Going to Krakow for this trip is not an easy experience for anyone, whether it is someone who is preparing themselves (as best as possible) for the first time or someone who has been before. It is a big ask and you only need to spend one minute in the company of someone who has visited these sites to know the lasting effects of places such as Auschwitz, Birkenau and Plaszow can have on a person. This is why I was astounded that we have sixty three students who wanted, were prepared and willing to signed up to Krakow. It became an absolute no brainer to change our original plans and provide two trips.
This section contains a full write of both trips from the perspective of students, write by Dominic Hancock and Sophie Brown as well as piece by Jude Glossop-Hillam on the emotions behind photography at these sites. Krakow itself is a beautiful city and it is important to recognise this alongside the dark history of its Nazi occupation.
I would like to thank so many people for making this happen. Mrs Higgins, who has been a constant support for the Sixth Form trips we have successfully run since 2014. Mrs Hart, Ms Waring and Ms Burr for being flawless colleagues assisting on the trips and Dr Burrows, whose knowledge and approach to our students make these trips accessible for those who do not study History at A Level. I would also like to thank Ms Syer and Mr Cubitt who help with the organisation of these trips and have to put up with my organisational ‘competence.’ Louise Barker and Helen Hamer and all at WST Travel who put together a great package and the Galicja Museum, whose exhibits, tour guides (Jakub Janeczko and Tomek Zielińsk) are invaluable, and for arranging the meetings with the survivors Mrs Rena Rach and Mrs Monika Goldwasser. Finally, to the sixty three students who, as previously mentioned, wanted, were prepared and willing to come on this trip.
Krakow 2018 – Trip 1
Thursday 15th March: The Journey begins.
We greeted our 3am departure time the only way we could, yawns, bleary eyes, and a shared anticipation for what awaited us. Herded onto the bus our collective journey to Luton airport and from there, our flight to the cultural Polish capital of Krakow seemed to pass in no time at all. Driving to our hotel, we caught our first real sight of the land unknown to all of us. It seemed as if the land itself was dulled, heavy cloud blocking the light, a collective silence as if still in mourning for those whose lives we would come to know, and the atrocities they suffered which we could not even begin to truly understand. The day brightened as, after the excitement of assigning rooms had worn off, we ventured out to the beautiful Plaza which we would grow to know in detail and love over the next couple of days. A short tram ride brought us to the historic cloth market and looming clock tower, which rose above all that surrounded it, seemingly sharing it’s beauty with the entire city. A small chance to explore the surrounding area, saw our perceptions of Krakow to become infinitely positive. It carried the inescapable bustling energy of life and culture wherever you went. Our collective will to explore more was only held by our first encounter with the history we had come to immerse ourselves in.
There was not much left of Plaszow concentration camp the local community seeing doing it’s best to normalize the area: a man walking his dog, a mother pushing a pram, a couple holding hands. Nevertheless, the place still carried the scars off it’s past. Tunnels mined into the sides of hills by people denied their own humanity, huge billboards marking buildings, events and dates and over it all, the shadow of the “white house”, townhouse, centre of operations and torture chamber rolled into one. Silently we walked from notice to notice, attempting as best we could to picture what was described. Many aspects of the trip will resonate with me for the rest of my life, but none more so than a quote from an unnamed child to his mother. When faced with a firing squad, the child was said to have turned to his mother and whisper “mother, does death hurt?” to which his mother sobbed in return “only for a moment”. This would have been bad enough if we didn’t discover that stories such as this were not unique. They could occur at any time, with no word of a warning, to anyone, keeping the prisoners in a perpetual state of psychological torment. Deeper into the clearing, a huge stone monument stood proud, looking away from the camp towards the horizon and over the motorway. It stood as a symbol of rebellion against fascism, but I couldn’t help wonder how many people that would drive past on that day knew this, knew the history of these people and events. Or maybe they dealt with it in another way. We were barely able to know Krakow, and we were already not the same people we were when we had arrived just six hours previously.
