An Account of the SHS Trip to Poland
49 students from Stamford High School visited Krakow and Auschwitz as part of the annual trip to Poland which has been running for the past 7 years. Once again the trip was a challenging cultural visit which revealed a profound sense of our common human nature in all its wonderful resilience in the face of depravity.
When the students arrived in Krakow they joined the queue to visit the Salt Mines, listed by UNESCO as one of the top twelve places to visit in the world. Salt made Krakow rich in the days before refrigeration. The group walked deep into the mines and were encouraged to taste the salty walls which were excavated in order to provide salt for preserving food for the best part of six hundred years, though these mines are unusual for the amazing sculptures crafted by the miners. This helped everyone to settle in to being in Poland and, after a meal at the hotel, Steve helped prepare us for our experiences on the Sunday when we travelled from Krakow to Auschwitz. The town existed as a mainline station in its own right before its painful rebranding.
We were led by Marek, a Polish guide, at Auschwitz 1. The entrance is well-known, adorned with the lie "ARBEIT MACHT FREI"- Work brings freedom. For thousands it didn't, but this camp, although equipped with gas chambers, firing squads and torture cells was a former barracks so is compact and today less threatening than Auschwitz 2, better known as Auschwitz-Birkenau. The latter was designed as an extermination camp and was still being enlarged when it was liberated. The crematoria, which now sit half-demolished, were blown up by the Nazis as an attempt to disguise their activities once they realised the war was lost. The sheer scale of this despicable enterprise is more apparent here.
In the evening we ate in a traditional Jewish restaurant in the Jewish quarter near to the one remaining working synagogue in Krakow. Before the war there were 68,000 Jews living in Krakow- there are now 120.
On the Monday, the students traced the story of the Jewish community in Krakow. They saw the ghetto where Jewish people were forced to live with little space, few of their possessions and little chance of long term survival. Then we visited the remaining working synagogue. In its grounds is what is known as the Second Wailing Wall. The first Wailing Wall is the remaining wall of the Jerusalem temple. Jewish people who pray there leave prayers in the wall. The students were encouraged to do the same in this wall which is made of descrated grave stones; the Nazis smashed Jewish gravestones as mark of disrepect and Jewish survivors preserved these as a memory.
Then they moved on to what is always the most moving part of the visit to Poland- hearing a Holocaust survivor, Lidia Maksymowicz. Lidia, originally from Belarus and now aged 73, was a small child when she was separated from her mother in 1943, aged 3. She knows her younger sister was shot on arrival at Auschwitz. Lidia was put in a children's barrack in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Before long Lidia forgot her first language because she only heard German. She survived partly by receiving food from her mother and partly because she was allocated to Mengele for experimentation. She said she learnt to hide from the Angel of Death (Mengele) because since the children could not work they were usually preserved for other practices. Drops were put in her eyes which meant she couldn't see for many days. She discovered later that they were attempting to make a drug to alter eye colour. She developed painful sores on her hands and she realised that some children did not ever return from the hospital barracks. With hindsight, Lidia regards herself as having been lucky for her parents both survived the war (her father was a soldier in the Russian army) and nearby residents of the local town managed to get food to some of the camp prisoners. Also, many mothers died of typhus but Lidia's mother survived and while near Lidia was also able to find food for her.
The next gruelling stage of Lidia's life came months before the Russians liberated the camp. The children were made to stand for hours on end during roll calls. Lidia said their bodies started to shut down and they began to lose their sense of hunger and the cold. Indeed, they became unaware of themselves and lost all sense of their emotions. After a number of months, Lidia ceased to care about her mother or food and like many others became numb to her reality. She spent her time sitting silently, rocking back and forth on her shared bunk bed with absolutely nothing to do. Meanwhile, Lidia's mother was taken away on a death march. Before she left, her mother told her to remember who she was and to remember her mother and father. She wanted her to regard herself as more than the number the Nazis had tattooed on her forearm - a tattoo she still has.
