History was brought to life for Highfields' students as they stepped into the past to learn about the horrors of Hitler’s Third Reich from a Holocaust survivor during a visit to the former Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp.
The week-long coach trip to Germany and Poland is an established fixture on the school calendar, which takes place every two years, and allows students to reflect on the inhumanity and brutality of the Second World War and see how hope can spring from even the bleakest times.
Pupils spent three days in Berlin where they visited sites with dark memories of the work of Hitler and the Nazis - including the stunningly moving Memorial to the Jews of Europe. They also saw the remnants of the divided city, the eastern part of which was stranded in the Communist block until 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down. There was also plenty of time for fun and the chance to enjoy the busy, rapidly-changing city. In the evenings students had the chance to let off steam in the wonderful parks and sports spaces and experience the recovery and optimism for the future of modern Berlin.
The group then travelled to Poland and the medieval city of Krakow – complete with castle and dragon – where youngsters were intrigued by the different food and traditions. However the main reason for the visit – a tour of the nearby former death camp - was never far from their minds. Students spent a sombre day touring the vast and terrible Auschwitz 1 and Birkenau death camps, set up in the Second World War by the Nazis with the express purpose of eliminating the Jews and other minorities. They also had the immense privilege of meeting a Holocaust survivor at the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow. She was able to recount her extraordinary story of survival from her time at Auschwitz as well as the remarkable, but traumatic, process of her subsequent recovery from the unimaginable suffering.
Trip organiser, Mrs C Hall, said: “Highfields has been taking student groups on the exciting and exhausting coach journey to Berlin and Krakow for many years now. Started by the History Department to build students’ understanding of the terrible story of Hitler’s Third Reich, the tour has become something of a school tradition, regarded as equally important to all students with a wish to learn about humanity in the modern world.
“There is much to reflect on for the students, who witness much evidence of the cruelties and inhumanity of brutal dictatorships, but there is also much optimism in the recovery of the bright and busy city of Berlin and the way nations are moving forward together following the horrors of the past.”
Year 12 student Rattan Bhorjee captured the experiences of the group in the photographs which accompany this piece and each student reflected on the trip with a written account. There is no better way to give testament to the impact of this journey than to use the words of the students themselves. The following extracts from their writing as they struggled to take in the experience of the visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, gives a flavour of their feelings.
Witness to tragedy: student reflections on the day:
Mrs C Hall said "The extracts below represent the feeling of students in Years 10, 11 and 12. They feel freer when they write anonymously about feelings which are so raw and painful."
“When first entering the camp, nothing can prepare you for the true scale of conditions when the camp was in operation is beyond all human imagination.
It was not the room of hair taken from only a small proportion of those murdered, or the crematorium and gas chambers where hundreds of thousands of men, women and children perished, with the smell of burning corpses still filling your nostrils that caused me to lose control of my emotions, but a small picture of a 14 year old girl. Happy, smiling, she is oblivious to the fate that awaited her, her parents and the six million others that were murdered.
Exhibits such as the room of shoes, and the cabinets of children’s shoes and spectacles also struck me in a way I never thought such objects could. The murder on an industrial scale of millions showed me how those who did perish were removed of every shred of dignity so that they are now not mourned as human beings. As men, women and children with hopes, dreams, families and futures, but as a number. And that for me feels like an ultimate betrayal of their memories as by number is exactly how the Nazis referred to them.
What the entire Auschwitz-Birkenau complex shows you is the levels of degradation to which humans can sink. However, this is a key point people often overlook. These appalling acts were committed on humans: by humans, not monsters or any other fictional creation. These were humans that were indoctrinated by the ideology of National Socialism to the extent that they were willing to commit genocide. And that perhaps is the main thought people should take from Auschwitz, that humans are capable of anything, no matter how inhumane or shocking we might see those capabilities today, and its duties as human beings not to be complicit in such acts again. What should have never happened in the history of civilisation, has happened countless times after the Holocaust in Cambodia, India, Rwanda, Bosnia and arguably in many other places across the world with members of my own family falling victim. This is perhaps my own message that I will take away, the message that six million voices would be saying if they were not silenced. Remember and mourn those that have already been lost, but all should be done in an effort of make sure that no other people should be remembered or mourned for the same reason.”
“Today’s visit was an extremely moving and emotional experience. It is difficult to put into words how today has made such an impact on my life, because it was an individual experience that will be kept and remembered by myself throughout my life.
The treatment of minorities and harsh reality of what actually happened to thousands of innocent people was brutally shocking and ultimately disgusting. Both camps that we visited had a direct impact on myself, however, the realistic preservation of Birchenau was overwhelming, as it ultimately put all the information which we have studied at GCSE into a shocking and horrific context. The silence was almost uncomfortable as it allowed time for deep thought and reflection, however, it further matched the setting and created a further sense of horror and disgust to mark such a barbaric time.
Auschwitz’s gas chamber was one of my most feared experiences, the scratching’s on the wall elucidated the extent of what thousands of innocent people were put through. I wish to stay anonymous as I believe that visiting death camps is an individual experience that doesn’t need to be shared, as it will allow me to see the importance of my responsibility for protecting our future society. It is hard to summaries my feelings from today’s visit but it has certainly made an impact on my life and how I view things. Thank you for allowing me to have this experience.”
“No words or picture can really explain the emotional roller coaster that you go on.
Everyone will react differently, you feel emotions of all different points, moments that relate to you personally, for me as well as others it was the kid’s shoes also the paragraph I saw about sisters because that is a sensitive part of me.
Some people may not be affected or may not show that they are affected because in some ways it feels so unreal, what happened at these places, for some is really hard to be able to really comprehend, understand or believe. ……There aren’t many birds chirping and the air feels suffocating, in some areas its very devastating because of how commercialised the place is, people are making money out of it, this is what I wasn’t prepared for.
The history at these sites is very raw to everyone, people still looking for loved ones, the odd rose on photos and the train track makes it realistic, in some ways you feel guilty because you feel that then they knew this was happening but chose to ignore it simply because they didn’t want to believe it was happening, they were scared themselves.
The way all of them were treated was appalling, yet they thought that some of the places they were was enough because the conditions elsewhere were so bad: in one of the rooms you saw some of the worst punishment cells they were about a metre high from the floor and a meter wide, you can barely sit or move in these cells ……
Going to these camps is not something you can easily describe, or tell people, these camps really put things in perspective, in reality even though it’s so brutal and harsh, it moves you to think about who you are as a person and who you want to become.
At these camps there is no need in taking photos because the memory will stick with you. These camps can’t be described, I can’t tell you how you will feel, how you will react, emotions will follow though you, all at different times. Being at these camps allow those to be there for you, especially those you don’t expect to be because you are all going through the same thing at the same time. Explaining the emotions is the hardest thing to do. They flow through you and it comes at random times.
Personally I wanted to be alone, so I could really soak up everything. Others walked or talk about it with one another and helped each other through it. Going through these with these people creates a bond you don’t think could happen and you don’t even realise it’s happening.
This experience is a part of me now, it will shape who I become, how I look at things and the things I will say. This is a lesson that people should learn from and change who they are. We are not responsible for things that happened, but our generation can really change and prevent anything like this from happening again….."