As part of their A level studies History students at Broadway Academy study Germany under the Nazi regime of the 1930s and 1940s. As part of this study they cover Nazi policy towards Jewish people and other minorities. This policy culminated in the genocide that became known as the Holocaust. The students were very affected by their study of this topic and were determined to visit the sites where some of the key events took place. Over the last few months therefore the students have fundraised for, and helped organise, a three-day visit to Poland.
Miss Ali and I (Mr Dyson) accompanied the group on their visit – leaving Broadway Academy before 6:00am on Thursday morning. Travelling from East Midlands Airport to Krakow, we arrived at our hotel by mid-afternoon. Quickly freshening up and leaving our baggage we then visited the first place on our itinerary – the Galicia Jewish Museum. The museum exists to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust and celebrate the Jewish culture of Polish Galicia (the area of Poland where Krakow is situated). Our guide in the museum showed us around their photographic exhibition. She explained to us how Krakow was the centre of Jewish culture in Poland before World War Two – and that there were approximately 3 ½ million Jewish people living in Poland at that time. These people lived varied lives and were well integrated into Polish society. The events of the Holocaust left only a few thousand Jews in Poland today. The exhibition showed us how Jewish people maintain their culture and remember the events of the Holocaust, including those who died. The museum help provide a new perspective on events and provoked further questions and discussion among the group that evening.
The following day we made an early start again and were taken by coach to one of the key sites of the Holocaust – Auschwitz-Birkenau. From 1947 onwards, the site of the former Nazi concentration and extermination camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau has been maintained as a memorial and museum. Our group spent several hours at the site in the company of our well-informed and intelligent guide – Wojtek. Visiting the site presented us with some hugely challenging material. As the museum’s website says though: “there is no way to understand post-war Europe and the world without an in-depth confrontation between our idea of mankind and the remains of Auschwitz.” Over a million people died at the site – a majority of whom were systematically murdered in gas chambers within a short time of arrival. Others were worked to death, executed, experimented upon and subjected to harsh punishments for minor infringements of camp rules. The Nazis stole all they could from those who arrived at the camp – including cases, clothing and shoes, spectacles, gold teeth and jewellery. When the camp was liberated by the Russians some of this material remained. One of the most challenging rooms in the museum is filled with the shoes of children who arrived at the camp and in most cases were murdered. The Nazis also shaved the hair of women who were to be killed. This hair was then used to make socks and blankets. Some of the hair remains in the museum and again provided a difficult sight for all of us. We were also led through the room which was used as the first gas chamber – where the Nazis experimented as to the most effective method of killing people.
The Auschwitz-Birkenau site is split into two. The original concentration camp at Auschwitz and the later extermination camp at Birkenau. We visited Birkenau in the afternoon. Here we saw the train tracks on which prisoners arrived and were sorted into those who would work, and those who would be immediately murdered. We saw the barracks where prisoners were kept in atrocious conditions. We also saw what remained of the gas chambers where most of the murders took place. The Nazis had attempted to destroy these presumably to hide their crimes when they left the camp in front of the Russian advance. Our final sight was that of the statue and memorial for all those who died in the Holocaust at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Our group lit candles and tried to reflect on all that we had seen, heard and learnt.
The final day of our visit to Poland included a walking tour of the very beautiful city of Krakow. We learned from our guide (Marta) that Krakow had remained untouched by war as the Nazis used it as the centre of their government for the area. We were able to see sites such as the university, the cathedral, the city walls and the home of Pope John Paul II – many of which dated from medieval times. We were also able to visit the factory of Oskar Schindler (whose story is told in the film Schindler’s list). The factory is now a museum which includes information about Schindler himself but also Poland and Krakow more generally during World War Two. The tour also included a visit to a Jewish synagogue and to the site of a mass execution in the Krakow ghetto. We ended the day by visiting the large medieval town square – the largest in Europe we were told. We were able to spend a little time there and buy some souvenirs to take home with us.
Before long though it was time to begin our journey home and after more coach journeys and a flight time, we arrived back at Broadway at around 11pm on Saturday night. The experience was invaluable and although much of what we saw was very demanding it is something that all who went will never forget.
Mr Dyson – January 2019.