Cracking Krakow 2015

Published on 05 May 2015

Cracking Krakow 2015

This Easter Vandyke Upper took 53 students to Krakow, Poland.  We arrived at Hotel Aspel and met our guide before embarking on the Polish tram into the centre of Kazimierz district – the original Jewish district. Walking past Deportation Square – the site of Jewish deportation from the ghetto to the death camps.

We spent the afternoon at Schindler’s Factory Museum. The Museum itself is in the old enamel factory which was once owned by the Nazi industrialist Oscar Schindler. A shrewd businessman, Schindler decided to use Jewish  labour for commercial reasons during the war before realising their plight. He compiled a list of workers he wanted to save and set about manipulating Nazi leaders in Poland to secure these people work permits which effectively saved them from the gas chambers. His actions saved the lives of 1600 of his workers and their families. The end of the exhibition was memorable – and depicted the reality of Nazi defeat in 1945. Polish people were liberated from one totalitarian regime only to be controlled by another - Stalinist Russia.

Day Two saw an early start in order to travel to Oswiecim, the town the Germans renamed Auschwitz. In 1940 this unremarkable town was chosen as a site for a large scale concentration camp by SS leader Himmler. Following the 1942 Wannsee Conference, when Nazi leaders committed to a policy of mass extermination of the Jewish race using the chemical Zyklon B, Auschwitz became the largest death camp. We spent the morning in Auschwitz One, a beautifully preserved barracks with a series of exhibits including the infamous display of victims’ belongings such as suitcases, glasses and shoes. Even more shocking was the large carpet of human hair displayed in one room – just 5% of the total hair harvested from prisoners. Nothing was wasted - human hair was used to line German soldiers’ boots. A new exhibition also presented a range of children’s drawings found at the camp, many of which evidenced the brutality witnessed by the arrivals at the camp.

The afternoon was spent at Auschwitz Birkenau – the more recognisable and bleak setting of the transportations and selections conducted by guards and doctors. Most of the original barracks were demolished however some are still intact and original details such as primitive lavatories;  washing facilities and bunks provide an insight into the harsh existence of life as a prisoner. This site saw the execution of 1.5 million Reich prisoners, 90% of whom were Jews. We witnessed the destroyed gas chambers and crematoria which the SS Guards attempted to destroy in 1945 and commemorated those who died there.

That evening saw some light  relief as we enjoyed a delicious meal at a Jewish restaurant. Spirits were high as students dined in sophisticated style and listened to traditional music performed by a talented if feisty group of musicians. The singer confidently had the whole group singing along and at one point grabbed Mr Cooksey for a brief dance!

Saturday morning saw some time for shopping in Krakow’s main square. We then walked through the medieval city centre towards the Jewish district where we took in one of the few remaining synagogues. Students and staff enjoyed a lunch in some of the many cafes in Kazimierz before spending time at the Galicia Museum where we heard the experience of an Auschwitz survivor.

Lidia Maksymowicz was just 3 years old when she was deported from Belorussia in 1943 with her mother. She was selected by Dr Mengele for experimentations and spent 2 years under his control. She remembers feeling terrified of the dogs at the camp, and Dr Mengele himself. Lidia also spoke of the experiments performed. For example chemical injections into her eyes to establish whether it was possible to change eye colour which resulted in days of blindness. Lidia survived the camp because her mother smuggled packages of food for her, but sadly her mother was taken from the camp in 1945 on a death march and never returned. Lidia was only 5 when the camp was liberated. Freed but totally alone, she was adopted by a local family who helped her discover life outside captivity. While still a child she didn’t know how to play with other children.  Students found it particularly difficult when this composed and articulate lady became emotional as she displayed the number tattooed on her arm. Lidia’s testimony provided students with a human connection to the tragedy.

The afternoon saw us viewing the spectacular sights at the 13th Century Wieliczka Salt Mines including the breath-taking cathedral made entirely out of salt! Our day was topped off with a stop off at the Galeria Krakowska. Our final day saw the sun emerge and the group enjoyed a blissful hour at Wawel Castle, taking in the stunning scenery including the Vistula River.  As we boarded the tram for the last time we all felt sad at the speed with which the trip had flown by. This year’s trip was truly special, providing experiences which moved and taught us all while enjoying the company of a great gang who laughed, cried and learnt their way around the beautiful Polish city of Krakow. Thank you to all the staff and students who made this year’s trip possible. Berlin 2016 here we come!

Mrs Quinn