Written by Dr. Stacy Gallin
Published in the Jewish Link of New Jersey, July 26, 2018
Three years ago, I founded the Maimonides Institute for Medicine, Ethics and the Holocaust (MIMEH) with one goal: “Remember the Past; Protect the Future.” Three weeks ago, MIMEH embarked on a trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau along with the Davidson College men’s basketball team, Holocaust survivor Eva Mozes Kor, and CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center. Having visited Auschwitz for the first time only a few weeks earlier as part of an academic conference co-sponsored by MIMEH, I anticipated that this experience would be incredibly powerful for these young people. What I was not prepared for, however, was the extent to which witnessing their journey would impact my own life, both as an individual and as a Holocaust educator.
Hope is not the first word most people think of when discussing Auschwitz or Birkenau. Standing on the selection platform and hearing Eva describe how she was ripped out of her mother’s arms and never saw her parents again; walking through barracks filled with human hair, shoes, luggage and other personal effects of those who were murdered merely for being Jewish; touching the scratches in the walls of the gas chamber and realizing the horror that people must have felt when they realized death was imminent—there is no hope to be found in these places. I fully anticipated that I would experience overwhelming feelings of sadness and anger at the end of this trip, just as I had previously. But this trip was different. This trip gave me hope.
None of these kids had any direct connection to the Holocaust or Judaism. Very few of them had more than a rudimentary knowledge of what took place in Auschwitz during World War II. Yet they all voluntarily decided to spend four days of their summer vacation immersed in an intense exploration of one of the most evil periods of human history. As an educator, it’s not often you can see the precise moment you get through to a student. However, from the first moment of this trip I had the privilege of witnessing these young men transform.
I watched as they tentatively met Eva Mozes Kor when they first arrived. Later that evening, I saw them begin to open up and ask Eva questions about her experience. Despite their jet lag, they were all rapt with attention as Eva told her story of survival and forgiveness. Over the next two days, as we toured Auschwitz and Birkenau, these young kids, whom I had watched laugh and joke with each other only a few hours earlier, were completely silent as they reflected on what they were seeing and hearing. I walked with them on the path to the crematoria in Birkenau, when the only sound you could hear was the crunching of rocks beneath their feet. I stayed with them inside the gas chambers as they struggled to comprehend how so many people had been killed in the spot in which they were standing. Some lagged behind, needing extra time to process what they were seeing. Some asked insightful questions and wanted to learn as much as possible. Many cried. All were deeply affected. I saw them break down as they realized for the first time the level of inhumanity of which humankind is capable.
But then I witnessed something extraordinary. I watched them build themselves back up, as individuals, as teammates, as friends and as members of humankind. I watched each of them process this experience in different ways: One young man wrote inspirational poetry in the reflective journals we had given them; another quietly placed several bills in the tzedakah box at the entrance to Birkenau; a group of friends rallied around a student who was having a particularly difficult time after hearing Eva talk about her parents. We lit candles to remember the victims of the Holocaust and took a Pledge to Preserve Human Dignity at the memorial site in Birkenau. The entire group—teammates and coaches alike—recreated the liberation walk taken by Eva 74 years ago, hand in hand, as Eva shouted, “We are free!” Simply put, I saw the best that humanity has to offer.
Since returning from our trip I have been in contact with many of these young men. They continue to process what they experienced three weeks ago in different ways, but the one unifying theme of our conversations is that this trip changed their lives. They now realize why learning about the Holocaust is relevant and important for everyone. In the words of one player, “It’s about human dignity and treating each other with kindness. It’s about standing up for people who need our help. It’s about making sure this never happens again. This is our responsibility, and we owe it to Eva and all the others who died during the Holocaust to keep telling their story and living this message.”
As we move farther from the events of the Holocaust, and first-person accounts of the horrors that took place become more scarce, studies have shown that it is becoming increasingly difficult to engage younger generations. A Claims Conference survey published this past Yom Hashoah in the New York Times showed that the majority of millennials do not possess a basic knowledge of the Holocaust, yet an overwhelming number of these young people believe that Holocaust education should be mandatory. Rather than viewing this as a dilemma, perhaps we need to take it as a challenge to rethink our approach to Holocaust education.
Giving these students the opportunity to experience firsthand the horrors of the concentration camps allowed me to witness the extent to which this trip impacted them both emotionally and intellectually. This knowledge will help MIMEH continue to develop and fine-tune programming for millennials that meets their needs as expressed by the leaders and influencers of their generation. More importantly, their experience gave me hope for the future of Holocaust education and humanity in general. Remember the past; protect the future. Mission accomplished.