Friday 16th: Shoes, Hair and Pans
It was the second day, however, which would prove to be the true test of our resolve. Our congregation dwelled in a collective silence on the coach journey to Auschwitz. None of us dared to speak, instead, we spent the time attempting to prepare ourselves for what awaited us. The day was bitterly cold and rained continuously whilst we were there, standing in line waiting for our guide to hand us the headsets that would allow us to hear him as clearly as possible. Two worlds stood next to one another, on reflecting aspects of the modern world; a visitor’s centre, drinks machine and snack shop. But when we walked through security, it was like walking into the past, the headphones blocking out all other noise so all that was left was the guides voice and your own thoughts. We walked, trying to take in as much as possible, passing trenches and empty rooms which trying to picture them playing host to those who orchestrated perhaps the most infamous genocide in human history. The exhibits began as photos and accounts, not dissimilar to those found at Plaszow, tales of loss and tragedy displayed on the walls for all to see. Though these were powerful they felt muted, second hand accounts of people whose experiences we could never hope to understand. But then came the photos and glass cabinets. The photos were of prisoners at Auschwitz, including their name, occupation and birth date below. Looking into these faces we came to truly understand the normality of these people’s lives, lawyers, blacksmiths and typists, old and young, all ripped from the known and pushed into a world of constant fear and uncertainty. This was followed the glass cabinets, each containing a certain item taken from the prisoners and with them, in the eyes of their captors, their identities. Suitcases with the name tags still on them, shoes of all sizes and worst of all, a collection of human hair filling the cabinet, identity upon identity piled on top of one another, indistinguishable.
When the tour was over, we had a short bus drive to Auschwitz Two, Birkenau. Each step felt as if had already been taken deeper into a horrific demise. The twin railway tracks flanked us as we moved to the remnants of the gas chambers, disused and decrepit. Silence fell again as we processed what we were seeing; guard towers, barbed wire and concrete laid out in a regimented order covering every inch of the camp. The gas chambers themselves, or what was left of them barely stood, broken and pathetic, burned from their destruction by allied forces. That day, I believe, will stay with every student in that group for the rest of their lives, acting as a constant reminder to remember those who suffered at the hands of this atrocity, but also to be thankful for the freedom we are allowed to live under.
Saturday 17th: Survival
Our penultimate day in Krakow began in brighter fashion than the day before, with a historical walking tour of Krakow, including its vibrant Jewish quarter. Considering the aspect of Jewish history that we had been focusing, the beautiful and colourful Jewish quarter acted as a great contrast. Its synagogues and picturesque apartment blocks allowed a feeling of relief and inclusion to rise within the group and, despite the bitter cold, we managed to enjoy this journey through history. Furthermore, the city’s main church proved almost too beautiful for words, its decorative murals and golden statues rising to the rafters inspiring awe and inspiration. Finally, we returned to the tourist centre where we were able to regain feeling in our hands as well as read up on several items of Holocaust based literature. One such piece of literature included Dr Victor E Frankl’s “man’s search for meaning”, describing his experience as a Holocaust survivor. One account that stays with me is his description of stronger inmates gifting their last scrap of food to those who were weaker. It was a testament, just like the beautiful churches and buildings found throughout the city of Krakow, to humanity and how, no matter what atrocities a person may have suffered the choice to be human, civil and kind will always prevail. After this we were guided through a history of Jews from Krakow and their experiences, taken from their homes, bribed, deceived or simply forced. It put into perspective just how far the city had come from the atrocities it suffered through. Finally, we were given the incredible experience of meeting Holocaust survivor, Ms Rena Rech, and hearing her story. Adopted by a Christian couple, she found herself torn between her Jewish heritage and Christian parenthood all whilst trying to escape from Nazi oppression. Her story was one of strength, and a testament to human resilience in the face of danger.
