Glasgow and Lanarkshire ACF visit Auschwitz

3 May 2013

"ARBEIT MACHT FREI" (Work will set you free). The slogan displayed above the main entrance to Auschwitz death camp in Poland. However as a group of cadets and CFAV’s from Glasgow & Lanarkshire Battalion learned on their recent visit to the camp, this statement couldn’t be any further from the truth.

In April 2012 the Battalion began its first ever Holocaust Poland project. The project which was the brainchild of the battalion’s assistant training officer Captain Darren Hughes was created after Darren had watched a documentary about the camp on television.

Instantly Captain Hughes realised that this was an area that cadets and adults alike should know more about and so he created the project. Wanting it to be more than just a visit to Poland, Captain Hughes set about creating four individual workbooks which the cadets and CFAV’s would study and complete over a 12 month period. These workbooks spanned a variety of topics in relation to the holocaust such as: - The history of WWII, The history of Auschwitz/Birkenau camps, the history of Oskar Schindler and the history of Krakow.

As part of the workbooks, the cadets and CFAV’s were required to answer a number of questions, research family members from WWII and the part they played, write essays and compile power point presentations on each topic. They were given around 2 months to complete each workbook.

As well as completing the workbooks and carrying out the research the participants worked extremely hard on the fundraising front carrying our numerous supermarket bag packing events both for the fund and for local charities, holding fundraising evenings and even abseiling 100 ft from a tower all in aid of the project.

After the workbooks had been completed, the 21 cadets and 5 CFAV’s embarked on a 4 day educational visit to Krakow in April 2013 where they would visualise their previous studies.

Day 1 got off to an early start, in fact not many slept at all. The participants spent the night at the Battalions training centre before leaving at 0400 hours to travel to Edinburgh airport for the flight to Krakow.

After landing in Krakow, the group were met by their local guide who escorted them to their hotel, their base for the next 3 days.

After quickly dropping the luggage into the rooms it was time for a walking tour of the Old Jewish district of Krakow. During the tour the participants had the opportunity of standing at various locations used in the 1993 Steven Spielberg classic, Schindlers list which they had watched the night previous. The group also visited a local synagogue where the males had to don a Kippah skullcap as a symbol of respect.

From there the group walked around Krakow visiting the former ghettos and other places of interest as highlighted by the guide.

The group then visited the Oskar Schindler factory which has now been transformed into a museum providing great detail of war time Krakow and Oskar himself. As the group entered the factory, Captain Hughes was stopped by a female from Israeli radio who wished to know more about the Poland project which the group were displaying on their jackets. After briefing her on the project, the female requested Captain Hughes gave her a radio interview about the project, which he did, highlighting the project not only in the UK but as far away as Israel.

After evening meal it was diary time and group discussion before retiring to bed for a well earned rest.

Day 2 was a visit to Wieliczka salt mine, a UNESCO world heritage site which sits to the South East of Krakow. On arrival the group were provided with headsets by the guide before descending 135m down 54 flights of stairs into the depths of the mine. The mine which worked for 900 years, used to be one of the world’s biggest and most profitable industrial establishments when rock salt was a medieval equivalent of today’s oil. The mine itself is a maze of underground chambers and currently has 2040 chambers secreted within its 200km of passages. The tour which takes around 2 hours to complete only visits 20 of these chambers, which gives you an idea of the scale of the mine.

One of the most beautiful sites of the mine is the Chapel of Saint Kinga. The chapel which is the largest underground chapel in the mine is actually a sizeable subterranean church carved in rock salt and embellished with salty structures such as a statue of Pope John Paul II who previously visited the mine.

During the tour four of the cadets where challenged by the guide to try their hands at raising a bucket of salt using a winch which had been used by the miners years previous. After a hard slog the cadets managed to succeed and were paid their salaries in rock salt for their hardwork which was the case many years ago, when salt was known as white gold.

To mark their visit to the salt mine, the group had their photograph taken inside the chapel of Saint Kinga.

After the visit it was free time to explore Krakow itself.

Day 3 was going to be the hardest and most emotional day of the visit. Each member of the group knew this and had been briefed in advance. This was the visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau camps.

During the bus journey, the tour guide played a DVD which highlighted some of the terrible atrocities which occurred in both camps, showing graphic images of torture and even death. Having carried out the research previously into these crimes, the group were in a better position to understand the goings on within the camps.

After arriving and being provided with headsets, the group entered Auschwitz through a reception block which was were prisoners of the camp would shower on their arrival.

Immediately the slogan 'ARBEIT MACHT FREI' greets you luring you into a false sense of security, however these poor prisoners couldn’t have known that at the time. Instantly you could only imagine the chaos and distress which must have been felt all those years ago.

