The Auschwitz-Krakow Field Trip 2018: HIS1001 & HIS3010

Activity: Participating in or organising an event typesParticipation in workshop, seminar, course


HAPP UG Auschwitz/Kraków Field Trip, 17-20 May 2018

This trip was offered to students in good standing, enrolled in the Level One module History and Historians and the Level Three module The Second World War in Europe. Twelve students travelled, accompanied Dr Kowalsky on a four-day, three-night excursion to southern Poland. This field trip gave students an opportunity to enhance their campus education with a varied tour of important medieval and modern historical sites in and around Kraków, the highlight of which was a full day spent at German-Nazi concentration camp complex at Auschwitz/Birkenau.

Advance Preparations

Prior to travel, students met with the tutor several times where a primer on foreign travel and Polish customs was presented. The tutor handed out required reading material as well, and students were expected to have read this prior to the trip. For some students, this was their first time out of the country without their parents. One lad did not have a passport prior to this trip, and got one especially for this occasion. The tutor, in fact, helped him do that. To facilitate communications, a WhatsApp network was set up for everyone attending the trip, including the tutor. This allowed us to stay in touch in advance of the trip and while we were in Poland.

Thursday 17 May

All students flew together from Belfast International Airport to Kraków. The tutor installed them in the Hostel Centrum Sabot, located just opposite the old market on Ul Kleparski, settled them into the dorms, then eventually set out in small groups to see the town and grab some dinner. A few students visited museums or churches, including the history museum not far from the hostel. The tutor provided a tour of the nearby market and showed the students how Poles like to shop for vegetables and fruit, just as they have for centuries. Many students picked up supplies for the excursion on Friday.

Friday 18 May

Today, we left early for the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, arriving back home late in the day. All of us were deeply moved and probably changed forever by this experience, but words cannot adequately describe the full significance of this part of our field trip. Since I began running tours here in 2008, the procedures for visiting have changed. One now needs to book group tours through a local travel agency and take their coach transport. This was more expensive, but also guaranteed us the services of a local guide and driver. In the event, everything went well. We were collected at the hostel at 0830 for the 90 minute ride to the Auschwitz museum. We spent two hours in Auschwitz with the guide, then had a lunch break before our ride over to Birkenau, where we had another two hours. We returned to Krakow in time for dinner. That evening was quiet, with some students preferring some time for quiet reflection while others went out to enjoy the city. I checked on everyone and they seemed to be holding up well, but there is no doubt they were emotionally shaken by their time at Auschwitz.

Saturday 19 May

This was our last full day in Kraków, and for most of the group it was a chance to relax a bit, buy a few trinkets, spend time in parks or cafes, and enjoy the company of new friends. In the morning, some of the students arose early to visit the military aviation museum. In the afternoon, small parties undertook walking tours of areas not visited on Thursday. Many of us also felt the need to reflect on our experience of the day before at the camps.

That said, we made the most of the afternoon, plunging into town and walking a great deal. The medieval city of Kraków may be best appreciated by visiting its three principal areas, each of which possesses a unique atmosphere and history. For our final day, we tried to cover everything, exploring and getting acquainted with the lay-out, attractions, curiosities and charms of each part of the city: Wawel, where we visited the Castle and Cathedral; the Old Town, especially the Market Square where a fair was set up; and , and the quirky and colourful, if mournful, Jewish Kazimierz. We finished the day, and the trip, back at Market Square, had a celebratory drink and ate together in the open-air food fare, sampling the best of Polish cuisine. It was a beautiful evening and special time for all of us, given what we had experience together.

Sunday 20 May

The trip went by quickly and already it was Sunday, and time to head back to the airport for the return flight to Belfast. The trip went remarkably well. There were no incidents to report, no misbehavior or issues of any sort. Just the opposite: all students acquitted themselves well and comported themselves in a matter befitting the excellent student body at Queen’s University. The students showed due sensitivity in visiting the concentration camp, but also a great deal of curiosity in learning about other aspects of the history of Poland and Krakow, not least the splendid medieval and early modern church history of Krakow. All students looked after one another, ensuring that no one was ever left out or left alone. For me, the moment of the trip that was very special indeed came quite close to the end of our time Birkenau. The gas chambers were dynamited by the Nazis as they fled the advance of the Red Army. Today, the two gas chamber complexes are just ruins. When our group approached the first complex, all the students ahead of me spontaneously joined arms as they gazed upon this site where over one million people were murdered. I’m sure they’ll never forget their visit, and having been there together, with me and with each other.

Changes to make next time

I would not hesitate to organise another similar trip in the future. The only change I might make would be to reverse the order of the Auschwitz visits. It turns out that the museum is crowded in the morning but empty in the late afternoon; Birkenau is deserted in the morning but full of tourists later on. I think we should go to Birkenau first, then to Auschwitz museum, and ideally do it on train this time and with advance permission to visit without a guide. This would also save a few hundred pounds from our budget. The other thing I might do is add another night and day, thus allowing us to go either to the Salt Mine or to the southern borough of Podgórze, across the Vistula River, where the famous Schindler Factory, now a museum, is located.

Danny Kowalsky, 24 May 2018
Period17 May 201820 May 2018
Event typeOther
LocationKrakow, Poland
Degree of RecognitionInternational