History was brought to life for Highfields students during an emotionally-charged trip to Germany and Poland, as they stepped into the past to learn about the horrors of Hitler’s Third Reich.
The week-long coach trip to Berlin and Krakow 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.
Students 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, and visited other important landmarks including the DDR Museum and German Bundestag.
The group then travelled to Poland and the medieval city of Krakow where students were given some free time to explore and visit the famous salt mines. However the main reason for the visit – a tour of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp - was never far from their minds. Students spent a sombre morning 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.
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.”
Teacher, Mr D Cooper, who accompanied students on the trip has summed up the experience:
Organised by the History department, the recent school wide visit to the German capital Berlin and Polish city Krakow offered staff and students so much more than just a visit to the past. With excellent curriculum links to English, Citizenship and RE as well as History, students were immersed in a variety of experiences and visits which broadened both their knowledge and life experience.
A city walking tour of Berlin enabled students to witness first hand the impact of both the Second World War and post-war hostilities, with evidence of conflict; bullet holes, bombing destruction and post-war division in the form of the Berlin wall scattered amongst the beautiful old and stunningly modern architecture of the now cosmopolitan city. Students paid a visit to the Brandenburg Gate, the Eastside Gallery and the site of the famous Nazi book burning, where thousands of literary works were burned because they did not meet the Nazi ideal.
Students also visited the DDR museum, which gave them a wonderful interactive insight into life on the east side of Berlin during post-war Soviet rule. A visit to the German Bundestag, the parliament building, which has become iconic to so many of Germany’s 20th Century struggles, was a particular highlight. Students were able to sit in the public gallery and see for themselves the room in which German government meets.
Evidence of Soviet fighting in those famous last days of the war as the Third Reich fell is littered all over the building, beautifully preserved to act as a reminder of the German battle for Democracy. There was even chance to walk past the door of Angela Merkel, although she was not in her office at the time!
Perhaps the most poignant visit was made just outside of the centre of Berlin, in Wannsee, where students visited the property which hosted the infamous Wannsee Conference of January 1942. The idyllic house is situated on a beautiful lake, where just across the water many Germans holidayed each year. It is here that high ranking Nazi officials decided upon the ‘Final Solution’; a decision which sealed the fate of millions of Jews in the three years that followed. The visit served as a stark reminder of what happens when humanity fails and provided much needed context for our trip to Krakow.
In the beautiful Medieval city of Krakow, students enjoyed free time to look around the square and visit the oldest market hall in Europe. Students were able to get a real feel of the city with a visit to their famous salt mines. A two-hour underground tour provided a fascinating overview of both the economic and industrial context of Krakow, a much needed change of context from the morning visit to Auschwitz.
The visit to Auschwitz was in many ways the pinnacle of the visit. It is hard to describe the atmosphere, the nature and reaction of the place. Even for those of who visited, it perhaps clouded our perception of the events of the Holocaust rather than clarify them. The visit was divided into two parts; Auschwitz I: The site of the concentration and work camp, and Auschwitz II: Better known as Birkenau, with its infamous railway lines and huge imposing watch tower.
The trip was ended perfectly with a visit to a Jewish museum in Kazimierz, the Jewish district of Krakow. Here students met with a Holocaust survivor, and listened impeccably to her story which was delivered in Polish and translated by a museum curator for us. Walking back to the main square of Krakow to begin our journey home, we were able to walk through some of the streets in Kazimierz and take in the atmosphere, including some sites which were famously filmed in Steven Spielberg’s production Schindler’s List. It was a very fitting end to a wonderful trip enjoyed by both staff and students alike.