Krakow: Trip Diary

One of the best things about being a teacher is the chance to go on trips. Not many jobs give you the chance to effectively go on holiday or visit interesting place with the simple idea that you are showing others these amazing places. Think about it, yes other jobs mean travelling, but that travel is to work. I have a friend who is a civil servant and he travels all over the place for work; this week be got back from Croatia. But when he is in Croatia, or Moscow or Toyko he spends most of his time in conference centres or meeting rooms. Of course as a teacher you are working. It is not always fun having to shepherd 40 or so children around when you could be at home watching TV (because it is always over a holiday time) but you get to go to great places and for, let’s be honest here, free. I know of so many teachers who don’t get to go on trips, in some schools it is who you know, in others luck or having to wait your turn. I have been lucky. I have done 4 Ski Trips, Italy (Rome and Sorento) and now Krakow. 

The aim of the trip to Krakow was more sombre than most trips: to take a group of Year 10s and 11s to Auschwitz, the sight of the most heinous crime against humanity. Not fun, but life affirming and hugely worthwhile compared to other trips. I myself have been there before but going with 35 young people had much more impact. I don’t think I can ever explain what it means to visit there, but this is my tour diary of the 3 days.

Day 1: 26th October 2013

Probably the most stressful part of any trip is getting to the airport on time, and with the right documentation. Having to organise (or be part of the organisation) of 35 young people is more stressful. Nearly every time I have done this I remember back to a former colleague who trusted with all of the foreign currency for her group of 25 students, left the bag of cash on the check in desk meaning that they were without funds for the 4 day trip (thankfully teacher credit cards and an organised member of SLT sorted it). In my bag, as I rose at 5:30am, were 12 passports on top of my own and the same number of EHIC cards. Thankfully I made it on time and we headed for Gatwick before getting out 2 hour flight to Krakow.

Krakow is an interesting city; part medieval stronghold, part Cold War era relic. The drive out of the airport towards the city passed old check point buildings and military huts covered in graffiti. You could still imagine the workers under Soviet rule heading to work on the trams, not knowing the western world. However, this western culture is now a huge part of the city. Once we had left the outskirts and had crossed the river into the city itself, we were met with billboards for junk food and mobile phones (Tesco, KFC, Orange and obviously McDonalds); a couple of days later our tour guide told us what is was like growing up under Soviet control but now how her children couldn’t do without Facebook.Image

Krakow has the biggest central square in Europe and this was where we headed once we had settled into our hotel. After the long journey, one of the first things that the students did was head to the golden arches, keen for a taste of home. The thing that strikes you though is that even though Big Macs and Bucket Meals are a taste of home, they are also a taste of nowhere, while at the same time being the taste of the world. The trinket stalls on the market in the middle of the square meant nothing when there was a Hard Rock Cafe to visit. Sometimes you want to shake them and tell them to explore a world that is different to ours, to see a city that has a completely different history but at the same time being there does have impact. Letting them explore, even if it is under the guise of looking for the same thing as home, is still exploring and I do think that even the littlest things will stay as memories.

That evening we visited a restaurant in the Old Jewish Quarter by the name of Ariel and that was one of the experiences that won’t be long forgotten. It is the oldest Jewish restaurant in Krakow and they served us traditional food in a room covered in stuffed animals, it was quite an experience and even though half of the students didn’t eat the food, they all spoke about the place they visited even a day later.Image

Day 2: 27th October 2013

Sunday was the centrepiece of the trip: Auschwitz. I asked a lot of the students why they wanted to come on the trip, a trip marketed as being hard work and emotionally draining. Most of them responded that they liked History as a subject or had heard about it via Ethics lessons or that their parents had told them it was a worthwhile experience. Nothing can prepare you for the trip, no history book can explain what it is like to walk around the site where over a million Jews were put to death as part of the Holocaust. 

