Berlin and Krakow blog

History students explore the cities of Berlin and Krakow in relation to the events of the Second World War. Read the daily updates from trip leader and Teacher of History, Ben Edwards below: 

February 13 2018
There can be no words to do justice to what we witnessed today. Perhaps it was the silence as we moved through the horrors of Auschwitz Prison where life expectancy was 4 months and Birkenau camp that said the most. The latter location is the purpose built extermination camp with the infamous wooden prefabricated animal sheds used to store victims before being processed through the massive cremation system. (The killer gas was Kyklon B a common vermin pesticide which was an accidental find when one prisoner in Auschwitz was detailed with de-lousing the barracks with the pellets which released the gas. His death unleashed the horror of the gas chambers. The Nazis experimented in the Auschwitz prison basement of Barrack 11 on 800 Jews, common criminals, Roma and Sinti, it took nearly two days for these people to die).
Was it that incredulous cruelty or the shaved off mountain of human hair, some still in girlish plaits, or the never ending piles of shoes, from stylish block heel sandals of elegantly dressed mothers to the little toddlers boots which had walked into the camp believing that the promised resettlement outside Europe was going to be their destination that made us all feel witnesses to one human kind’s greatest crimes?

Amongst the group there was plenty of sincere discussion about both camps and the whole process of Nazi clearance of the ‘in pure’.

We needed a change of scene and free time in chilly but stylish old town Krakow did just that. Shopping, eating, being with friends, the pupils of Oakham School have had a wonderful time, many of them declaring just that. Thave made new friends, learnt much, thought deeply and understand a little more about themselves and the opportunities life offers. The message from our trip is the take home wish from the guides we have met.

The evening entertainment was light hearted, authentic and to top it all finished off by Polish Dancing where we all had a go but Mr Edwards seemed to be rather a natural!

We fly home with extraordinary memories and enriched from all we have seen, done and thought about.

February 12 2018
Today our group did exceptionally well considering that we arrived in Krakow at the wrong side of midnight.

After breakfast we took the number 19 tram four stops to Schlinder's Factory museum where we were treated to a guided tour of the history of German occupied Poland. Here our students learned about the brutality endured by all Polish citizens during WWII, not just those of Jewish decent, before the end of the exhibit they also learned about the bravery and courage shown by Oskar Schlinder himself.

After lunch, and a little downtime in a local shopping centre, the group then visited the Galicia museum in Krakow's Jewish district. After a guided tour of the museum the group heard the moving story of Monica Goldwasser whose parents bravely gave her up when she was just 18 months old so that she might have a chance to survive Nazi persecution. Both Monica’s parents were executed in 1942 but she was taken, from a Polish Catholic orphanage, into care by a Polish couple who, gave up their own lives to live in hiding themselves in order to keep her hidden. Her tale of her "two incredibly brave mothers" and her father, a Doctor who studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, moved several to tears. As did Sophie's excellent reading of a translation of one of Monica's father's poems. The talk also allowed our students, and staff, to reflect upon how privileged we all are to live in a country, and school community, that places enormous importance upon values such as tolerance, forgiveness and expectance. Her words also made many, including the author of this blog, remember just how important the loved ones in our lives are (especially our own inspirational mothers) as well as how very lucky we all are to have them, and their love, in our lives.

Mrs Goldwasser herself was also noticeably moved by the appreciation shown by our group and by our gift of flowers and one of our school scarves. 

Her final message was that we need to live, to love, and to be happy and we did just that in the evening when we enjoyed a couple of hours together ten pin bowling. As is often the case, we left quite a few pins standing up, but we returned home with more of the shared memories that will bond us all together for many years to come.

February 11 2018
As the group depart Berlin for an overnight coach journey to Kracow, we reflect on a sombre day at Sachsenhausan and then the Jewish Museum.

