Sunday 6 March 2011

A cry of despair and a warning to humanity

Two years ago my wife and I visited Krakow for the first time. As part of the trip we visited Auschwitz and Birkenau, the two most famous German concentration camps in Nazi-occupied Poland. The experience of visiting the concentration camps is undeniably harrowing, but one that people should certainly take if given the opportunity.

Over half term we returned to Krakow but did not make a return visit to the Oświęcim (Auschwitz’s pre-Nazi-occupation name). However, this time we visited a relatively new museum established in what had been Oskar Schindler’s factory. While there is much that could be said about Schindler and Hollywood’s presentation of his eponymous list, there was one exhibit from the museum – a video reconstruction of an event which occurred in November 1939 – which lodged itself in my mind.

When visiting the concentration camps, the headline figures are always – understandably – about the number of Jews who were killed by the Nazis. Indeed, much of the Schindler museum shows the way the Jews were forced to live in Krakow and the way in which they were treated while still, in name at least, free. However there were many other groups of people who were also sent to the camps and one group, imprisoned in the Nazi operation codenamed Sonderaktion Krakau, was the Polish university professors.

On 6 November 1939, the rector of the Jagiellonian University – the fourteenth century University of Krakow – was obliged by the SS to instruct all Polish professors to attend a lecture on German plans for Polish education. There was (and it is easy to say now) of course, no lecture. The 144 professors who turned up and another 39 people in the building were arrested and sent to Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps on the pretext that the university was educating people without German consent.

Although an international outcry led to the release of 101 professors aged over 40 in February 1940 several of the older individuals had not survived the relatively short stay in the camps’ terrible conditions and notable Polish academics died.

This operation was one of many which made up the Nazi’s plan, the Intelligenzaktion, to rid Poland of the Polish intellectual elite as the educated were deemed to pose a threat to the ‘Germanisation’ of Poland. Under the plan around 60,000 intellectuals and members of the upper classes were killed and Polish secondary and higher education was stopped until the end of the second world war.

Denying people education is a simple means by which to control a population and perpetrate the ruling class’s ideology and status. In twenty-first century Britain we are in a position where ‘Every Child Matters’ and every child is duly entitled to an education up to the age of 18, but beyond 18 the country is currently in a state of flux. As university educations are being priced at £27,000 students are understandably worrying about the options open to them in the future. It is not clear where this will leave tertiary education in this country in five, ten or twenty years’ time, but in a world which is changing so rapidly, education and academics are essential and – although I know it is idealistic to say so –  their existence cannot, or at least should not, be based on money alone.

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