The horrors of Hitler’s Third Reich were put into the spotlight for students, as they stepped back into the past to learn more about the brutality of the Second World War and the millions of innocent lives lost during an emotionally-charged trip to Germany and Poland.
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.
The trip, which took place from July 16th - 23rd, allowed the 39 students from Years 10 and 11 to develop their knowledge of the rise of the Nazis, the Holocaust and The Cold War.
The students, who were accompanied by seven members of staff, spent three days in Berlin where they visited sites with dark memories of the Nazis. 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, Wannsee and German Bundestag.
Miss J Tappenden, Highfields’ Head of History who organised the trip, said: “Whilst in Berlin, students embarked upon a walking tour of the city, investigating its deep and rich history, from its establishment as a medieval city right through to its significance in both World Wars, the rise of the Nazi Party, its hosting of the Olympics in 1936 and its division by the Berlin Wall in 1961 through to 1989.
“Students were also able to walk along the East Side Gallery to see a preserved section of the Berlin Wall, visit the DDR museum dedicated to life under Communist rule and enjoy some free time exploring the heart of the city.
“On the second day, students visited Wannsee, a beautiful outer city location on a picturesque lake, frequented by Berliners in the first part of the 20th century as a holiday destination for those looking to escape the city for a few days. It was here that key members of the Nazi Party met in 1941 to finalise the plans for what they named 'The Final Solution', the systematic murder of European Jews in purpose-built gas chambers such as those at Auschwitz Birkenau.
“The large idyllic house is now dedicated as a museum and information centre, featuring a large number of displays about the stages of The Holocaust. Later that day we headed back to the centre of Berlin where students toured the Reichstag building.”
Reichstag represents the heart of German democracy, and was famously burned in January 1933 within weeks of Hitler's appointment as Chancellor. Having used the event to secure emergency powers and the Enabling Act, in which freedom of press, freedoms of privacy and freedom of political choice were suppressed, this act is widely cited by historians as one of the events which led to Hitler's eventual rise as a dictator in August 1934.
The building was effectively abandoned from this point onwards, as Hitler never chose it to be the centre of his political power.
The Soviets seized, damaged and graffitied the building after taking Berlin in 1945 and, after Berlin's subsequent division later that year during the Potsdam Conference, the building stood in the heart of the east, where again it was ignored as a centre of politics. Berlin lost its capital status with the west formally recognising Bonn as their capital.
After the wall came down in 1989, and both Berlin and Germany began its reunification process, Berlin was finally recognised once again as the capital city of Germany in 1990. The Government began the process of reinstalling the Reichstag building as its political home. Renovations and repairs were finally completed in 1998, with British architect Norman Foster designing and building the famous glass dome as a sign of transparency in German politics after 70 years of turmoil and division.
Following the tour of Berlin, the group then travelled to Poland and the medieval city of Krakow where students got an insight into the tragic consequences of decisions taken at Wannsee. Students spent a sombre morning touring the vast and horrifying Auschwitz I 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.
Auschwitz I, the concentration or 'work' camp was the first stop on the tour. The group entered the site under the famous iron gates spelling out ‘Arbeit Macht Frei' (work makes you free), before being given a tour of the barracks to see for themselves the appalling conditions in which prisoners were kept.
Miss Tappenden said: “There are deeply moving displays of shoes, human hair, suitcases, clothes and glasses, as well as a case full of empty Zyklon B canisters - the poison used by SS Guards to gas Jews. These displays were very hard hitting and moved students in different ways.
“Students were also able to walk through the one gas chamber at this camp, where fingernail marks are still clearly visible on walls.”
Students then moved to Auschwitz II (Birkenau) ‘death camp’, where they saw the iconic watch tower and railway lines, frequently seen in films and documentaries about The Holocaust. Although its several gas chambers are no longer intact after being destroyed by the Nazis who blew them up in an attempt to hide the true horrors of Auschwitz one they realised the war was lost, students were able to soberly reflect on its tragic and brutal history as they walked the 1km length of railway track to the memorial now in place for the many innocent men, women and children who died.
It is estimated that the SS and police deported at least 1.3 million people to the Auschwitz camp complex between 1940 and 1945. Of these deportees, approximately 1.1 million people were murdered there.
Miss Tappenden added: “What struck me and the students most was that this is the largest cemetery in the world, yet there is not one single grave.”
Later in the day, students were given some free time to explore and visit the famous Salt Mines to show that there is more to the history of Krakow than just the Holocaust.
On the final day of the trip, staff led students on a walking tour of Krakow, including to Kazimierz, the 'Jewish Quarter' of the city. Back in 1939 when the Nazis invaded Poland, the Jewish population of Kazimierz was 70,000. Of those, 50,000 were ‘resettled’ within the first 12 months of occupation. In 1941, when the Nazis established the Podgorze Ghetto on the other side of the river, the remaining 20,000 Jews were forced to pack up all of their belongings and cross that river into the walls of the ghetto.
Miss Tappenden said: “We made this journey ourselves, pausing to reflect on the significance of the bridge as we crossed. Almost immediately, we entered what is now named Ghetto Heroes Square, where a memorial featuring scattered chairs has been created.
“The chairs symbolise the many possessions the Jews took into the ghetto with them, many of which were thrown from buildings overlooking this square as the Nazis liquidated the ghetto between June 1942 and March 1943.
“Students were also able to see the 'Eagle Pharmacy', where Tadeusz Pankiewicz - the only non-Jewish citizen to remain within the ghetto wall - lived and worked. His first-hand accounts of what happened within the ghetto were used to help Steven Speilberg film the iconic 'Schindler's List’.
“From here we made the short walk to Oskar Schindler's enamel factory. Between this site and a further factory in Czechoslovakia, Schindler was able to save the lives of 1,100 Krakow Jews. We visited one of two remaining sections of the ghetto wall just around the corner from here and then crossed back into Kazimierz, where we stopped our tour outside Poland's oldest surviving synagogue. The Nazis used this as a warehouse during the war, causing much damage as they left. Now restored and a museum dedicated to Jewish life in Krakow, we learned here that only 2,000 of the 20,000 Jews forced into the Podgorze Ghetto survived The Holocaust.”
Students finished the trip with some free time in Krakow's Old Square before heading home.
Miss Tappenden said: “Our students were exceptionally grateful to have been given this experience. I know they were moved in so many ways, and each of them individually has taken so much from the experience, witnessing evidence from the past that is just so important.
“At Highfields, embracing diversity, promoting tolerance and challenging discrimination is at the very heart of our history curriculum. This visit offers students a wealth of opportunity to see for themselves the potentially tragic consequences of overlooking those values.”
Plans are already in place for the next visit to Berlin and Krakow in July 2021. The trip will be available to all students who are studying in Years 10-13 on that date.