We reported back in February on this year’s Poland Project. Today Cpl Abbi Welsh of 1 Troop Scots DG looks back and provides a personal account of what she describes as one of the best trips of her life – ‘an emotional time but amazing’.
On Sunday the 31st of January myself and twelve other cadets and adults got the opportunity to visit Krakow in Poland. Throughout the five days we spent in Krakow, we experience the mass amount of history the city has. When we arrived on Sunday, we were quickly whisked away into the heart of the city. Firstly, we visited Wawel castle which was situated on a high hill; it looked over the entire city. The castle was extremely large in size and the designs and architecture that were left blew my mind. The castle was filled with history from the moment it was built to now in 2016. After leaving the beautiful castle we continued to wander around Krakow. We saw plentiful chapels and all things Pope. Poland is a very catholic county so they appreciate all their chapels and the Pope very much. Towards the end of the day we found ourselves in the heart of Krakow. The whole main market square was enormous and was surrounded by many historical towers. On one side of the market was the Town Hall Tower, which was extremely large and very beautiful also. Whilst on the other side St. Mary’s Basilica was situated before us. We were able to experience the traditional bugle call from the highest tower window which occurs at every hour of the day. the whole market square was full of life and lights, the area was amazing the experience and extraordinary to watch.
Our second day in Krakow began early. It took us approximately an hour to get to our destination and it was clear everyone was tired yet very excited for our first full day in Poland. When finally we arrived to our destination I was amazed. We waited in a long queue and had to go through security for extra precautions in case anyone would try to damage or bring in any weapons. Eventually we met up with our guide and popped on the headphones and began our tour of Auschwitz death camp. We walked slowly towards the endurance of the camp and made our way through the sign stating “Arbeit macht frei” – ‘Labour will set you free’. As we wandered round the camp we were able to see the buildings and walk the roads the prisoners walked over 75 years ago. We eventually entered one of the buildings and in every one of the rooms it showed/told us something about the mass extermination of the camp. The rooms had large pictures of first arriving at the camp to death certificates to a huge map of all three camps. We soon moved upstairs to find out more about the gas chambers and how the Nazi’s were able to exterminate so many people all at once. There was a whole remodel of the gas chambers situated underneath the ground. It showed the huge line of people going into the chambers, expecting a shower instead of expecting death. Towards the end of the model it showed thousands of bodies piled on top of each other and people fighting their way through. This was so horrible to look at and so shocking to imagine that people were treated like this. Along with a model of the gas chambers we were able to see the amount of gas tins they used. They were piling up behind the glass. This was an appalling era in time. As we moved on we were able to see things that were taken off of people as soon as they arrived. We saw glasses, shoes, suitcases with names on it, toothbrushes, combs, cutlery, pots and pans, baby clothes, cloths, prosthetic arms/legs, and hair. To think that the Nazi’s wiped people of their identity and removed so many things from things is disgraceful. They were treated like animals in there; removed of everything – which were sold for money – and branded with a number. We eventually moved on and saw pictures of everyone who entered Auschwitz. There was pictures of families and small children – all of which who were murdered. Shortly we entered an area which was isolated from the rest. It was surrounded by flowers and the windows of any buildings around it were blocked off. This area was where people would be shot to death – the shooting wall. This area is horrible to think about and is just another area where many lives were lost in this camp. Then we went to another area were thousands were exterminated – the gas chamber. We entered and saw the furnaces – for dead bodies – and the small hole in the roof where the gas would be dropped. After having a detailed tour of Auschwitz 1, we moved to Auschwitz 2, also known as Birkenau. We walked through the famous entrance and strolled up the path where the others before us had. All around us we could see the burned and some still standing wooden accommodations where the prisoners lived. The condition they lived in was gruesome and very tight in space. At least eight women would be forced to sleep on one platform. Before us also stood the ruined underground gas chambers the Nazi’s used to exterminate people. Even the ruins were emotional to look and think about. And right at the end of the path was a huge monument written in every language to remember the lives that were taken from the years 1940-1945. The whole experience of Auschwitz was incredibly emotional and heart wrenching. This was an amazing opportunity and a remarkable thing to experience. This day will forever be locked in my memory.
