11:20am - We split into two groups to make it manageable for the tour guides. The tour began with examining the maps of the camp and with our guide giving us a number of facts and statistics about the numbers of people exterminated in the camps. This information was then made to seem much more real when we were taken to the exhibits of the personal belongings found after the camp was liberated. Perhaps the hardest part of the tour for most people was to see the amount of female prisoners’ hair, the shoes, the suitcases and the babies’ clothing. At this point a few of us were quite visibly distressed as the true nature of these atrocities was brought home to all of us. We were then led to the various punishment blocks – home to the starvation and standing cells and the wall of death.
This visit was made more harrowing when we were led into the small gas chamber of Auschwitz I that had only been in commission for one year and when we saw the ovens used for the disposal of the corpses. I think everyone felt a little frightened by the number of people who were in the cham
ber at that time, and we were left to feel both horrified that these crimes ever took place and humble at the same time. I think it would be virtually impossible to describe the atmosphere amongst our group then, but I know that everyone was reflecting on their own lives and realising how important it is that we never let people forget our horrific past.
1:00pm – by now we had been around the exhibition in Auschwitz I and made our way to the small cinema to watch a short film. The film was particularly distressing with footage of prisoners being found after the liberation and the results of some of the infamous Dr. Mengele’s experiments.
1:15pm – after the film we managed to finally meet up with our Polish counterparts. At first the pupils seemed slightly reluctant to speak to one another, partly due to shyness, but I think part of it was due to the emotionally exhausting experience we had just encountered. However, eventually some of our more confident pupils tried to break some ice before we made out way to the coaches to take us to Auschwitz II (Birkenau).
1:30pm – I think everyone was a quite surprised by the scale of Birkenau. Although a number of the original wooden barracks were destroyed it was clear to see from the rows and rows of chimneys just how extensive the camp had been. We were taken into a few of the barracks to see the bunks were the prisoners had been forced to sleep and the incredibly unpleasant terrines that they were allowed to use to relieve themselves. Again this caused a great deal of upset amongst our group. It is almost impossible to imagine just how those who survived did.
2:30pm – we then began to make our way up to the end of the railway tracks to the memorial at the bottom of Birkenau, which is situated between the remnants of Crematoria I and II. Here we laid our wreath and both Mr. Brown from our school and the head teacher of the Polish school made quite moving speeches reminding the pupils that they now had the very real responsibility of passing on the memories of each and every victim and to make sure that this kind of evil was never repeated.
3:30pm – on the walk back to the coaches a number of us were struck by the image of a group of Israeli school children who were heading towards us. Every one of them had their flags either tied round their shoulders or were carrying them on poles. Their Star of David was on full view. It seemed as though they were showing complete defiance that after everything their people had gone through, despite the six millions Jews that had been wiped out by the Nazis, they were showing that they were not beaten and this image struck me as incredibly positive and perhaps a fitting way to end our journey around the camp.
4:00pm – before leaving Auschwitz we took a little more time to speak to the Polish pupils in the café and eventually everyone seemed to be more open to talk to one another. Our one funny incident of the day came when Linzi informed one of the boys it had been her birthday the day before and his reply of “Merry Christmas!” was met with hysterical laughter from everyone who realised he had got himself a little confused. Sadly it was time to leave our new friends behind and make our way back to the bus.
6:00pm – we arrived back in Krakow and had a very short half hour to explore a couple of shops and buy some Polish souvenirs from the Cloth Market before going back to freshen up for dinner.
8:00pm – we arrived at a beautiful little restaurant, which was adorned in traditional Polish decoration and had a small group of string musicians performing traditional songs. Most of us enjoyed the very tasty food, but as usual there were the odd few who just refused to even taste what was on their plates! So much for coming to experience the culture in all of its forms!