AUSCHWITZ - Poland 2016

In March, a group of 24 year 10 students visited Poland for four days to study the Holocaust. 
 
This was more than a trip, it was an emotional and, at times, spiritual journey, which allowed our students and us as staff to reflect upon the events that took place leading up to and during the Holocaust; also to consider more deeply the aspects of humanity, inhumanity and suffering that this caused.  
 
Before visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau, we first explored the adjacent town of Oświęcim and found out about the thriving Jewish community of around 25,000 people who lived there before the war. They were highly successful and talented people, who developed much of the industrialisation, which included the factories and the train network as the town prospered. Poignantly, it was largely because of this train network that the area was chosen by the Nazis to build a concentration camp there. Today, not one Jew is left in Oswiecim.
 
In Auschwitz, we took part in a workshop, where we were able to see some of  the artwork produced by the prisoners. Some had been completed for the SS officers to hang on their walls, others produced in secret having smuggled materials out of the workshops. These images were in direct contrast to one another, with images of idyllic countryside scenes and foxhunting to be   compared with pictures of loved ones on scraps of paper, or images hidden in the ground, aiming to show the world the truth about what was happening in the camp. The students were asked to think deeply about the meanings behind these images and artefacts. 
 
We were also incredibly privileged to hear, first-hand, the personal story of a holocaust survivor now 95 years old, who survived because of his skills as an electrician. His story of survival was one of chance, stamina and utter courage; he never gave up on the will to live. Right at the end of the war, on the death march, he and a fellow prisoner managed to escape and hid in a sewer for two days, before escaping and finally arriving at a farm. Here the kind farmer’s wife gave them a meal. Weighing only 40 kilos at the time, our survivor did not eat the meat. However his friend did and died as a result. In his famished, impoverished state, his friend could not cope with the food. 
 
In many ways the Holocaust was a product of mass industrialisation, whereby rationalism and science, driven by hate, combined to find more and more efficient ways to exterminate the Jewish population. Firstly, slowly,  the Jews were scapegoated, separated and demonised, finally murder became routine and their dehumanisation was complete. 
 
I think I speak for all of us that, by the end, we understood the importance of remembering what happened, in order that this should never be allowed to happen again.
 
By Mrs Reilly, Assistant Headteacher
 
When I first heard that Arthur Mellows was offering a school trip to visit the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, I was surprised but also interested.  The idea of visiting one of the most emotionally evoking and significantly historical places in the world sparked my curiosity and I decided that I had to go.  There was no question about it, this was something I wanted to be a part of; a journey I had to embark on.
 
After signing up for the trip, we departed for Poland on Friday, 4 March 2016.  A small group of us left as acquaintances but little did we know, we would return as close friends.  Arriving in Poland was unsettling, the town of Oświęcim had an eerie feel.  The ghostly atmosphere was disconcerting; a complete contrast to the lively buzz of Peterborough town centre.  Walking around Oświęcim, we learnt about specific residents of Jewish and other targeted descents during the Nazi rule.  Mr Salt, from Arthur Mellows, shared his knowledge of the town with us and organised a visit to the only Jewish Synagogue that was not destroyed in Oświęcim.  We also looked at a Jewish graveyard and how uncared for and unkempt it was.  Everyone believed it was down to lazy family members or other means but we soon learnt that the unruly state of the graves was down to the simple fact that there was no Jewish community left to tend to it.  This hit the group pretty hard.
 
Visiting Auschwitz 1 was the first stop into the history of the Nazi regime.  The images of the torture that targeted minorities endured here were difficult to look at.  The idea that the most horrifying genocide happened right here where we were stood was very distressing.  Auschwitz 2 Birkenau was another experience altogether.  The walk from the accommodation to the camp was very unsettling.  Houses and homes lined the foot path but appeared abandoned and neglected.  The occasional guard dog was the only sign of life.  Despite the children’s play parks and acres of farm land, the whole place was dead; the giant shadow of the death camp Birkenau looming in the background.  It felt as though the entire city was haunted by the genocide that happened here, the mass murder that tool place right in their home town. Birkenau had a different feel to Auschwitz 1.  Untouched evidence of what had taken place here instead of the exhibitions and museums that Auschwitz 1 had been converted into.  The vastness of the land gave everyone a feel of the enormous scale of this horrifying massacre. 
 
Later that day, we met with a survivor who willingly shared his difficult story with us and how he had escaped the Nazi torture.  His story really put into perspective what we had seen over the past few days and hearing the events first hand from someone who experienced it, gave us an idea of what it was like for the people who actually endured it.
 
On the last day of the trip, we travelled to Krakow centre and took some tome to explore and shop,  It was nice to finally have some light relief from the emotionally draining experience that we had all been a part of.  Although, I believe what we had seen and learnt had impacted on how we view life. It had made us all more grateful for what we have, and the modern age that we live in, that we almost felt guilty shopping for ourselves.  Nevertheless, we had a nice time looking around the city of Krakow.  
 
After returning home, everything went back to normal; life returned to its hectic cycle of school, work and little rest.  However, what had changed was the way that we all viewed life, not only had we learnt a great deal of history but we had also learned to appreciate and to be thankful that society has come far enough not to let something so terrible happen again.  Our outlook on life had changed forever, and what we experience was unexplainable to anyone who has not been there themselves.   
 
Experiencing this emotional and disturbing journey together has brought what was a loosely connected group together to a tight-knit group of friends.  The memories we made on this trip has brought us together to be more like a family, and we all continue to stay in touch.  
 
I would personally recommend to anyone, whether you are interested in history and the Nazi regime, or not, to embark on a journey to Auschwitz.  This once in a life time experience was worth everything and left me with many thoughts that I am still yet to organise and understand.  Not only did I leave with a group of good friends for life, but a better understanding of life and humanity.
 
By Kimberley Dodge, 10ARI