Learning from the Holocaust

During half term a group of L5, M5, U5 and L6 girls visited Poland to reflect on and examine lessons of the Holocaust.

Sophie Toland English teacher and housemistress of Earlsdown writes: Today, Krakow, the former capital of Poland, stands as a flourishing centre of tourism and academic development that could not be more polarised from its decades of association with Nazi oppression and the horrors of the Holocaust. Visitors are greeted with a Krakow only too willing to unveil its layered identity; a trip to this multifaceted region offers a most uncompromising lesson in history for us all.

Much of our time in Poland was spent in the city of Krakow, itself a testament to the region’s changing fortunes and current sense of vitality. Each district of this beautiful town had its own unique sense of place and identity. Wawel Castle is the historic heart of the Polish monarchy, and many of its kings lie in the adjacent cathedral. Kazimierz, which lies to the south, was once a town in its own right. With its labyrinthine streets and low-standing houses, Kazimierz was once the heart of Jewish life in Krakow. The town was founded in 1335 by King Kazimierz the Great, and as its splendid churches and synagogues evoke, it was once a world of prosperity and tolerance. On our walking tour we discovered the oldest synagogue in Kazimierz, Remuh, and it allowed us to contextualise the very nature of Judaism in Poland. The cemetery pays tribute to some of the great Polish representatives of Jewish faith and the boundary wall, made of gravestones destroyed during the Second World War, serves as a stark reminder of the shadows of Jewish history in the country.

The Krakow ghetto was established in early March 1941. The Germans had expelled thousands of Jews from Krakow by this time, but about 15,000 remained in the city. Several German factories in the ghetto used Jewish forced labour, and some Jews also worked at non-Jewish businesses outside the ghetto. Oskar Schindler’s enamel factory was one such business. During our time in this area we visited the exterior of Schindler’s factory as well as the surviving façade of the ghetto itself. 70 steel and cast iron chairs mark the quarter’s square acting as a reminder of absence and the uniformity of Nazi persecution; anyone could have been a victim.

Although the focus of our visit centred on the past, there is a strong sense that Krakow is looking to the future. We were shown a small alley where there was a blend of derelict and renovated housing; a testament to the renaissance of Krakow and, in particular, Kazimierz.

"Auschwitz shaped my life, it was all my teenage years, it was my complete education, my university."  Kitty Hart-Moxon

A symbol of suffering and the atrocities of war, Auschwitz has become one of the most widely visited UNESCO sites, and one that conjures a wide range of emotions and responses. The Holocaust has been widely documented but it is not the hunt for facts and figures that prompts people to visit the spot where over a million people perished. The physical act of being in a place where such atrocities occurred demands a reply so entirely different from anything that has been asked of us before. It is certainly not an easy experience; you are confronted with the inescapable truth and reality of what humans are capable of. It is a painful but completely necessary process. The haunting image of cabinets filled with children’s shoes is a lasting one and for this we should be grateful; Auschwitz still has much to teach us.



"The lessons of the Holocaust are simple to understand, however hard they are to live. Never blame others for your troubles. A society is as large as the space it makes for the stranger. Cherish life. Fight for the rights of others." Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

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