Our second day in Krakow was very eventful. We started off the day by taking a short walk to a near museum where we got to hear a survivor story. The lady we met unfortunately only spoke Polish so we had a translator nearby to help us understand. She told us her experience of how her family were originally from the Soviet Union and how they were brought to Auschwitz. She explained the process of who was sent to death and where she went from there. Throughout her time in Auschwitz she went through so much. However she explained to us how she was one of the lucky children. Her mother was still alive in camp and would come to her and bring her food, even though if she was caught she’d no doubt be sent to death. Fortunately her mother was never caught, and both continued to fight their survival. Once the Russians came to the camp and eventually freed everyone, a polish family adopted her; she had completely forgotten her native language. Her mother and the rest of the family was nowhere to be seen throughout Poland. Only a while after did she finally reunite with her family. To live in Auschwitz back then must have been horrible. Death was always around the corner and she was so fortunate to survive this outrageous experience in time. It was so emotional to listen to the whole story but it was incredibly interesting. Really makes you appreciate life more. After this we took a big tour of the Jewish district. Our guide told us how this area was isolated out from the rest of Poland in time of war. The Jewish that lived there were given a very small area to live considering the large amount that actually lived there. We soon stopped at Oscar Schindler’s factory and took a large tour of the museum itself. We were shown what life was like in Krakow in time of war and got to see a few areas where the movie ‘Schindler’s List’ was filmed. We learned about what Schindler did and entered this large room which had every single person’s name he saved on it. In another room was pictures of some people and a book in which we could sign after. The museum was amazing and so very interesting – we all got to pick up a few stamps to remember the place we visited.
For our last full day we did something much different from what we done the other days – we went underground. After climbing down what felt like a million steps we finally reached our destination within the salt mine. We all walked down the large hallway and were shown the walls that were in fact made of salt. We were given the opportunity to actually like the wall – in which most of us did. Some of us actually dragged their tongue along the wall – it was a weird taste. As we continued to follow our guide through the mines we were shown so many sculptures made of the salt – there was a princess, the Pope, Nicolaus Copernicus (astronomer) and so many more; the sculptures were incredible. As Poland like their cathedrals, there was in fact a cathedral in the mine. It had an amazing chandelier – made completely out of salt – hanging from the top and a cross hanging on the wall. We soon moved on and witnessed brine running throughout the mine, and once again got the chance to taste it. It was very very salty and something I don’t think I’d like to try ever again. In the next room we were shown a whole room made entirely out of salt – it looked like some sort of ball room. There were chandeliers hanging from the ceiling and had beautifully detailed sculptures of royalty and famous paintings on the wall. The whole room was so beautiful and so phenomenal to witness. Soon we moved onto the gift shop (still underground) and almost every gift was made entirely out of salt. The salt mines were amazing to see and I’m so glad we were able to visit the salt mines; once again an outstanding experience. After we visited the shopping centre and eat and buy some clothing from Poland. Later we made our way back to the hotel and started to primp for our final night out. Fortunately for us we visited the Hard Rock Café in Krakow. The food was amazing there and being able to have a sit down and chat with everyone else was great. It was such a laugh getting to know people I’ve never met before and a fantastic trip altogether. After the restaurant we were able to have some free time, so I and six other people decided to take a ride in one of the horse and carriage around the market square. We all had an absolute ball in the carriage and got to know each other a lot more. Finally the night came to an end, and I did not want to go home.
Our very last day included a lie in and a last wander of the main market. We all spent our last zlotys in the market and bought gifts for those back home. We even got a taste of true Polish weather as it began to snow. Eventually we all gathered outside and waited for the rest to finish shopping. Again we witnessed the bugle being played and got a wee wave from the man himself. Whilst outside we ran into a lady who was selling whistles shaped like birds. When water was in them, it made a lovely bird call. Everyone was gathering round as almost everyone was buying the whistles from the lady – we probably made her a fortune. Alas it was time to head back to the hotel and grab our luggage and start our descend from Krakow to Edinburgh airport. The plane and the bus ride back home were the last laughs and moments we would all have together. Going to Poland was one of the best – and educational – trips of my life. I learned so much and gained so many friends on the five days we visited Poland. This trip was a once in a lifetime opportunity and I’m immensely grateful I was able to be a part of this trip. It was an emotional time but it was amazing. Both the cadets and the adults made the trip phenomenal. I’m so thankful I was given this opportunity, truly the best moments of my life.