During the tour the group was informed that the camp itself was previously a Polish Army barracks before it had been forced from them by the Germans.

As the tour progressed the group entered the first building, building number 4 which provided an overview and history of the camp. This was the first eye opener to the group of just how many innocent men, women and children were brutally murdered at these camps.

The second building we entered was building 5, this building housed bundles of human hair, shoes, pairs of glasses, pots and pans, luggage with its owners details written on the side and bundles of clothing, which included children’s clothing. As a mark of respect no photographs could be taken in certain parts of this building. This was the building which really hit home with some members of group and in particular the children’s clothing display. It was fair to say that this was a really emotional and poignant time for the group, who all stood in silence gathering their thoughts.

After making our way through other camp buildings we arrived at block 11. This was the first block used to torture, imprison and kill the prisoners and it had been left untouched for the visitors to witness first hand.

The building had a real eerie feel to it and despite thousands of visitors passing through it on a daily basis, it remained silent. The group could only imagine the terrible suffering which occurred within this building. Building 11 was known as the camp prison. This is where prisoners were tried by the SS guards in the Gestapo summary court and sentenced to a variety of punishments which included hanging, starvation, death by firing squad and so on.

In the basement of the building is where a number of prison cells are located. It was within one of these cells that Father Maximilian Kolbe, a polish priest, was left to die of starvation, after he volunteered to take the place of a condemned polish political prisoner. Father Kolbe’s cell remains exactly as it did and was visited by Pope John Paul II in 1979 were a mass was said by the Pope.

As mentioned earlier a number of prisoners were sentenced to death by the Gestapo by firing squad. Situated in the courtyard between buildings 10 & 11 is the Black Wall. This is the wall which was used in the murders of many prisoners at Auschwitz 1. The black wall was so called as it was constructed by the Nazis. It was a portable wall made from logs, covered in cork and painted black. The purpose of the black wall was to protect the wall behind it from bullet holes.

On leaving building 11 we walked to the only remaining gas chamber within Auschwitz 1. It was a surreal moment, knowing so many innocent people had lost their lives in that exact spot only 70 years ago. The furnaces used to burn the bodies were still present and the room was black due to the heat and flames, this truly brought it home to every member of the group. On looking up to the roof you could clearly see the hatch were the zyklon b gas was poured in, gassing the occupants to death.

On leaving Auschwitz 1 we travelled a short distance by bus to Birkenau camp also known as Auschwitz II. On arrival the group immediately recognised the tower structure with the railway line running underneath.

There isn’t much left of this camp as when the Nazis knew they were losing the war they decided to demolish most of the camp in order to hide their horrendous crimes; however their attempts were pretty unsuccessful.

Probably the most poignant moment of Birkenau was standing on the railway platform, exactly where hundreds of thousands of prisoners stood awaiting their fate as they arrived at the camp by cattle train.

Women and children were automatically sent to the left, keeping them together to avoid panic. Of those male prisoners, those who were deemed fit to work were sent right and into the camp, those deemed too young or unfit to work were sent straight ahead. Only those sent into the camp survived that day, those men women and children sent away from the camp lost their lives in one of 6 gas chambers and crematoria situated at the end of the long road leading from the platform.

There is now a monument situated at this site which gave the group time to stand and reflect on their own thoughts and feelings whilst paying tribute in their own way to those murdered at both camps.

The group were then taken to an accommodation hut where they observed make shift bunk beds which would sleep 9 prisoners on each crammed in like sardines. Adjacent to the accommodation was the toilet block, large lines of concrete with holes cut out which the prisoners used as toilets. The sanitary conditions were deplorable and it is no coincidence that many of the prisoners suffered from terrible illness due to this.

After the tour the group visited the bookshop where they purchased books and DVD’s as a poignant reminder of their visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau camps.

It was then back to the hotel for some group discussion about the day’s events before packing and heading for the airport the next morning.

Captain Darren Hughes, the officer in charge of the project said:

"From sitting watching a documentary one afternoon in the house, this project has manifested itself into an exceptional educational package for the Army Cadet Force. The cadets who took part in the project all kept a diary of their visit to Poland. It brings a tear to my eye every time I read their entries knowing just how much of an impact this project has had on their individual lives. I must thank the external organisations who provided us with some much needed funding to allow this project to go ahead. I think it’s fair to say that this project has been the most significant and enjoyable thing I have ever done in my 20 years within the ACF.

"One thing which will always stick in my mind is a sign which I seen at Auschwitz, the sign says 'The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again' George Santayana.

"This to me sums up the project perfectly and as such I plan to run the same project next year for another 21 cadets to experience".