On January 20th, 32 Year 13 Psychology students flew to Poland for a short but feature-packed trip to the beautiful city of Krakow. However, this was not a sightseeing trip; we were there to visit the Nazi concentration camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, which was the scene of horrific atrocities during WW2, witnessing the systematic execution of over 1 million people: a dark time in recent human history, known as the holocaust.
Friday in Poland began with a traditional Polish street food style lunch of Zapiekanka; a delicious open sandwich with a vast array of fillings to choose from. Our tour guide Monica, took us on a walking tour round the Jewish Quarter, Kaziemierz, who gave us an insight into what it would have been like as a Jewish person living in Nazi occupied Poland, having to hide in fear of being caught or being sent away from your home and family.
She revealed that 65,000 Jews from Kraków alone were killed in the Holocaust. The figures were damning, but the reality of the situation really hit the following day, when we stood in the grounds of the work and death camp, Auschwitz.
The tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau was insightful as much as it was harrowing. It was an experience we were grateful to have had as it’s important to try and understand why these sorts of events happen and how we can try to prevent them from occurring again. Piles of children’s shoes, locks of women’s hair and rows of black-and-white photographed faces, identified by numbers on striped pyjamas, stared back at us as we followed a tour guide. The three-dimensions of the memories of who stood there before brought home the shocking reality of just how many families were unjustly torn apart. We learnt of one man in particular who volunteered to take the place of another prisoner who had been sentenced to death, a selfless act of many in a camp that was so unforgiving. We looked into the links to social psychology, with theories of obedience and prejudice explaining how and why such a terrible thing may have occurred. In particular, we can look at agency theory, which explains that the Nazi soldiers became ‘agents’ to their superiors, and therefore did not feel responsibility for their actions. Another psychological factor is the identification of in-groups and out-groups, which leads to prejudice. As the Jewish population was so segregated and isolated from society, it was hard to view them as anything other than ‘the enemy’, despite no real motive.
As some light relief following on from the day’s events, we ventured into Kraków Old Town for some free time to explore the large market square, taking in the beautiful architecture and local stalls. The snow and cold weather added a magical edge to the city. Finally, a dinner of soup, chicken and potatoes and apple pie was served at a traditional Polish restaurant, and we retired to bed in good spirits.
Our final day was going to be harrowing – meeting a holocaust survivor. The lady we met talked about her experience of having lost her parents and been sent to a convent, before finally being adopted and given a new identity. Her parents had shown courage and self-sacrifice, risking everything to keep their 8 month old daughter safe. They had trusted their instincts to give their baby girl to a neighbour and bravely wrapped up a doll to take on their final journey to the death camps, as the German soldiers saw them as nothing more than numbers. She ended her piece by telling us all that she hopes we never feel sad, and related the wartime experiences to the current affairs of war and persecution in Ukraine. It was a very emotional experience, but also uplifting, as she had such a positive mindset which helped her cope with the sadness she had experienced and make peace with her past.
On the journey home on Sunday evening, we all reflected on just how much we had gained from this experience, and I think we can conclude that it was a trip that none of us will easily forget.
Róisín Hurley, Lizzie Green, Erin Leigh and Emily Sanders