A special report from Fakenham Sixth Form staff and students, with reflections on their recent trip to Berlin, linking back to last year's visit to Krakow, and the difficult and important lessons from the Holocaust.
Over the past six years Fakenham Sixth Form has taken 172 students to study one of the most tragic periods of the twentieth century, of human history. They have seen the the House of the Wannsee Conference, where the plan to exterminate those deemed ‘racially inferior’ was agreed upon. They have walked around the concentration camp of Sachsenhausen, the labour camp of Plaszow, the Ardeatine Caves of Rome and the extermination camp of Auschwitz Birkenau, where unspeakable crimes occured and many never brought to justice. Unfortunately, 172 is not the most important number here, it is the approximately 11,000,000 who were murdered and the countless millions that have, and continue still, to be affected even to this day.
It is important to recognise that these trips are not as pessimistic as they may seem. Not only have our students seen many amazing landmarks and places, such as the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag, the Colosseum, the Vatican and the Cloth Market that stands in the centre of Krakow, but life long friendships have been made and eyes opened to the good in the world. Last year one student lost their phone and through secure methods it was able to be returned. The person who found it was able to contact the student’s parent and (with Dr Burrows and I close at hand) arrange a public meet and return the phone. After what we as a group had been through that day, the kindness of humanity was able to shine through.
Below is a write of the trip by Adam Rivers as well as follow up piece by Sophie Brown, exploring what it is like to revisit the topic in a new setting one year one. Both pieces capture the emotions and experiences from the perspective our students. As with Krakow, Berlin is a wonderful city with so much culture and vibrancy so it is important to recognise this alongside the dark history due to only twelve years of Nazi dictatorship.
I would again like to thank so many people for making this happen. Mrs Higgins who is now a veteran of five trips and insists on the early departures, Mrs Hart and her impeccable timekeeping and Dr Burrows, who enables all of us to access the finer points and puts context and understanding to our experiences. I would also like to thank Ms Syer and Mr Cubitt who help with the organisation of these trips and are always on hand to help me with me requests, even those late in the day. To Catherine Stevenson, Jenny Barker and all at Study Trips who put together a great package. Finally, to the thirty three students who acted out of respect and dignity which made the trip so smooth.
Mr Eaves, Trip Leader
A Year On From Auschwitz
I am still surprised I said yes to Berlin. After visiting Krakow in March 2018, you would think my journey with the Holocaust was over. But, like the opportunity taker I am, I jumped at the chance. I thought it would be easy; after all, we weren’t visiting an extermination camp like Auschwitz-Birkenau. Surely after walking through the gas chambers in Poland I could face anything. Oh how naive I was.
I will be the first person to admit I was scarred by my experiences in Poland last year. So much so it has influenced my work at Sixth Form and my own personal writing. But, until a couple of weeks ago, these scars had healed and became a distant memory - one that no longer haunted me at times when I least expected it. I had no more tears, no more moments staring into nothing and no more bouts of silence that are so uncharacteristic for me. A year on, I learnt that it can take approximately three minutes for a year's worth of healing to be completely forgotten and those scars, which I thought had healed so well, to be gouged open again.
In my article last year I wrote about feeling ‘numb’ as the pain from the death of over six million people was ‘simply too overwhelming to comprehend’. I now comprehend. I understand the pain and not just from the death of six million innocent lives, but of the eleven million (civilians, P.O.W, homosexuals and other minority groups) who died due to the Nazi regime. I wish I felt ‘numb’ now. Instead, I now feel physically sick; a throbbing pain in the pit of my stomach and the tears, which were absent for so long, have returned.
How do you grieve for eleven million, innocent people who died before you were born, and you have only a small understanding of their pain?
I wish I knew.
When I told my family friends I was going to Berlin, they said to me not to mention the war. The dreaded N-word was definitely not to be used, even when talking about historical events. Under an hour into the trip I realised that the war and the Nazis are a central part of Berlin. You cannot escape the fact the Nazis rose to power, it is almost written into the very bricks of every building, or on the tips of everyone’s tongue. You cannot forget. Although this makes Berlin, much like Krakow, a city of ghosts, Berlin is so much more scarred than the Polish cultural hub. The majority of Berlin was either bombed by the Allies or demolished by the Nazis themselves, leaving very little of pre-WW2 Berlin standing. Furthermore, the iconic Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate - survivors of the war - have infamany due to their strong links to the Nazi Party. In fact, any buildings which survived the war will have some link to the Nazis. It is inescapable.
Berliners could have demolished everything that was left. But they didn’t. Although they are still rebuilding the capital today, and still find unexploded bombs when building a new apartment block, they aren’t trying to cover their past. Instead of demolishing the Reichstag, today it’s Germany’s parliamentary building. The Brandenburg Gate still stands tall and mighty. The Olympic stadium, where Hitler was notoriously pictured attending the 1936 games, is home to ‘Hertha BSC’ - one of Berlin’s football clubs. Even the SS run ‘Concentration Camps Inspectorate’ at Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp is now Berlin’s police training academy. More shockingly, air raid bunkers still fill the walls of the metro stations, doors open to reveal miles of caverns, all of which were once filled with scared, innocent people. It’s a world away from Harry Potter.
