Staff and students recently travelled to Kraków to discover more about the atrocities of the Holocaust, as well as more about Jewish life. After an early flight the group headed straight to the Jewish Quarter of the city, where they visited a synagogue and the surrounding area. Our tour guide for the duration of the trip, Richard, pointed out various points of interest within the district, such as the Plac Novy market square. A particularly poignant moment was seeing a wall within the synagogue grounds that is made entirely of gravestones that were destroyed by the Nazis upon Kraków’s occupation. We then travelled to the old ghetto area, with the empty chairs of the Square of the Heroes of the Ghetto a clear reminder of what had happened there. Our next point of interest was Schindler’s Factory, marked with an obligatory group photo, next to the window panes that feature the faces of the Schindler Jews, many of whom are named in Spielberg’s renowned film. Plaskow Concentration Camp features in this film, and was the next stop on our visit; an immense memorial depicting prisoners marks the site, alongside other smaller memorials, such as one dedicated to the Polish policemen that are buried somewhere in the site. After a tiring day, we journeyed to the Old Town – an architecturally beautiful area featuring cafés, shops, and a market. Following an hour of free time to explore the district, we ate at a traditional Polish restaurant, before returning to our hotel for a well-deserved rest.
Another early morning met the group, ready for a detailed tour of Auschwitz on Day 2. Auschwitz is made up of three camps, but our tour focused on two: Auschwitz-I, and Auschwitz-Birkenau. The former was our starting point, with Auschwitz tour guides directing us around the two sites during the day. The notorious ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ gate began our tour around a site mostly still in-tact, due to being built of the site of old Polish military barracks. We visited numerous barracks, each holding exhibitions focusing on a different part of camp life, and the journey made by prisoners. Particularly memorable exhibits include one showing objects collected upon arrival, such as the vast amount of female hair and the material made of it that was used within German factories. Block 11 – known as the ‘Death Block’ – presented the different rooms used within the interrogation and torture block, including bare sleeping quarters, and suffocation cells. Something that I in particular did not expect to be able to do was our visit inside the gas chamber and crematorium at the camp, a solemn reminder of the atrocities carried out in the camp. Yad Vashem also had an exhibition there focusing on the life of Jews before the Holocaust, and how they live on afterwards; this ended with a book of the names of all 6 million victims of the Holocaust, a stark reminder of the extent of this extermination. After a lunch break and short drive, we met up with our guides again at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the infamous tower with railing travelling beneath it, greeting us upon arrival. The vast camp is made up of both wooden and brick barracks: we visited both to compare the conditions in both. We also walked upon the ramp where selection was made, and saw the memorial to the Holocaust, as well as the remains of gas chambers and crematoriums. After a walk across the vast site, we entered the registry building, where exhibition signs depicted the journey taken by prisoners upon induction into the camp. This ended with an exhibition focusing on the lives of some of the individuals and families who were victims of this tragedy, with a large photo wall within an empty room reminding us of their lives. We ended our visit with a memorial beside one of the lakes containing the ashes of some of the victims: poems and prayers were read by students, candles lit, and all took a moment of reflection beside the lake. Year 12 student Harry Glover was one of these students who was a part of the memorial, saying: ‘I’m glad I was able to give a reading to the group at Auschwitz. It was a very hard hitting experience seeing where the horrors of the Holocaust happened.’ Our long second day ended with more free time within the Old Town, before a meal at an Italian restaurant and an enjoyable night of bowling.
Our third day began with a visit to the Galicia Museum – a local museum featuring images and artefacts from Jewish life, such as uniforms from their involvement in WWI. Here, we met Monika Goldwasser, a Jew who was taken to a convent aged 7 months by her parents, and then adopted by two Poles, who brought her up as their own, and led to her surviving the Holocaust. She did not discover she was a Jew until she was in her 20s, and it wasn’t until she was 50 – after a large amount of research – that she managed to see the faces of her biological parents in a photo. Monika also nominated her Polish parents to be given the ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ award, which they were awarded for protecting her and securing her life. India Hunnikin, Year 12, said she was ‘I’m so glad I decided to go on this trip and see what we were able to. I can hardly put it into words – hearing from the Holocaust survivor was especially memorable’. We then visited the Wieliczka Salt Mines, a UNESCO World Heritage site: our tour guide showed us around the site, showing us each chamber, of which many featured statues made by the miners, out of salt. A highlight of the tour was the St Kinga’s Chapel, an immense chamber featuring numerous salt chandeliers and scenes from the Bible, as well as a detailed altar.
Overall, this trip was so much more than any of us expected it to be. We not only learnt about the Holocaust, but the lives of those affected, and about the area where all of this took place. Year 12 student Natasha Kirchin felt that ‘this trip was so eye-opening. Going to Auschwitz really puts things into perspective. Despite being sad I think it was probably the best experience I have had’. Both staff and students thoroughly enjoyed the trip and all we gained from it, and all believe this really was an once-in-a-lifetime, and life-changing, experience.
I would like to thank our guides during our visit, particularly Richard who was with us for the entirety of the three days, as well as staff for organising such an amazing trip, and students for making it was enjoyable as it was.