The day started early with an atmospheric chill in the air at the concentration camp. Understandably we did not take many photographs because the sights will remain imprinted on our minds forever. From the systematic Entrance Gate A where all who passed through were promised Arbeit Macht Frei, to Station Z where the sinister promise of ‘exit through the chimney’ could be witnessed we studied the execution trench, crematorium and modern day memorials. Post WW2 the camp was used by the NVKD for similar purposes before being made a memorial by the East German state. The government of East Germany wasted no time erecting an obelisk in honour of political prisoners from 18 nations of the then Europe who were affected. Interestingly no other inmates are remembered as this didn’t fit in with the ideology of the time.

The roll call semi circle, shoe testing track, kitchens, barracks and prison were part of our tour but all will agree that the infirmary was the most sinister. Here our party learned of how the Nazis carried out medical experiments on inmates. The pathology unit was equally haunting.

We needed the suitable break, which was taken at Alexanderplatz. This was the first chance for free time and snacks, sweets and drinks were sourced by all!

In the afternoon we moved through the architectural double axis of the Jewish Museum, representing the two contrasting journeys of the persecuted Jews through disorientation of their everyday lives to either exile or death. Concrete corridors stylised to give the feel of foot faltering journeys led to either a garden of concrete blocks or to a cold dark tight narrow concrete space. Once again photographs did not seem appropriate apart from the instillation called falling leaves where visitors are given the option to walk across the faces pictured in our blog. The museum is excellent as it focuses on empathy and thought rather than information and artefacts.  Our guides challenged our group and although several shared similar, considered, responses; each left having enjoyed an entirely unique experience.

February 10 2018
Today our group started the day with a trip to Potsdam to visit the New Palace, built by Frederick The Great to celebrate Prussia's victory in the Seven Years War. I like to start our tour here as it is nice to remind our students that Germany, and Berlin in particular, has a much wider significance than just the years dominated by the tyranny of the National Socialist Party. Here our party received a guided tour, which highlighted the splendour and magnificence of the Prussian Empire. As a consequence, our students gained a greater understanding into how, and why, so many German people bought into Hitler's rhetoric of restoring German pride.

From here we travelled to Wannsee Villa where the Nazis worked out the mechanics of how they intended to murder 11 million European Jews. The highlight of the tour was our magnificent guide who made it clear that this decision was made prior to this short conference in 1942 and, in doing so, warned our students about the dangers of tolerating ideas that we believe to be wrong.

We then travelled to the Olympic Stadium where our students learned about how the Nazis endeavoured to use the spectacle of the 1936 games as a propaganda opportunity to reinforce their doctrine of Aryan supremacy. The sports fans in our number also learned about how a stadium built for such an agenda could be repurposed to help achieve the goal of German unity, which was a key mandate of the new German state created after reunification in 1990.

We also visited the Berlin Wall Memorial, which highlighted the fear and anxiety felt by many Berliners after the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961. Importantly, they also read first hand accounts of those who risked their lives to cross this divide as well the tales of bravery of others, in the West, who assisted them at great personal risk to themselves and their loved ones.

In the evening we took the U Bahn to the Reichstag (via the Holocaust memorial and the Brandenburg Gate) where we embarked upon a self guided tour of the Reichstag and its splendid glass dome. This tour not only gave our students an incite into the history of the building but also reaffirmed to them the principles of democracy, transparency and inclusion, which, to this day, remain the key principles of a state that sets the tone for other counties in the EU to follow.

We then returned to to the hotel, a little tired, but with much to reflect upon.

February 9 2018

Our group arrived safely in Berlin and have settled into our hotel, which is located a stones throw away from the iconic TV tower in Alexanderplatz.
After freshening up and having dinner, the group settled down to watch the excellent film The Counterfeiters: the amazing true story of a group of Jewish inmates at [Sachsenhausen]Sachsenhausen concentration camp (which we will visit on Sunday) who were forced by the Nazis during the latter stages of WWII to attempt to forge the British pound and the American dollar in an attempt to destabilise the economy of two of the allied powers. 
A link to full synopsis of the film can be found here:
The film is in German (with English subtitles) so our students taking German at GCSE had an early opportunity to get their ears accustomed to the language.
Tomorrow, we're up at 8am for breakfast and wrapped up warm ready for the day ahead.

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