When the Russians liberated the camp in January 1945 they gave out bread with butter and coffee with milk which Lidia described as her best meal ever. At that stage too, outsiders came to see the camp. The outsiders knew of the smoke and the smell of burning flesh. Now they witnessed corpses which had not been fully incinerated before the Nazis evacuated the camp. Lidia found out later that she had been imprisoned for being a political prisoner even though she was aged three. While it was clear that many locals were unaware of what had been happening, others clearly knew precisely. Indeed, local businessmen had put in tenders for providing cremation ovens and for building the huts and barracks. These people may not actually have directly killed anyone but they did nothing to stop it, presumably because they feared for their own lives if they chose to work against the Nazis.
Catholic priests persuaded families to take care of the children to prevent them from dying. Lidia was looked after by one of these families. Initially, she found living in a normal household with a bath and clean sheets traumatic. She said little but kept asking if Mr Mengele was coming and if they had any barking guard dogs. Lidia remained ill for sixth months but was nurtured back to health, recovering from diarrhoea, lice infestation, tuberculosis and frostbite. Once she was well, she was allowed to go out to play in the nearby streets but she did not know how to play. She could only instruct other children to "go to the left" or "to the right." Her only game was enacting the murderous selection process she witnessed in the camp. At this stage, she remained a child from nowhere but was adopted by a family and took their name. They estimated the date of her birth. Lidia was given documents to say that she was now a proud citizen of Poland but was by then embarrassed by her tattooed number and did not ever want people to feel sorry for her.
As she entered young adulthood, her friends had asked her if she was curious about her natural parents. Although happy in her new family, she was indeed curious to know her roots and contacted various agencies which had been set up to trace relatives who were missing or perhaps dead. At first she was told her mother was dead because it was thought she was in a photograph of a group of Jewish people who were believed to have perished. However, after three years of communicating with these agencies, they discovered that both of her parents were alive. By now it was 1963 and Lidia had not seen her mother for almost twenty years. Lidia could not understand how her mother could be alive and yet had not attempted to trace her. Apparently, there had also been correspondence with the agencies from her mother, but it was difficult to link this to Lidia because of Lidia's age- she knew too few details about her mother to make a definite connection with her. Lidia became yet more confused when her case was televised and yet still her mother did not make contact. Lidia's case was complicated by the fact that she was from Belarus, not Poland. However, the authorities worked to speed up the process because the Russians wanted to use this example as Communist propaganda. It was extremely rare for children to be reunited with their parents so long after the war. Lidia was tracked by journalists for two days before she was able to meet her mother. It became apparent that the process of reuniting mother and daughter had taken so long because the agency was in Hamburg in Capitalist West Germany while Lidia's mother was from the Communist East and was by then living in Russia. Lidia was looked after by the Russian government and taught about her home town of Polotsk which today is in Belarus. Nowadays, she speaks to audiences in Poland and Germany about her experiences Lidia decided to stay in Poland where she lives today, but not in Krakow.
The Year 10s asked a number of questions. One of these was, "Can you forgive the Nazis?" Lidia replied, "I forgive for myself, so I feel better but I will never forget and do not want you to do so. She urged us to appreciate what we have for it can change so quickly, and to be successful. Finally, Lidia advocated the need for good mental health for physical health did not guarantee survival in Auschwitz; only those with good mental health could cope with what they saw around them. She had clearly come to rely on a religious faith for she thanked God for looking after her and her mother. Lidia said too that they coped just by getting on with life - she had no choice and did what instinct told her to do.
In thanking Lidia, Mr Gale said we would ensure that her story continues to be told. I hope I have played a part in this.
This was indeed a remarkable trip which I would recommend to everyone. That said, for those who do not feel drawn to go, I can understand their reservations. It is deeply unnerving to see more clearly what our common human nature can entail. However, there were also heroes like the prisoner Father Maximilian Kolbe, whose cell was in Auschwitz 1. He selflessly gave up his life for another prisoner by dying in his place. We must also remember these astonishing people and their capacity to be altruistic in the face of such a monstrous regime.
Written by Andrew Cox, Head of Philosophy and Ethics.