During a frigid December weekend in 2017, Krakow played host to forty-four students and five members of staff from Prior Park College. While the primary purpose of the trip was to visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp and extermination centre, this picturesque former capital of Poland offered more than just a sobering reminder of the depths to which humanity can sink under the circumstances of war and racist totalitarian ideology, leaving a profound impression on all participants.
A guided walking tour of the old city on a crisp Friday afternoon took in the Market Square with its magnificent Cloth Hall, followed by brief stops at points of interest for Polish, Jewish and world history including the building where Pope John Paul II – the 'Polish Pope' – used to stay during his regular visits to his former diocese. A highlight of this tour was the trek up the Wawel Hill to visit the national cathedral where generations of Polish kings were crowned and laid to rest. At the conclusion of this mammoth expedition and with the sun setting low in the frozen sky, students and staff alike eagerly sampled the various wares on offer in the Market Square for a well-deserved dinner. Supplies were foraged to keep up energy levels during the following morning's expedition to Auschwitz.
The Polish town of Oswieçim is not a household name beyond students of history, but the former Nazi concentration camp established by the SS in the town's army barracks is a name that haunts humanity through the ages. There is a sombre atmosphere at Auschwitz and on a suitably bleak and foreboding day with the ground littered with snow and ice, the tour party were guided through the exhibitions detailing Nazi persecution and the attempt to annihilate European Jewry. Known as the Holocaust by many and the Shoah by Jewish survivors, the students struggled to comprehend the magnitude of the crime committed in such a small area.
The original concentration camp known as Auschwitz-I was a harrowing place, with its cabinets filled with stolen belongings, discarded canisters of the deadly Zyklon-B gas and – perhaps most horrifically of all – vast piles of human hair destined for use as thread for cloth in wartime Germany. The group filed silently through the dark interior of the only intact gas chamber, kept for use as a bomb shelter in the years after the liberation of the camp as a final reminder of the thousands of people who lost their lives in such a confined space.
But however difficult it was to understand what transpired between 1941 and 1945 at the original camp, following a short coach journey across to the place known as Birkenau, the students were confronted with the full horror of a mechanised process of killing in purpose-built gas chambers and crematoria. Snow-covered ruins were all that remained in a place now dominated by a memorial with inscriptions in all of the languages of people who died at Birkenau, including English for the handful of Channel Island Jews who perished during the final period of frenzied slaughter. As one of the students commented later, "It was a harrowing experience that will resonate with me for the rest of my life."
A visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau is not easily forgotten, but the rest of the tour provided ample opportunity for interesting and poignant moments. Sunday was spent visiting Emalia, Oskar Schindler's factory during the war where over one thousand Jews were saved from the gas chambers of Birkenau. This museum also illuminated the story of Krakow during the Second World War, expanding the students' understanding of this turbulent period of Polish history. In the afternoon, the destination was the Galicia Jewish History Museum, a crucial counterpoint to the story of destruction revealed at Auschwitz-Birkenau, detailing the full history of Jewish culture and civilisation in the Galicia region of Poland. And a glimpse was offered into what was lost during the Holocaust by a talk from a survivor, Anika Panek, who managed to escape Nazi-occupied Europe to safety in Brazil where she became an internationally-renowned scientist.
On the final morning there was an opportunity to travel 130 metres under the frozen ground to visit a tiny proportion of the Wieliczka salt mine, source of vast mineral wealth for Krakow over the centuries. This final visit offered a welcome change of pace and an acknowledgement that Krakow offers more for budding historians than just the bleak and bitter legacy of the Second World War. After the final hours in the Market Square, the students and staff headed to the airport, ready to return home after four thought-provoking days of adventuring through a fascinating place and its remarkable history.
Mr C Bartlett
A short video of this trip can be viewed here https://vimeo.com/246776512