06 September 2023 • 12 Mins Read

Krakow Experience by Student Dominic Hancock

Mr Eaves, at Fakenham Academy, knows only too well that a trip to Krakow to study the events of the WWII is not for everyone. He was pleasantly surprised when 63 students decided they wanted to embark the trip. Whilst Krakow is a beautiful city, it is also important to recognise the dark history of its Nazi occupation. Here Dominic Hancock, a student on the trip, shares his experiences. It’s clear, from the way in which he writes with such passion and clarity, just what impact the trip had.

Thursday 15th March: The Journey begins

We greeted our 3am departure time the only way we could, yawns, bleary eyes, and a shared anticipation for what awaited us. Herded onto the bus our collective journey to Luton airport and from there, our flight to the cultural Polish capital of Krakow seemed to pass in no time at all. Driving to our hotel, we caught our first real sight of the land unknown to all of us. It seemed as if the land itself was dulled, heavy cloud blocking the light, a collective silence as if still in mourning for those whose lives we would come to know, and the atrocities they suffered which we could not even begin to truly understand.

The day brightened as, after the excitement of assigning rooms had worn off, we ventured out to the beautiful Plaza which we would grow to know in detail and love over the next couple of days. A short tram ride brought us to the historic cloth market and looming clock tower, which rose above all that surrounded it, seemingly sharing it’s beauty with the entire city. A small chance to explore the surrounding area, saw our perceptions of Krakow to become infinitely positive. It carried the inescapable bustling energy of life and culture wherever you went. Our collective will to explore more was only held by our first encounter with the history we had come to immerse ourselves in.

There was not much left of Plaszow concentration camp the local community seeing doing it’s best to normalise the area: a man walking his dog, a mother pushing a pram, a couple holding hands. Nevertheless, the place still carried the scars off it’s past. Tunnels mined into the sides of hills by people denied their own humanity, huge billboards marking buildings, events and dates and over it all, the shadow of the “white house”, townhouse, centre of operations and torture chamber rolled into one. Silently we walked from notice to notice, attempting as best we could to picture what was described.

Many aspects of the trip will resonate with me for the rest of my life, but none more so than a quote from an unnamed child to his mother. When faced with a firing squad, the child was said to have turned to his mother and whisper “mother, does death hurt?” to which his mother sobbed in return “only for a moment”. This would have been bad enough if we didn’t discover that stories such as this were not unique. They could occur at any time, with no word of a warning, to anyone, keeping the prisoners in a perpetual state of psychological torment. Deeper into the clearing, a huge stone monument stood proud, looking away from the camp towards the horizon and over the motorway.

It stood as a symbol of rebellion against fascism, but I couldn’t help wonder how many people that would drive past on that day knew this, knew the history of these people and events. Or maybe they dealt with it in another way. We were barely able to know Krakow, and we were already not the same people we were when we had arrived just six hours previously. 

Friday 16th: Shoes, Hair and Pans

It was the second day, however, which would prove to be the true test of our resolve. Our congregation dwelled in a collective silence on the coach journey to Auschwitz. None of us dared to speak, instead, we spent the time attempting to prepare ourselves for what awaited us. The day was bitterly cold and rained continuously whilst we were there, standing in line waiting for our guide to hand us the headsets that would allow us to hear him as clearly as possible. Two worlds stood next to one another, on reflecting aspects of the modern world; a visitor’s centre, drinks machine and snack shop. But when we walked through security, it was like walking into the past, the headphones blocking out all other noise so all that was left was the guides voice and your own thoughts.

We walked, trying to take in as much as possible, passing trenches and empty rooms which trying to picture them playing host to those who orchestrated perhaps the most infamous genocide in human history. The exhibits began as photos and accounts, not dissimilar to those found at Plaszow, tales of loss and tragedy displayed on the walls for all to see. Though these were powerful they felt muted, second hand accounts of people whose experiences we could never hope to understand. But then came the photos and glass cabinets. The photos were of prisoners at Auschwitz, including their name, occupation and birth date below.

