This summer I had the incredible privilege and opportunity to travel with the Davidson Basketball Team to Poland and tour the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps. The trip was set up by the the Maimonides Institute for Medicine, Ethics, and the Holocaust and CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center. We were given tours of the camps by Eva Mozes Kor, a survivor of Auschwitz and the medical experiments on twins that were performed by Dr. Josef Mengele.
This first thing I noticed when walking into the camps is how large they are. It is difficult to comprehend the size and scale of the camps until you are actually there. The Birkenau camp held 100,000 people in it at one point. Walking down the selection ramp was particularly moving: that is where the majority of Jews in the camps were sent to their deaths. Train loads of people would come in and the Nazis would either point left, to the gas chamber, or right, to the labor camp where they would be abused, starved, and forced to work in inhumane conditions. Everything the Nazis did was geared toward stripping the Jews of their dignity, humanity, and ultimately their will to live. I remember talking with some of my teammates about how efficient it all was. The Nazis planned everything perfectly to where everything they did could be used to kill people as quickly as possible. Everything from the ghettos to the train rides to the forced labor and of course the gas chambers was all put in place to systematically erase a people group from the planet. They would tell the Jews that they were going to take a shower and get new clothes as they marched them to gas chambers. I kept asking myself: How could you do this to another human? Some images that I think will stick with me forever are small children being led directly to the gas chamber, Eva telling us about the moment she was torn from her mother, never to see her again, the scratches on the walls of the gas chambers, the children’s drawings etched on the wall, the rooms full of personal belongings, hair, suitcases, shoes, glasses, brushes by the thousands, and the pits where bodies were openly burned. These are just a few of the sights that will stay with me forever.
I think about the emotions I felt while I was walking through the camp. First, I felt incredible sorrow and grief for the victims of the tragedy that is the Holocaust, but shortly after I felt an immense amount of anger for the perpetrators, the Nazis. But the anger did not stop there. I also felt anger for those that were complicit, the ones that knew what was happening and let it happen. The United States can be grouped in with countries that would not accept Jewish immigrants when Hitler started rounding them up, as with the MS St. Louis: we turned away over 900 Jewish refugees who were forced to return to Europe. The Catholic Church did not even address what was happening. I am a Christian, and this was one of the things that hurt me the most. How could the church turn their back on these people? I do not know if I will ever be able to shake that feeling of anger. I cannot even imagine how survivors of the camps felt. I think that is what makes Eva’s story so special. She also felt immense anger, but she has gotten to the point where she can forgive those that wronged her and push a message of kindness, forgiveness, and a continuing fight to preserve human dignity.
It was very difficult for me to process an experience like that because of all the images and emotions that we were flooded with in a very short amount of time. As more time has passed since the trip, I feel like I have been able to gather my thoughts a little better and have gained a better understanding of how to apply the lessons we learned while we were over there. It helped me a lot to read the sermon by Pastor Kershner. The idea of having a strong and tender heart is one that I think is essential for us to make a difference. We must first have a tender heart to be able to empathize with those that are disadvantaged and persecuted, but then we must have a strong heart to be able to have the courage to act. I am sure there were countless people during the Holocaust that could have been charged with thinking it was wrong, but not doing anything to change it. While I was walking through the camps, all I could think about was what I would have done if I were an inmate, a guard, or a civilian of the surrounding town. I always pictured myself doing something to change the situation. I hope and I pray that when times like that come now, that I have the courage to do something that enacts change.
I think on very tangible level, I can be on the lookout for the language of dehumanization. The language of dehumanization and a culture that is okay with dehumanization is a breeding ground for violence and hate. I have now seen firsthand what that dehumanization and hatred can culminate in and I hope and I pray that I will never live to see an evil like that. I think we are always closer to repeating history than we think and that is why we must fight to never let something like the Holocaust happen again.
This article was written by Patrick Casey, a junior at Davidson College who visited Auschwitz-Birkenau with his fellow teammates and coaches this summer.