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Revisiting Krakow – February 2020

In February, we went to Poland on what was the fourth study visit to Krakow, accompanying the three to Berlin and one to Rome. As trips go it was as smooth as you could possibly hope. Our students, like those who have been before, had decency and humility as we knew they would and in fact it was the staff who had racked up the occasional ‘late minutes’ to the meeting points.

 In ordinary years, this article written by Maya would have been out much earlier but as we all know, these have not been ordinary times. The ever-present ghosts of the moral evil that we encountered at Plaszow and Auschwitz were there to be felt but as an international community we face the natural evil that is Covid-19. It was because of this that the article was delayed as we all had more pressing concerns and to a large extent, still do. However as the process of lockdown and release changes it seems a more appropriate time to reflect. 

One of the biggest questions raised on these study trips is ‘why did people not openly oppose it?’ which in itself is easily answered. People did oppose but they were either unsuccessful or did it in a secret way not to draw attention, feeling it was better to keep quiet and do good than publicly come out and be unable to complete their acts of humanity and kindness. 

The other big question we consider is ‘what have we learnt from this?’ which is a question as relevant to us now as it was then. What do we do after the incident? When we see something we disagree with to a large extent, how do we ensure that it does not continue to happen and how do we keep our own standards when others have lowered theirs? These are not easy questions and the answers are tougher but these trips – and the pandemic – force us confront these and challenge complacent behaviour.

As always I would like to thank those who make these trips possible: Mrs Higgins, (who I’ve made enough jokes in the past about the early starts that she adores) is a constant source of reliability and promotes our trips so well, Dr Burrows is always on hand to offer deep insight, wise words and great humour. Mrs Hirst, new to the team, brought a fresh pair of eyes which added energy as well as her natural geographical perspective and it was an absolute pleasure to have Mr Strong with us. We are a community school and it is great that these links are never broken. Backstage Mr Cubit and Ms Syer make sure all of the i’s are dotted and t’s crossed and make the process of organisation ridiculously simple. Also to Rachelle and Sharon at Study Trips who arranged this package for us. 

Finally I would like to thank the thirty-eight students who were perfect – and I do not use that word lightly. When it is safe to do so, I really hope that Fakenham Sixth Form can continue to visit Berlin and Krakow as Maya’s account shows exactly why we go.

Mr D Eaves – Trip Leader 

“Krakow- A first-hand Experience” 

I want to try and give you an idea of what we went to see. The history that is enriched within the soil of the area, how we felt walking through such a traumatic stretch of land -but even thinking back on my experience I cannot come up with a plausible conclusion on what the place was like.This truly is the meaning of indescribable.

In the days we spent in Poland we visited three major historical memorials that have shaped how people feel about this area:Plaszow, the labour camp, which had almost been fully destroyed at the end of the war- leaving an uncomfortable stretch of open field,Auschwitz and Birkenau, the most large scale concentration camp set up by the German army for the reduction of minority figures.

I thought by doing my research I would be prepared as to what I was about to see – but visiting such a talked about place like Auschwitz and stepping through the gates with the phrase ‘Arbeit macht frei’ (‘Work will set you free’) above our heads there was an uncontrollable sense of apprehension and unease, which no number of books of films could have prepared me for.

The snow was lightly scattered upon the floor, portraying a sense of secrecy.As if this white substance was attempting to conceal any trace of the atrocities that had been endured here. 

The thing that struck me first was the overwhelming feeling of vulnerability. There was an instant change from passively observing the site and learning of the events that took place there from afar, to becoming immersed in this environment where the history of trauma very much engulfed you. That feeling of being out of control, to putting all that trust into one person, one organisation – how should they have known.

 Buildings strung out for as long as the eye could see, with an eerie quietness despite the crowds of people.Their walls imprinted with the innocent lives of so many which unlike the interior of the chambers, would never be scrubbed clean. Large empires that disdained this area like a past civilisation, an alien race: one that we no longer want to think of or try to understand.

I gathered beforehand that everything I was going to witness could never truly portray the suffering faced by so many. It was difficult to know how to react; the experience had such a completely unique impact that was not only unexpected but hard to deal with.

Feelings of anger felt too futile, this 75 year hatred was not going to revive the 1.5 million lives that were so heinously taken.Feelings of sorrow didn’t quite feel ‘enough’, we could never truly grasp the extent of the brutality and torture. I suppose some unanimous, natural reactions were ones of disgust, guilt and disbelief. The fact that we were walking freely through the same corridors, observing the prisoner’s belongings and then back out of the courtyard made the whole experience feel completely surreal. 

I think it’s important to add that even though surrounded by so much pain from the past, we were still able to enjoy ourselves in these new surroundings. From experiencing sights that we’ve never seen before to being able to explore such a beautiful city: it gave us a sense of hope and closure to the whole trip.

The most vital thing that i’ve tried to take away from this experience is the idea that, we cannot say that inhumane events will not happen again. Nor can we predict when they might happen.What we can do is be aware and learn from these past situations, ensuring that we can always do better in the future.

Maya