child that has a clear enough understanding that visiting a place like Dachau is a moment in time to be cherished. To this day, only one my adult children feel ready to visit and I respect that. But it is that rare child- that child who shows a deeper understanding of how important it is to visit sites like this. They know how important it is to always continue to tell this story. They know that history does the job it’s supposed to: allow us to learn from our past so we make better decisions about our future.

We Can Answer…

  • How can I teach my kids about WWII?
  • How can I start a conversation with my kids about the Holocaust?
  • Where are the best places to learn about WWII and the holocaust?
  • What books explain the holocaust well?
  • What books can I use to explain WWII to my kids?
  • Where can I travel to learn about WWII?