Last year it was Płaszów which touched me. This year it was the ‘Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe’, a beautifully fitting sculpture in the centre of Berlin (again making it unavoidable). Walking through the maze of what may be interpreted as tomb stones really hit me; the weight of the concrete fell onto my shoulders. This is an experience I will forever have to carry, something I accept. It is a small mercy in comparison to the plight of those the memorial commemorates.
Krakow had no shame and could hide their scars. Berlin with all it’s shame, instead of covering sixty years of established history, wears their scars - not with pride - but with acceptance. For that I honour them; it takes courage to admit to and apologise for mistakes, yet it takes something more powerful to bare your scars to ensure history does not repeat itself. This is exactly what the amazing historians we met aim to do and, ultimately, was the whole point of the trip: to stop history repeating itself.
But it has, and will continue to do so. Prior to the trip I decided to do a little extra reading with the aim to fuel, not only my understanding, but my creativity. As a writer, there is nothing I believe in more than using my words for good. I wanted to understand what possessed fifteen men - before breakfast, in ninety minutes - to decide to systematically kill six million people. I also wanted to find out if this has happened again; I am sad to report it has. Different times, different wars, same story. From Auschwitz in Poland and Sachsenhausen in Germany to Con Dao in Vietnam; Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and Omarska in Bosnia; history is still repeating itself today. I was disgusted after everything to find minorities still being persecuted for being just that: a minority. Of course, not everyone is innocent in such places as these, I fully understand that; but I can assure you many are just as innocent as you and I.
This was meant to be an article about my experience over four days, but if I wrote about just those four days I wouldn’t be writing the whole story. The Holocaust and Nazi Reign only lasted for a few decades; but we still see acts of anti-semitism, islamophobia and groups of Neo-Nazis today. From hate crimes at Sachsenhausen to the Charlottesville riots to the accusations of within the Labour and Conservative Party’s, it is still not over; it is just the tip of the iceberg. So many more minorities are being persecuted every single day.
But why is it our problem? We are just a group of Sixth Formers and I’m just an eighteen year old white girl, why’s it my problem? I’m not being persecuted; as far as privileges go, I’m near the top of the list.
That’s why it’s my problem. I have the privilege of freedom of speech and a voice which I can ensure will be heard. I vow to try and make a change, no matter how small. If there is one thing these trips have taught me, it’s that humanity is truly the most amazing thing. As cheesy as it sounds, together we really can achieve anything.
Sophie, Sixth Form Student
During the early hours of Thursday 7th March, 33 Students accompanied by three teachers and our excellent ‘tour guide’ Mr Eaves travelled to Berlin. While in the capital of Germany, we experienced a culture rich in History and a public enthusiasm for ‘Currywurst’ (which I did not share).
On our first day we visited ‘Checkpoint Charlie’, the former border crossing between East and West Berlin (1963-1991) where we learnt about the victims of the city’s division and had just begun to learn about the tragedy embedded in Berlin’s history. We then walked a short distance to the ‘Topography of terror’ which is situated where the old ‘Gestapo and SS headquarters’ was during the ‘Third Reich’. In its place stands a modern exhibit which explains the ‘terror tactics’ of the Nazi Government, the exhibit described the range of atrocities committed by the Nazis. That evening our tour guide ‘Herr Eaves’ gave us a nighttime tour of Berlin where we visited the Reichstag (the German Parliament building), the Brandenburg gate and the memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe. The memorial is a symbolic monument located in the centre of the city, which has no definite meaning, but in the dark it appeared like a graveyard; creating an atmosphere frightening enough to scare some members of our party…
The next day we visited the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen, where we saw a different type of graveyard, as although Sachsenhausen was a concentration camp, tens of thousands of prisoners were either executed or worked to death within the compound. This was the most difficult visit, as it forced us to view the physical consequences of the Nazi regime; we were no longer talking about stories of hardship to question ‘how an omnibenevolent God could allow this’ for a Philosophy and Ethics exam or figures in textbooks for our History course, we had to remember these were real people who were forced into horrible conditions. Not fiction. In the afternoon, we visited the ‘Berlin Wall Documentation Centre’, where we received a tour of the Berlin Wall and discovered more about its evolution, its victims and why it was built.
On Saturday, we revisited the ‘Memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe’ where our tour guide spoke about the possible meanings of the monument. Afterwards we went beneath the memorial where an exhibit dedicated to the Jews, details the horrors they suffered and provides names and faces to the collective group. In the afternoon we travelled to the ‘Wannsee Conference house’ where the Nazis finally made the decision on how to deal with their biggest issue; the Jewish question . That evening, we revisited the Reichstag, however this time we went inside and climbed to the top of the building which holds a beautiful view of the city, especially at night.
On the Final day, we ventured to the 1936 ‘Olympic stadium’ and discussed how the whole world was misled by the Nazi ‘Theatre of politics’, as the olympic games were a distraction for the construction of the sinister Sachsenhausen concentration camp. We also went beneath the city into a World War two bunker featuring antiques such as; board games, weapons and war related objects which had been adapted into household items (like a helmet made into a colander).
After four days, crammed with history, philosophy and (lots of) walking we returned home completely exhausted Monday morning. Berlin has a tragic history but the modern city is even more admirable after you understand it’s past and what it has overcome. However, you may wonder why the country keeps so many constant reminders of the horrors of its past but these serve as moral reminders for people to consider their actions and to make sure to never repeat the past.
Adam, Sixth Form Student