The excitement was palpable as a group of Our Ladys’ fifth and sixth year students arrived in Dublin Airport on the morning of the 11th of March. This was mainly due to the fact we were all relieved that the trip to Germany and Poland was still going ahead. A threatened Air Lingus strike had left us uncertain for a while as to whether we would even be arriving in Berlin on time to begin our four day German and History trip, but after a quick rearrangement of schedules and a briefing from the chaperoning teachers, we were soon piling onto the plane. The other passengers were more than delighted to accommodate 42 chattering girls for two hours while we practised our “Guten Tag’s and “Wie Gehts?” (among other phrases kindly printed out by Ms Cleary and Ms Nyland) for the imminent two-day stay in Berlin.
Our tightly-packed schedule allowed no time for delay, and as soon as we had set foot on German soil we were en route to our first destination. We reached what was once a communal WWII Bunker in the heart of Berlin, which had been preserved and now is open to the public for tours into the underground shelter. Dark, cramped and made even more eerie by the fact we arrived shortly after dusk, we were given a tour around the dilapidated interior that used to be inhabited by hundreds of families at a time. It was extremely difficult to imagine how so many people of all ages lived in these conditions for such prolonged amounts of time, but our tour guide was full of interesting stories that managed to bring the experience to life, heightened even more so by the flickering lights and deafening noise of trains rattling by every five minutes.
German and History students alike left the bunker filled to the brim with new historical information, but that was not the end of our cultural endeavours on our first night in Berlin. What was intended to be a short visit into an iconic parliament building, quickly turned into a prime opportunity for some students to practise their ‘conversational’ German, as they tried to explain to the security guards that an iPhone had miraculously gotten stuck underneath the stargazing benches at the top of the 47m tall Reichstag dome, where over seven students were performing a surgical operation involving chewing gum and pencils in an attempt to recover the patient. Luckily, both iPhone and students left the building unscathed, and we retreated to the hostel in order to gain some rest before the hectic day that lay ahead.
Our last morning in Berlin before the nine-hour bus ride to Poland was perhaps the most interesting as we were taken to see a Stasi prison, the fifth years even being lucky enough to be given their tour around the museum by an ex-prisoner. After a twenty minute video explaining the historical background of the Stasi, we were then taken to see the cells and interrogation rooms, which had been left basically unchanged since the official closing of the prison in 1990. We were informed of the extent of the prisoners’ isolation and of the control the Stasi held over over the inmates, even placing spies within the cells in order to gain all information possible for blackmail and interrogation. From there, we were driven straight to the epicentre of tourist activity in Berlin, Checkpoint Charlie. Our visit to the world famous museum about the Berlin wall and the divisions between the East and West was extremely informative, and after a quick look around the plethora of souvenir shops on the street, we collapsed onto the bus, saying hasty goodbyes to Germany as our nine hour trip to Krakow commenced.
Considering the excitement of the previous two days, we all expected to settle down to a relaxing (if slightly tedious) journey, but it soon became evident that that was not an option – not when Ireland were half an hour off winning the Six Nations against France! Six hours into the journey and over half the bus had crowded into the aisle in order to listen to the live commentary on Ms Morris’s phone, and the subsequent Irish win kept us in good spirits and entertained for another two hours as a round of “The Fields of Athenry” turned into a group sing-along.
The good mood continued overnight into the next day. A trip to the frankly incredible Schindler’s Factory provided us with our daily dose of historical information, the story of Schindler not ceasing to amaze the group as it was brought to life by a fantastically crafted and interactive museum that was nothing short of a work of art. Following this, we were given a taste of freedom as the 42 of us were let loose onto the cobbled streets of Krakow to explore and shop for a couple of hours. After shopping, culture and general confusion over the Polish currency (four Zloty to every one Euro), the day was rounded off with a (somewhat intense, for some) game of bowling in a local shopping centre.
Our last day was definitely the most memorable for students and teachers alike, as the tour of Auschwitz and the extermination camp, Birkenau, is one that undoubtedly resonates with all who have visited it. Aside from our visit being extremely informative and straightforward, and I’m sure that all students will agree when I say I learned more than I ever expected to about the lives of past prisoners and all that they endured in the camp, I felt it to be a very necessary human experience. The harrowing stories we were told and the eerie, undisturbed silence of the camp left our group subdued and reflective as we all processed the information. We even witnessed a few people laying down flowers at the ‘death wall’, where many prisoners were publicly executed. A silent bus ride followed this journey as we all gathered our thoughts and emotions, but with only a few hours remaining and with the knowledge that St. Patrick’s day celebrations were well under way back home, our spirits gradually lifted in time to enjoy our last stop before the airport.
After this quick stop in a shopping centre where some did their last-minute gift buying and others seized the opportunity to splurge any remaining zloty in Sephora or on ice cream sundaes, we then began our journey back to the Emerald Isle, managing to catch the last fifteen minutes of Saint Patrick ’s Day on our own turf before making our separate ways. On behalf of the German and History classes, I would like to thank Ms Morris, Ms Nolan, Ms Nyland and Ms Cleary for making this trip so well-organised, informative and downright memorable for all of us who participated.
Helen Conway M6