Sunday 18th: Return
Krakow greeted us with a typically chilly yet bright day. The group split, some choosing to enjoy the historic cloth market one last time whilst the rest elected to visit to the site of Oskar Schindler’s factory where he worked to save multiple Jews by giving them work in his factory thus keeping them out of the concentration camps. The museum was less focused on the factory and Schindler’s work rather how the city of Krakow was affected as well as individual accounts of events that made such an impact. These included an eight-year-old Roman Polanski’s accounts of the reducing of the Jewish ghettos boundaries as well of historical accounts of how the physical landscape changed under Nazi rule. It also told the stories of minor rebellions which sought to counteract the Nazi oppression. Such acts included the stealing of the head and shield of a statue the Nazi’s had deemed to be insulting to their culture and cut down. Though they were small, this rebellion ensured that the city did not lose the sense of place that was so viciously being ripped away from it.
And so we left Krakow, a city that may have seen some of the worst events in human history, but still managed to be steeped in culture and joy. Journeying back, we were in a sullen silence that allowed our tired minds time to contemplate what we had seen in the past three days. We were different people than those who left that greeted our beds that night. We are different people that walk around today. And we will continue to carry the lessons we have taken from this trip throughout the rest of our lives.
Krakow – Trip 2
Everyone knows the atrocities that took place during the Nazi occupation of Poland. You hear the horror stories, see grainy photos and watch documentaries on tv. All the while you are sitting on your sofa with a mug of tea, shaking your head saying “it’s awful, how could someone do that to another person, it’s disgusting”.
As someone who has a love and understanding of words, I cannot describe what it is like to see the remanence of human suffering first hand, with my own eyes. Some of us cry, others talk nonsense, many become silent and the rest feel intense anger. But I think, for me at least, the feeling of emptiness is the worst. The pain from the death of over six million innocent people is simply too overwhelming to comprehend. I feel numb. Even as I write this now, many hours after walking in the footsteps of the dead, I still feel numb.
Surprisingly, it was not Auschwitz that hit me the most. Instead it was Płaszów: a forced labour camp only a twenty minute tram ride from the centre of Krakow. The Nazi’s built this camp after liquidating the Ghetto, for many, it was only a temporary home before being sent to Aschwitz-Birkenhau. You may know Płaszów; it is shown in Stephen Spielberg's masterpiece ‘Schindler's List’ and Ralph Fienne’s character, the notorious Amon Goeth, was the camp commandant.
Maybe it was because it was my first experience of pure evil and devastation, maybe it was the sorry state of this public park or because it was so unassuming. If the plaque was not at the entrance you would have no idea about the significance of this almost abandoned patch of land. What's worse, it’s tucked away past a McDonalds, through a housing estate and opposite a child’s playground. Walking through the mud and grass felt so wrong. I was walking over a mass grave. It felt so disrespectful. At the same time I knew by walking on this land, I was giving the victims the highest respect I could: remembrance. Even though I was in physical pain taking each step it is something I had to do to honour those who have passed. We questioned how this place, a large almost unkempt plot, could be something that was honouring the victims. At the same time it was so peaceful. I can imagine in the summer it would provide an escape from the city. Personally, I think an escape is a perfect memorial to those who had dreamed of just that.
In fact, the whole city of Krakow has hidden scars of the past: the ruins of the Ghetto walls, Schindler's Factory, the bridges, the Synagogues and the empty chairs of Hero Square just to name a few. If you don’t look close enough you will miss them. Even though the city was literally divided under eighty years ago, you would not be able to tell. We were lucky enough to have a four hour guided tour of the city lead by local historian Tomek Zielińsk. He told us of many stories about those living within the Ghetto, and the past of the Jewish Quarter in Kazimierz. His stories may have stood out, but Tomeks passion for the past is what struck me most. You could see in his eyes the respect he has for the current Jewish community and anger he holds about their treatment throughout history. All of the historians and guides we were fortunate enough to meet throughout our trip, were so passionate about their subject. It gives us hope for the future; it is people like these who are truly making an impact by not shying away from such a taboo subject. Instead they are encouraging people, young and old, to face the past and learn from it.
