|20 Nov 2017
In the middle of a very dark night in early October ten students and six staff set off for Bristol airport at the start of a three day trip Krakow in south-west Poland.
The plan was to visit the Nazi death camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau, and to find out about the Holocaust first hand from one of the victims. We also hoped to soak up some of the atmosphere in one of Europe’s most beautiful medieval cities. This would be very relevant to our studies in History and Citizenship but we also hoped for a deeply moving and thought-provoking personal experience.
We soon decided it was worth the early start, as we found ourselves sitting in one of the lovely cafes surrounding Krakow’s town square in time for an early lunch. A town tour followed and a wonderful supper at an Israeli restaurant in the Jewish suburb of Kazimierz finished the day.
In the morning our first stop was to meet Holocaust survivor Lydia, who was sent to Auschwitz with her mother as a very small child in 1942. She survived because she isn’t Jewish and because her mother, who was sent to work outside the camp, was able to steal small amounts of food for her. Lydia spoke of many small acts of kindness which for her, meant the difference between life and death. This meeting had a huge impact on all of us and gave us lots to think about.
We received a very warm welcome at the Jewish Community Centre where we ate our lunch and then had an exciting (for Mrs Wright) and nerve-wracking (for Mrs Erry) tram ride across town to the fascinating Schindler museum, where Oskar Schindler gave work and a route to escape for thousands of Jewish people during the Nazi years.
On the next day came the climax to our trip. The coach came early to collect us and a film played as we travelled, telling the story of the camps’ liberation and how the evidence for the Holocaust was collected and exposed. First of all we visited the Auschwitz camp and in the company of many other visitors we heard about the experience of people who were sent there and the hardships they were forced to endure. The tour guide was excellent and told the story of the victims of the Holocaust simply and vividly, so that we understood the impact on individual, real people rather than hearing about numbers. In one room we saw a collection of suitcases taken from travellers to Auschwitz. Each one was clearly labelled with the owner’s name, date of birth and town. Martha decided to memorise one name so that she could think about that one person. “At least one person has been remembered,” she said.
Then we travelled on to the Birkenau camp which, having consisted mainly of wooden huts, is now flat ground with acres and acres of barbed wire fencing. It is a very haunting place. One of the things we saw there was a cattle truck which was used to transport people to the camp, and from where they were sorted either to go straight to the gas chambers or to work.
The next morning we set off for home, reflecting on the power of kindness in the face of implacable hatred and cruelty. As the people who experienced the Holocaust first hand are now so few and so elderly, we have a role as witnesses. We are very aware of our responsibility to share what we have learned about the Holocaust and to make sure that even these days, intolerance and hatred are faced with kindness, respect and inclusion.