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Trip to Auschwitz in Poland

Psychology and Sociology

Trip to Auschwitz in Poland  

13.02.17 - 15.02.17

 

Having been warned by BBC Weather that the UK was about to have an especially cold, bleak spell of weather coming from Poland which, upon further investigation, revealed predicted temperatures in Krakow of minus 1 to minus 9, our trip preparations included raiding the lofts of friends and relatives for skiwear, boosting the sales of hats, and the high street will report a surprise spending surge on thermals. It was certainly worth the preparation and, in spite of the fact that we spent many hours out of doors walking around in sub zero temperatures, we were all equal to the challenge; Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing would have been impressed!

 

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The focus of our trip was to visit Auschwitz, to think about how the work of Milgram could be viewed in the context of the Nazi atrocities and to discover more about what life was like at this time in Europe from a psychologist and sociologist perspective.
 

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The initial impact upon arriving at Auschwitz does not accord with the emotional expectations: a neat, seemingly benign collection of buildings, surrounded by trees and fields; a wrought iron sign greeting at the entrance: “Work sets you free”. It is the explanation of how the buildings were used, how the people at the concentration camps were treated, that reveals the horror of Auschwitz.

 

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Our guide, Damien, gave us an incredibly thought-provoking view into the past, and into the complexities of human behaviours and political, social and economic pressures which impact on them. He did not spare us when retelling the full extent of the cruelty and injustice which befell the inmates of Auschwitz; we were spellbound and appalled by the range of horrors seen and perpetrated within that camp, yet he frequently repeated that not all guards and Nazis were bad people and not all the victims were good people and that evil can bring out evil in others. Auschwitz was originally opened in 1940 as a detention centre for political prisoners, but it evolved into a concentration and death camp for Jewish people and perceived enemies of the state. Some were also the subjects of medical experiments by Josef Mengele.

 

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From Auschwitz we went on to visit the nearby camp of Birkenau, a vast expanse with the skeletal remains of the many buildings, which had housed so many unfortunate victims. The descriptions of the vast numbers of people sharing small spaces, the lack of hygiene, food, water available, the terrible dehumanising treatment and deliberate cruelty vested upon so many, the disease and death and rats, the disposal of those who were deemed to be of no value, have stayed with us all, powerfully bringing a familiar history topic to life.

 

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Our next visit was to Schindler’s factory, now used as a museum about the war. We learned that Schindler too was a complex character, and had initially exploited the Jewish people who worked in his factory for his own financial benefit, as they had to work for no pay. Here our guide Cuba, known as “Jimmy”, reiterated the messages from the Auschwitz tour, that people are complex and we have to make sure what happened in the war is remembered, if we are to avoid it happening again.

 

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We learned about the Jewish ghetto, and how the Nazis put up a wall around it to enclose and segregate the Jewish people, with walls which mimicked Jewish tombs, representing that they were facing living death. Jewish people who could not work were exterminated, those who could work received no pay, and woefully small food rations, barely enough to stay alive. We also learned that when the Russians liberated Poland, they stayed and then oppressed the people; they killed three times as many people as the Nazis had done. Poland lived under a regime of oppression for decades. The final room of our tour was made of wax like a candle as a symbol of reflection, thought, prayer, hope; the walls are covered in grey writing, reflecting that life and people are complex and not black and white.

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We ended our day on a lighter note with an evening tour of the old city, accompanied by Jimmy.

 

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He showed us the building where Pope John-Paul II would lean out of the window and talk to people on his frequent visits to Krakow. John-Paul had been in Krakow during the war and had been educated in the secret underground schools, as education had been banned and all the teachers and lecturers taken to concentration camps; uneducated people were deemed to be easier to control. He had also had all his training and previous posts in the Catholic church in Krakow. Along the bank of the river we saw a statue of the Wawel dragon, symbol of Poland, and heard the legend of the how it was destroyed, its bones still on show at the cathedral.

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We ended in the main market square, by St Mary’s Basilica, where a bugle plays every hour, cut short to commemorate the bugle player who had been alerting the people of Krakow to the invasion of the Mongols in 1241, when he was shot in the throat as they besieged the city.

 

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It was an amazing trip with a really personal view of how Poland and its people are still deeply affected by World War ll and its aftermath. Krakow is a lively, beautiful city and makes, we found, incredible chocolate. The fantastic group of students on this trip quickly gelled into a cohesive and supportive group and showed great insight, intelligence and sensitivity to all that they experienced. Our visit into past events was powerful, upsetting, thought-provoking; we were all utterly absorbed, and conversations about the experience and implications for life today and in the future continued long after the visit.

 

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