Kraków and Wieliczka Trip
Saturday 17th December
A dark, cold, snowy Saturday morning saw the students awaken at 0430 for transport to Stansted Airport to catch an early flight to Kraków.
Following the wholly uneventful flight, the students stepped out of John Paul II International Airport to be greeted by the bracing temperature of -10 ⁰C. Fortunately, they were quickly ushered into a private coach which would serve as their taxi for the next 3 days.
20 minutes later and the students found themselves in Kazimierz, Kraków’s Jewish Quarter, which our guide, Richard Burgess, proceeded to give them a tour of. Before long, however, cold and hunger were beginning to set in—our respite came in the form of a small, traditional café. Dishes such as placki ziemniaczane (potato pancakes), and soup served in bowls baked out of bread were enjoyed.
Following lunch, the students were taken to Podgorze, the WWI Jewish ghetto. Here they saw famous sites including the Pharmacy under the Eagle and Tadeuz Pankiewicz. Once again, the cold got the better of the group, and we made our way to Schindler’s Factory, now a museum dedicated to life in Kraków during the Nazi occupation—this served as a good introduction to the fascist regime and helped prepare the students for what was to come the following day.
1900 was the time of our reservation at CK Dezerter, where the students were treated to a traditional 3-course Polish dinner—a welcome end to a long day.
16 hours since leaving for Stansted Airport, the students finally checked in to WM System Hotel, their abode for the next 2 nights.
Sunday 18th December
45 minutes after a wake-up call at 0615 and we were on our way to one of the most harrowing places on Earth—Auschwitz.
The morning was spent on a guided tour by a Polish national around Auschwitz I, the first concentration camp built on the site, with it’s ironic slogan ‘Arbeit macht frei’ meaning ‘work sets you free’ above its entrance. Here the students visited several different ‘Blocks’, each with its own exhibit. One contained information about prisoner life whilst in the camp, another about the journey to Auschwitz and the selection process on arrival. However, the most disturbing was Block 11. This was known by many prisoners at the time to be the ‘Execution Block’—in one of the rooms was a ledger, which filled an entire room, in which were all the names of those murdered at Auschwitz were contained. In the next was a room filled with hair, belonging to all those processed on arrival at Auschwitz. Another contained numerous prosthetic limbs. Finally, there was a room, in which stood 3 cabinets, that contained all the shoes found in Auschwitz at the end of WWII—1 cabinet held only children’s shoes, some as small as a man’s palm.
Auschwitz I may sound horrific, but it is nothing compared to Birkenau (Auschwitz II). This was the largest death camp in Europe, which played a major role in the Holocaust, and where the students visited in the afternoon following a short lunch on the coach.
The scale and desolateness of the camp are what strike you first, especially when covered in small blankets of snow at -12 ⁰C. It took over an hour to walk the full length of the site. Within the camp were hundreds of plain buildings, that could be likened to cattle sheds—these were the bunk houses. The students visited one of the gas chamber/crematoria combined buildings, of which there were many.
Towards the end of the visit, Richard Burgess, with the help of some of the students, conducted a remembrance service by one of the small ponds within the grounds. Auschwitz II-Birkenau serves as the world’s largest Jewish graveyard, the place where the ashes of innocent victims were scattered over the fields, thrown into the rivers, or dumped into several small ponds sixty-five years ago.
After a harrowing experience conducted in the freezing cold, the students were grateful to get back into the warmth of the bus and taken back to the hotel, where they had some relaxation time before dinner.
Pizza was on the menu for Sunday evening, and Invito Pizza provided the service. After another long, emotional day the heart-warming Italian food was most welcome.
Monday 19th December
The final day of the trip brought with it further cold weather—mercifully, the Wieliczka Salt Mines were our destination, and at 15 ⁰C they seemed positively tropical compared with Auschwitz.
A short coach journey and a brief walk through the steadily growing blanket of snow brought us to the entrance. Once inside, a rapid descent in the form of 50-something flights of stairs led us to the beginnings of a labyrinth of tunnels over 170 miles in length; fortunately, we had the expertise of a local guide to ensure safe passage through the maze. During our further descent to a depth of 150 metres, we encountered: vast halls; chapels, the most famous being St. Kinga’s Chapel; statues; depictions of daily life during the operation periods; and even a café—all carved out from the mine itself.
After what seemed like miles of tunnels, we found ourselves crammed into 2 lifts, and within a minute, standing back on the surface. From there a short coach journey brought the students back to Kraków for one last visit before the airport.