Auschwitz Trip, 2019

Student Blog by Samuel, Year 12.

The trip to Auschwitz was something.

It was powerful; it was memorable; it was horrifying, and it was pensive. To sum up the trip in a single word would be difficult – impossible, even – because nobody who sat down on that coach at two in the morning on the 4th July truly had the same experience.

The trip to Auschwitz was not simply a trip to Auschwitz. It was an experience of Krakow; of the impacts the events of the Holocaust had on the minds of the people, the lives of the people, and society as a whole.

Although the lasting horrors of the Second World War were certainly apparent in Krakow during our trip, it was much more than that. There was a vibrant community there; a culture you could really sink your teeth into. One that didn’t treat the Holocaust as an awkward taboo, but rather embraced it and took pride in educating us. The Old Town of Krakow was a historical goldmine on its own – home to the university where Renaissance mathematician Copernicus studied, the masterful architectural feat that was Wawel Cathedral, and the town hall – where a man sat the very top, playing five notes on his trumpet on the hour, every hour. The history of the Old Town, and Krakow itself, did not depend entirely Auschwitz, but embraced it regardless. This first day of walking the streets, meeting the people, seeing the sights and tasting the food did a great job of setting us in the right frame of mind for the next day – our time allocated at the camps.

Our first day, interesting though it was, was clouded and shortened by the fact that we had about 10 hours of sleep between us. The morning of the 5th July was the opposite of that; we were up and out and eating on the coach by six a.m. Our arrival at Auschwitz was punctual, and we were all keen to get on with the tour.

Walking through the gates of the camp was a strange experience. The buildings beyond were neat, tidy and organised; if you did not know what had happened here, you maybe wouldn’t suspect a thing. But then the tour took us through these uniform buildings – through chambers that revealed the real tragedies of this period:

A room of human hair. A room of battered shoes robbed from dead people. A room of pots, pans and broken items that the Jews weren’t allowed to keep. A corridor lined floor-to-ceiling with photographs of the people who died there. The intimacy of all of this – how close you were to everything – was what made it terrifying. It was also what made the journey into the Auschwitz II camp all the more haunting, for here the horror spreads out around you for miles.

The buildings from almost eighty years ago still stand. Certain ones were destroyed upon liberation, but the ruins remain. One such building was a gas chamber. A description of this building is not fitting; whatever comes to mind – it was so much worse.

And although we were only at the camps for little more than a morning, it was enough. We were allowed time to think and reflect and to really digest what we had seen, as Auschwitz is a busy place – with more than one-and-a-half million people visiting every year, it is near-impossible to be truly in your own head when there are that many people around.

And that was the interesting thing; everyone reacted differently. Some were truly haunted by what they had seen; some people found solace in that journey, and others showed no signs of being changed. But it was a truly moving experience no matter what, and we were all thankful that we had time afterward to ease back into the trip and enjoy the day and a half we had remaining.

The relationship between our visiting party and the food we were given by the hotel was not an especially consistent one; while we all enjoyed a pizza after the many hours of travel and few hours of sleep, not everyone ate well when the food presented to us was a mystery soup and some unknown fish dish. But that didn’t matter, because we all got out of our trip exactly what we wanted. We had learned something.

The main thing I finally came to understand on this trip – and I know I am not alone in saying this – is that it is one thing to write an essay or read a book. But to actually be there… it is an experience. And it is a historian’s duty to have that experience, to ensure things on the scale of the events at Auschwitz are never forgotten.