Looking into these faces we came to truly understand the normality of these people’s lives, lawyers, blacksmiths and typists, old and young, all ripped from the known and pushed into a world of constant fear and uncertainty. This was followed the glass cabinets, each containing a certain item taken from the prisoners and with them, in the eyes of their captors, their identities. Suitcases with the name tags still on them, shoes of all sizes and worst of all, a collection of human hair filling the cabinet, identity upon identity piled on top of one another, indistinguishable.

When the tour was over, we had a short bus drive to Auschwitz Two, Birkenau. Each step felt as if had already been taken deeper into a horrific demise. The twin railway tracks flanked us as we moved to the remnants of the gas chambers, disused and decrepit. Silence fell again as we processed what we were seeing; guard towers, barbed wire and concrete laid out in a regimented order covering every inch of the camp. The gas chambers themselves, or what was left of them barely stood, broken and pathetic, burned from their destruction by allied forces. That day, I believe, will stay with every student in that group for the rest of their lives, acting as a constant reminder to remember those who suffered at the hands of this atrocity, but also to be thankful for the freedom we are allowed to live under.

Saturday 17th: Survival

Our penultimate day in Krakow began in brighter fashion than the day before, with a historical walking tour of Krakow, including its vibrant Jewish quarter. Considering the aspect of Jewish history that we had been focusing, the beautiful and colourful Jewish quarter acted as a great contrast. Its synagogues and picturesque apartment blocks allowed a feeling of relief and inclusion to rise within the group and, despite the bitter cold, we managed to enjoy this journey through history. Furthermore, the city’s main church proved almost too beautiful for words, its decorative murals and golden statues rising to the rafters inspiring awe and inspiration.

Finally, we returned to the tourist centre where we were able to regain feeling in our hands as well as read up on several items of Holocaust based literature. One such piece of literature included Dr Victor E Frankl’s “man’s search for meaning”, describing his experience as a Holocaust survivor. One account that stays with me is his description of stronger inmates gifting their last scrap of food to those who were weaker. It was a testament, just like the beautiful churches and buildings found throughout the city of Krakow, to humanity and how, no matter what atrocities a person may have suffered the choice to be human, civil and kind will always prevail.

After this we were guided through a history of Jews from Krakow and their experiences, taken from their homes, bribed, deceived or simply forced. It put into perspective just how far the city had come from the atrocities it suffered through. Finally, we were given the incredible experience of meeting Holocaust survivor, Ms Rena Rech, and hearing her story. Adopted by a Christian couple, she found herself torn between her Jewish heritage and Christian parenthood all whilst trying to escape from Nazi oppression. Her story was one of strength, and a testament to human resilience in the face of danger. 

Sunday 18th: Return

Krakow greeted us with a typically chilly yet bright day. The group split, some choosing to enjoy the historic cloth market one last time whilst the rest elected to visit to the site of Oskar Schindler’s factory where he worked to save multiple Jews by giving them work in his factory thus keeping them out of the concentration camps. The museum was less focused on the factory and Schindler’s work rather how the city of Krakow was affected as well as individual accounts of events that made such an impact. These included an eight-year-old Roman Polanski’s accounts of the reducing of the Jewish ghettos boundaries as well of historical accounts of how the physical landscape changed under Nazi rule.

It also told the stories of minor rebellions which sought to counteract the Nazi oppression. Such acts included the stealing of the head and shield of a statue the Nazi’s had deemed to be insulting to their culture and cut down. Though they were small, this rebellion ensured that the city did not lose the sense of place that was so viciously being ripped away from it.

And so we left Krakow, a city that may have seen some of the worst events in human history, but still managed to be steeped in culture and joy. Journeying back, we were in a sullen silence that allowed our tired minds time to contemplate what we had seen in the past three days. We were different people than those who left that greeted our beds that night. We are different people that walk around today. And we will continue to carry the lessons we have taken from this trip throughout the rest of our lives.           

Dominic Hancock
Student at Fakenham Academy

Find out what a Krakow School Trip looks like

If you're interested in learning about the educational past of Krakow, take a look at the range of Krakow trips on offer and how these can be tailored to your subject.