How is one meant to feel upon embarking on a school trip to Auschwitz; a name synonymous with suffering, cruelty, and death? Excited? Nervous maybe? Whatever the word, it was with this sense of unease that seventeen Sixth Form students and two staff departed The Perse gates for an altogether more chilling set; from a motto of Qui facit per alium facit per se to one of Arbeit Macht Frei.
Following a 2.00am start, the group arrived in the centre of Krakow for midday, and immediately began to take in the sights and sounds of the picturesque old square. Basking in the sunshine Spring had this year brought with it, the students marvelled at the surprising prettiness of a town which, for the vast majority of the twentieth century, had grown up under tyranny and oppression. Lunch over – and Polish mastered – the group headed for Kazmierz, and to the Galicia Jewish Museum. Here, the group received a whistle-stop tour of the photographic exhibits before enjoying a stroll around the old Jewish neighbourhood, led on by their brilliantly enthusiastic guide Godze.
Another beautifully sunny day dawned and with it the moment all had been anticipating. After a breakfast the group boarded the coach for the hour's drive to Oświęcim, more infamously known as its German equivalent, Auschwitz. The camp made famous by countless documentaries and movies over the last seventy years is actually three camps – Auschwitz, Birkenau, and Monowitz. The original camp, Konzentrationslager Auschwitz I, today houses the Auschwitz Museum. The students fell silent as they walked under those gates and into the camp, their footfalls on the gravel juxtaposed by the birdsong in the air. It is a myth that birds do not sing at Auschwitz.
The following two and a half hours were filled with things familiar from television and books, but whose impact can only truly be felt when seen for real: two tons of human hair preserved since the camp's liberation in January 1945; the shoes and suitcases of the victims who are today only known through the crude chalk labels hurriedly applied when the ghettos of Europe were liberated; and the gas chamber – the only one which survives here – where hundreds of thousands of Jews, Poles, Czechs and Gypsies walked in without ever walking out.
If the scale and brutal organisation of Auschwitz I was enough to make the group's picnic lunch a sombre affair, the sheer size of Auschwitz II – or Birkenau – was another thing altogether. Covering an area of forty square kilometres, the huts and chimneys disappear into the horizon behind the famous 'railway station' arch. The sunshine seemed out of place here and the sense of peacefulness was surprising. The group visited cattle cars, sleeping huts, and hastily destroyed gas chambers, taking photos, laying stones (a Jewish custom), and committing the scene to memory.
The tone of the third and final day was altogether lighter. Having become hardened veterans of the Krakow tram system, the group headed to Heroes Square and the bronze chairs which memorialise the furniture loaded onto carts and carried on backs to the Jews' new, albeit temporary, home in the Podgorze ghetto. Returning to the Jewish Museum, the group was fortunate enough to be able to hear the testimony of a survivor – Lidia Maksymowicz – who, captured and interned when she was only three, revealed the tattoo on her left forearm which has grown as she has. Her frankness and honesty was not lost through her translator, and the students left touched by her tale, and by her plea that it be repeated to any and all who will listen.