For me, Auschwitz was completely different; it was built purposefully out of the way so it would stay hidden. In reality, it is impossible to overlook. Only one word springs to mind when I see the images burned onto the back of my eyelids: grotesque. It was grotesque. Tons of human hair, glasses, shoes, pots and pans, suitcases and prosthetics of limbs in varying shapes and sizes. I could barely look at the leftovers. I am thinking now if that makes me a bad person, or if it is right to have it all on show for people to parade past. As bad as it sounds I am trying to put it out of my mind, so desperately trying. But the metaphorical box that I am trying to put everything in simply isn’t big enough. And it makes me just as bad as those who tried to cover up the operation in the first place. Not one of us will ever forget this trip. Not only because it will be impossible, but because like the historians it is our duty to remember.
I think something the trip has shown me is the extent of the evil that took place less than a lifetime ago. It is not just simply the holocaust, there is so much more to it. The beginning of suffering started before Auschwitz was even devised in a board room. After all, Auschwitz was the ‘final solution’ to a problem created by those with a vicious vendetta against absolutely nothing. It cannot happen again, and I’m sure it won’t. Because the second thing this trip has taught me is how incredible we, as a collective, are. Humans can be evil monsters, but there is always a slither of hope. Over the four days there have been so many examples of the humanity within us all. From flight attendants stealing sweets during the safety briefing, to strangers called Nelly returning lost phones at 8:30 at night in-front of the church and a pro-life abortion march overtaking the centre of Krakow. (All of which gave Mr Eaves a heart attack and must have broken so many Health and Safety regulations.) I won’t tell you these stories of laughter because they are better shared face to face. But I would like to mention Mr Eaves himself. It is clear that these trips take such an emotional toll on all, but despite this he is already planning the next one and I would like to thank you, on behalf of everyone you have taken on these trips for doing this.
I have debated about my closing statement for a while. I could say, think about and study the tragedy that was the holocaust. Alternatively I could say that visiting Auschwitz is the thing to do. But I want to share the advice Monika Goldwasser, a survivor of the Holocaust, gave us and now I give it to you. Tell the people you love that you love them. It’s so simple, but it means a lot, especially to those who don’t hear it enough. Usually those are the ones who should hear it the most.
What was it like to photograph Plaszow and Auschwitz?
In the area of Plaszow Concentration Camp there were not many buildings standing, just information boards and monuments. For me, this made the photos I took seem a lot more harrowing. The deserted fields and towering trees further gave the sense that this place held over 20,000 people, including the thousands that were killed. Visiting Plaszow, I felt I was free to take as many photos as I wished. This creative freedom helped me to show how I felt through my photos.
Whilst taking the following images I couldn't help think about where we were standing. Over in the distance we saw adverts and factories. Life goes on but these segments of history are still around us. Walking through the silence and desolation, I was horror-struck. When confronting each of the monuments I was at a loss for words. These are the three photos that captured the emotions I was feeling throughout.
When visiting Auschwitz, I didn’t know how I was going to feel. To me and many other people, Auschwitz didn’t seem real, a myth. When walking round I didn’t know what I was feeling, I was lost for words. I want to say I was horrified while I was there, but I didn’t know what to feel. It was only afterwards, looking back at the photos I took, all the emotions of that day came to me. Feelings of confusion, discomfort and sadness. I often found myself just staring in complete isolation, just thinking why?
It was very hard to find words to describe how I was feeling when I'm not too sure myself. One room I found very shocking was the one below. Framed pictures of inmates with their arrival date and death date shown below. The number of pictures took me back and made me realise where I was standing. It felt like they were never ending which is the feeling I managed to capture in the image.
Every photo was taken to show what emotion I was feeling and by this I managed to express my emotion through pictures instead of words, as there are no words that can really describe what it was like photograph Plaszow and Auschwitz.