“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” G. Santayana.
Last Monday, at a very early hour, 39 boys and 4 members of staff met at school to begin Verulam’s inaugural Holocaust Education trip to Poland. It was to be a trip that will not easily be forgotten by any of its participants.
Once we had arrived in Poland we started with a visit to the former Jewish quarter of Kazimierz. There had been a Jewish community in this area of Poland for around 400 years and a chance to visit the Remuh Synagogue was not to be missed. A very small building it nonetheless has centuries of history and, after the atrocities of the Nazi occupation and desecration of the area, has returned to being a place of worship once again. On Monday we also visited the site of the wartime ghetto in Podgorze. Today the square has a memorial of 39 empty chairs which symbolise the three clearings of the ghetto. Those forced to work outside the ghetto would return to find that members of their family had been sent away, leaving empty chairs behind.
Tuesday morning also started early, we were on the coach by 05:50 on our way to a full day study visit at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Museum. If a single word can epitomise evil, perhaps it is ‘Auschwitz’: near the small Polish town of Oświęcim where around 1.1 million people were murdered as the Nazis’ Final Solution reached its terrible zenith. This day will, in the words of some of the boys who were there, stay with them forever. It is a difficult place to visit and there were many different feelings and responses from the group. Some commented that it was like the place had been frozen in time, others felt that they had not appreciated quite how big the complex was. For some the things that will remain in their minds are the collections of possessions that were found when the camp was liberated in 1945, for others it was the fact that more people were killed in a gas chamber at any one time than there are students at Verulam.
We took the time at the end of our visit at Birkenau to remember the victims of the Holocaust. We gathered around one of the Pits of Ashes and lit a candle, heard two readings and paused, in silence, to remember. One of the readings was a poem written by Sylvan Kamens and Rabbi Jack Riemer.
On our final day, we visited the infamous Plaszow labour camp just outside Krakow (this is the camp that is depicted in the film Schidler’s List) and a visit to Oscar Schindler’s factory in Krakow itself. The factory is now a museum to life in Krakow before, during and after the events of World War Two and, for some, the images of the Nazi flag were a difficult thing to see.
This trip was organised as part of Verulam’s ongoing commitment to Holocaust Education. We are proud of our status as a Holocaust Beacon School and we hope that this trip is one of many to come.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank all the boys and staff who came on the trip. Although a tough few days it was a trip that will stay with us all for a very long time. I said to the boys as we returned that I was very proud of them and I reiterate that here. They were true ambassadors of their school and to witness these young men as they explored the horrors of the past was a great privilege.