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.
Lessons Beyond The Basketball Court
By Steve Lipman
This summer, a group of college students from North Carolina joined a new international movement in Holocaust education that involves visits to sites of Nazi concentration camps by teams of professional and student athletes.
The basketball team of Davidson College (14 players and five coaches) took part in a four-day trip to Poland, which included guided tours of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp and Auschwitz Museum, and time in Cracow, where the delegation was based. The visit, coordinated by the Maimonides Institute for Medicine, Ethics and the Holocaust (MIMEH), based in Freehold, N.J., and the CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center, from Terra Haute, Ind., was part of the program of overseas training tours that the National Collegiate Athletic Association provides for its teams every four years.
But the Davidson team’s time in Poland was different.
“No basketball at all,” said Bob McKillop, the team’s Queens-born head coach. Guided by Eva Mozes Kor, the Auschwitz survivor who founded CANDLES, the players saw the gas chambers and railroad tracks of Auschwitz and heard Kor’s story of losing her parents in the Shoah and being forced to take part in one of Dr. Josef Mengele’s brutal experiments on twins. “It was non-stop and exhausting, physically and emotionally,” McKillop said.
The players returned to campus as changed persons, he told The Jewish Week in a telephone interview. “I’m watching the way they treat people. I see there’s a sensitivity, there’s a respect that maybe was not so apparent. That will shape their lives.”
As prominent members of the campus community, the athletes are likely to share their experiences during classes, in interviews and public speeches and in a forthcoming documentary, said McKillop, a church-going Catholic who served as a high school history teacher early in his career.
The fifth-longest-tenured head basketball coach currently in NCAA Division I, he is best-known to fans as the former coach of NBA superstar Stephen Curry, who played at Davidson in 2006-09.
Other sports teams that have made similar visits to concentration camps in recent years include England’s Chelsea Football (soccer) Club, the Duke University men’s soccer team, and the University of Tennessee men’s basketball team, under the leadership of Bruce Pearl, the Jewish head coach who now works at Auburn University.
“It’s a growing educational trend, and a valuable one,” said Michael Berenbaum, Holocaust expert and author. “A pilgrimage there is deeply important — it raises all the issues of the fundamentals of life.”
“We are glad that there are so many young people visiting the Auschwitz Museum. Among them are also sportsmen,” Lukasz Lipinski, a Museum spokesman, said in an email interview. “It is important that those that are leaders or idols visit Auschwitz. Their experiences … their thoughts and emotions after visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau reach a very wide group of people.”
The visit of the athletes from Davidson College, a small, private liberal arts school loosely affiliated with the Presbyterian Church, was the idea of Amanda Caleb, a 2002 graduate of the university who played field hockey there, and of Stacy Gallin, founder and director of MIMEH, which targets most of its activities to healthcare professionals. High-visibility athletes are poised to serve as informal Holocaust educators and an antidote to Holocaust deniers, Caleb and Gallin thought.
Caleb pitched the idea to McKillop, who immediately accepted. His players, members of various Christian denominations, “welcomed the opportunity to see history,” he said.
McKillop said fellow basketball coaches have approached him about conducting similar concentration camp visits for their teams. They share his vision that their athletes should learn lessons about life beyond sports, he said. “There’s a greater awareness.”
MIMEH is pleased to introduce Cal Freundlich, our Inaugural Emerging Scholar. Cal is a rising junior at Davidson College in North Carolina. He is a Music and Media major and a member of Davidson's Division I basketball team. Cal joined MIMEH on our summer 2018 trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where he was "reminded of the responsibility that we, as young people, have to be leaders of our generation and ensure that human dignity and equality are protected." Cal will be scoring the music for the documentary MIMEH is producing based on our trip. In addition, he will be contributing posts to MIMEH's blog and working with established scholars in the field to help foster his desire to become an active agent of social change.
As part of our trip, Dr. Amanda Caleb, MIMEH's educational consultant, provided each student and coach with a journal to be used for reflecting and processing this intensely emotional experience. Cal decided not only to use the journal, but offered to share his thoughts on camera and on our website.
"Here, there is an objective beauty -- the light, the sky, the grass, from a far even some of the structures -- it is painful. The more I think of it the more I feel it is a metaphor. The camp today means something different than it used to, and maybe it's displaying that. Today it means survival, triumph, mourning...the other side of the mountain of forgiveness (that Eva speaks about). But that is today, maybe tomorrow it storms and a whole different side is displayed. But nonetheless, I can't help but think that even in "hell on earth," one can still find beauty."
As I looked carefully through pictures in what was called "Canada," I came across a wall dedicated to a woman named Fela Roze. I looked carefully at all her pictures. She had family and friends all over the wall. One picture caught my eye, three people standing in a line smiling. I read the names and froze. "Fela Roze (left), Bernard Freundlich (middle)..." I walked over to our tour guide.
"Everyone on these walls, did they all, um, were they all victims?"
It felt like a wave. Now I'm sweating, itchy. Freundlich is a common german last name. I find myself wanting to search for more. I also find myself wanting to walk away. Four more pictures. Part of me is saying "don't be dramatic" but another part of me wants to feel. Most likely he's not related to me at all. But what if. But if not, does it even matter?
Seeing my last name under a photograph at Birkenau was perhaps the most important moment of my visit, but not because it created any connection to my past or my family. Seeing that name reminded me what losing someone feels like. What losing one person really feels like. ONE in six million. Numbers don't make you feel, people do, and too often do we focus on statistics when it comes to tragedies. We must not forget the value of one single life.