Auschwitz itself has two sites: Auschwitz and Birkenau. The first is an old Polish military base that was taken over by the Nazis firstly as a concentration and work camp and later as the site of one of the gas chambers. The buildings that housed the different groups that the Nazis saw in opposition to their ideals now house museums and exhibitions. Piles of shoes and suitcases are displayed to show the scale of the tragedy alongside pictures taken from the time. We had a guide who took us round and we listened to her almost whispered commentary through headphones. This is many ways added to the experience, letting each of us go off into our own worlds to filter the stories she was telling. It was clear she was passionate about her job and believed it was her duty to continue the narrative so that younger generations did not forget. It was also clear how moved the students were, they were respectful and later asked questions and took it a lot of information and emotions.

Birkenau to me is the more chilling of the two sites. It is 20 times bigger than the first but was purely designed for extermination. The buildings were wooden huts but on a mass scale to house the inmates briefly passing through towards their death. There is less to see from a museum point of view but much more to take it. At one point we stood by an example of the train carriages used to transport the people in (100 per car, no food or water) and I read from a survivor’s memoir; it was the hardest thing I have had to read in front of a group of students. Later we saw a new exhibition that displayed the family photos that we collected from the suitcases left behind. These were the moments the students will keep with them. I had one poignant conversation with one Year 10 boy where we discussed the lesson to history of the events. He was the one quoting Rwanda, Yugoslavia and other events that had happened since that show we haven’t completely learnt from what happened under the Nazis. As well as the gas chambers we also saw the crematoriums used; the next day we learnt that in Jewish culture the word isn’t simply descriptive, it is weighted with emotion because to burn a body is insulting to that person and to God, adding even more to what the Nazis did. 

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As we sat in our polish restaurant that night it was clear that the students had all been effected. They were perfectly behaved during the day and the level of chat on inane topics I think showed how they wanted to block out what they had seen.

Day 3: 28th October 2013

The third day of the trip was much lesson harrowing but it was a welcome relief to do something less significant. We headed out of the town to the Salt Mines and explored the underground caverns of the city. The mines were vast and beautiful in parts and it was clear the mood was much different to the day before.

In the afternoon, after another chance to have McDonald’s for lunch, we took a walking tour of the city. Obviously the city will always be linked to the events at Krakow. The first stop on the tour was the Jewish Quarter again which we found out is mostly a Jewish Quarter only in name. There are only 180 Jewish people registered in the city now and most of them live outside of the Quarter; the main reason for the low numbers being that most of the historical inhabitants were shipped out by the Nazis to the work camps and later the gas chambers. We visited a synagogue that is still active but with a cemetery that was last used 200 years ago. The only reason the building survived is because the Nazis used it for storage. Sites in the Jewish Quarter were also used for the filming of the film Schindler’s List (which we are going to show after school next week) and it was interesting as a Film Studies teacher to see the way Spielberg used film locations so close to the history he was retelling. Image

Next we visited the Castle, which again was taken over by the Nazis but has a much longer history. There is a Dragon myth that dates back hundreds of years as well as links to the Soviet era that ended in 1989. It was interesting to learn that Poland lost independence in 1795 to be split into three parts (Prussian, Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires) before regaining control in 1918 before again being split in 1945 by the Nazis and the Soviet Union. In the Castle there are also a lot of religious buildings (95% of Poland is Catholic and 40% still actively go to church). As Western culture takes more of a hold it is clear that Poland is still in transition from so many different historical directions (however, it was interesting to hear from our guide that Starbucks can’t get a foothold in the country because a Polish company called Coffee Heaven got there first). 

The final part of the tour was to go back to the central square, which is the centre of trade and has been for hundreds of years; now however, it is tourism more than sheep skins.

Day 4: 29th October 2013:

The last day was travelling home but it put into perspective the purpose of the trip. The students were still talking about the different experiences they had. Obviously the most powerful was the visit to Auschwitz but the overall effect of visiting a foreign culture is impacting in many ways. Visiting with friends and classmates is also worthwhile for the students, having shared experiences. As a teaching is was interesting to be part of this. This will be my last residential trip in a while (I have other things on the horizon to take up my time) and it was a great way to end.