At the end of February, two LVI (Year 12) girls participated in an independently organised trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau, Poland. Here, they recount their experience:
'As part of a course run by the Holocaust Educational Trust, on Tuesday 27th February we were fortunate to have the opportunity to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau, a Nazi-run concentration and death camp, in Poland.
After a 3am start, a two-hour taxi journey and a three-hour flight, we arrived in Krakow, Poland, mid-Tuesday morning, along with 200 other students from 100 other schools in the South West. Our first destination was Oswiecim – a town which has undergone a complex history, from a thriving Polish town with a prominent and integrated Jewish community (making up 58% of its population), to the site of one of the largest Nazi death camps of the Holocaust, and is now still struggling under the shadow of the 20th Century’s most infamous atrocity. Standing in the market square, we observed and discussed the changes which had occurred as a result of Nazi rule, including the destruction of the Great Synagogue and other prominent Jewish buildings (evidence of the Nazis’ attempt to eradicate all Jewish influence and culture.) Here, we were also introduced to the role of non-Jewish Polish bystanders and discussed the complex issues surrounding their liability for the events which unfolded in Poland during World War Two.
We then moved onto Auschwitz I, the first of three parts of the camp, which housed 16,000 male prisoners. Here we visited a number of different blocks, each memorialising the victims in different ways. Some of the most impactful exhibits were those showing the possessions of the victims, for example suitcases, glasses, shoes and prayer mats. Each individual item told a different story and helped to rehumanise the victims of the Holocaust by giving insights into their backgrounds and individuality. The vast quantity of cooking equipment was also particularly powerful in illustrating the extent of the Nazis’ lies – the Jews believed they were travelling to a new life and thus their eventual fate would have been all the more horrific. Another notable exhibit was that orchestrated by the Israeli government, showing films of pre-war Jewish life as well as Hitler’s anti-Semitic speeches, raising questions of whether or not the voice of the principle perpetrator of the Holocaust is a suitable way to memorialise its victims. Also featured in this block, is a list of the names of four million of the victims, compiled by an Israeli Holocaust organisation which allows us to comprehend, to some extent, the reality of how many people actually lost their lives.
Finally, we visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, or Auschwitz II, where train-lines deporting Jews from all over Europe converged and where many of the gas chambers and crematoria were situated. Following an attempt by the Nazis, in the final months of the war, to hide evidence of their crimes, all that remains is a bleak landscape of barbed wire fences, watch towers and the skeletons of gas chambers. This was made all the more powerful by the minus twenty-four-degree temperatures and the blanket of snow, giving an atmosphere of bleakness and hopelessness which made us truly question how anyone survived. What we witnessed in Auschwitz I and II was made all the more shocking by the stark contrast to the insights we had gained about the thriving and integrated nature of pre-war Jewish life.
Overall, the experience was a hugely valuable and moving one and we are proud to be ambassadors of an organisation aiming to promote a wider understanding of the Holocaust and most importantly, which aims to remember and value those lives which Hitler aimed to eradicate'.
Charka and Harriet (LVI Form)
The Holocaust Educational Trust: https://www.het.org.uk/