During the midterm break of February 2012, 16 students and 4 teachers from Riversdale braved one of the worst winters in Europe, to visit the famous city of Krakow in Poland. It was an interesting, exciting and emotional trip for all involved which included visits to the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau Death camps, the beautiful Salt Mines and Schindler’s Factory Museum as well as a tour of the beautiful gothic city of Krakow itself. Continue reading to find out more about the trip itself and feel free to goto the Photo Gallery to see some of the pictures taken while we were there.
It was an early start as we had to meet at 5am in Dublin airport but everyone turned up in good spirits and we were soon on our way. It was a short and comfortable flight over, with excitement growing in the ranks as we approached our destination. On arrival in Krakow we were greeted with snow and temperatures approaching -10°C as well as Anna, who was our guide for the day. First stop was the Krakow Museum based in Oscar Schindler’s old factory in the city of Krakow. The museum covered the history of Krakow from just before the German invasion at the start of World War II until the liberation of the city at the end of the War by the Russians. It was a very informative 2 hours of fascinating and eye-opening history. Many of the displays allowed some level of interaction and there were many recordings, both visual and aural, which demonstrated the terrible state the people of Krakow had to endure during the occupation.
After the visit to the museum we were taken to our hotel to deposit our bags and get some lunch. Before long we had to wrap up very warm as we were going on a walking tour of the city of Krakow. Krakow is a beautiful city and has been fortunate in history in that it was not bombed during World War II by either the Germans or the Russians. The centre of the city is also predominantly pedestrianised which makes for a comfortable and relaxing tour. As the day wore on the temperature dropped even further but when you get to see a stunning sight like the Vistula river frozen over, it’s kinda worth it.
The next morning we were up nice and early for what was probably the centre point of our visit. It is an hour and a half drive to Auschwitz from Krakow and when we arrived we were fitted with headphones and met our guide for the day. We were first led to stand under the infamous entrance gates to Auschwitz I Death Camp, which read “Arbeit Macht Frei”, (Work Makes One Free). Unless you stand there sometime you will not understand the chilling feeling as you pass beneath those gates, realizing the lie they tell with the knowledge that you are entering an area of our world where some of the worst atrocities committed by one group of humans on another were inflicted. Approximately 1.1 million, mostly Jews, Poles, Russians and Roma were murdered in these camps.
For the next hour and a half we visited building after building, not feeling the cold outside, but feeling the deepening chill in our hearts as we passed through a room full of human hair shorn from the Jews before their execution, a room full of shoes tied in pairs, (the Jews were told it would be easier to get them back if they tied them together), a room full of suitcases with the names, addresses and birth dates of the victims chalked onto them, a room full of cans of Zyklon B, the pellets used to gas the Jewish prisoners. We saw the living quarters that the prisoners were held in and the even smaller cells that some were forced into for ‘misbehaviour’. We walked down a long corridor with photos of victims on both sides, saw torture posts outside the buildings, the electrified fencing dividing and surrounding the prisoners. Photos, writings, records and reports ….
After a short break we headed the short journey to Birkenau or Auschwitz II as it is sometimes called. Birkenau was built as a result of Auschwitz I becoming overcrowded. The size of Birkenau is unbelievable. From the entrance gate to the forest at the far side is about as far as the eye can see and the ground is covered in sheds and the remains of sheds where the prisoners were held. We entered one of these sheds and saw the terrible conditions the prisoners were forced to live in. We then walked the train tracks stopping in the area where selections were made and then continued onto the area where the ruins of the gas chambers are. It is very haunting to stand there and very hard to contemplate what happened on the ground where we stood.
The whole visit was an assault on our senses and left us drained emotionally. Nothing can be written that can express what we felt as individuals or as a group. Above is just a fraction of what we witnessed while in Auschwitz-Birkenau and I think every one of us would recommend visiting at some time in your life.
On our third and last day we went to the Salt Mines just outside Krakow and they were amazing. It was like visiting a small town mined from rock hundreds of meters below the surface. We started by descending a wooden staircase with 378 steps to a depth of 64 metres and that was just to reach Level 1 of the mine. During our 3km tour of the first 3 levels of the mine we were in many chapels and visited an underground lake. In one huge cavern we saw unbelievable quality stone carvings that were completed by 3 miners over a period of 40 years. These 3 miners had no special skills in carving rock, but the work they produced would be hard to better. Our tour ended 135 metres underground where an elevator gave us access to the surface. We were squeezed into the elevator and shot to the surface in just over 30 seconds. That in itself was an experience, (I won’t mention who did all the screaming !!).
All in all, I think every one of us would agree that it was a wonderful trip in so many ways. All of the students were well behaved and respectful of their surroundings at all times. The teachers weren’t bad either. All of the locations we visited are places well worth seeing at least once in your life … maybe in summer though … it got down to near -20°C on the last night !
Here’s to the next trip .. I vote for the Bahamas.