This week, we are taking the players we coach on the men’s basketball team at Davidson College to Auschwitz.
The volatility of our world right now requires a response informed by both a respect for human dignity and an understanding of what happens in its absence.
Life, sports, academics and experience have challenged these young men in myriad ways. They have never been tested like this.
On Saturday, we flew partway around the globe to Poland. We are stepping into a moment in time when, for millions, evil seemed to have triumphed and humanity has vanished. We will walk the gas chambers and railroad tracks of Auschwitz with a survivor of Josef Mengele’s inhuman experiments as our guide.
(We will not touch a basketball the entire trip.)
Our work as coaches transcends the field or court — or the classroom.
What keeps me so alive after 29 years of coaching Division I basketball is that our players are not just players. They are human beings and scholar-athletes at a college where we — all of us — nurture and value their development.
Four years ago, I visited Auschwitz on a cold, misty day. As a history major at Hofstra University and a high school history teacher early in my career, I thought I understood the Holocaust. But to smell it, taste it and see the gas chambers, the barracks and the barbed wire up close was life-altering.
We take this trip thanks to the Maimonides Institute for Medicine, Ethics and the Holocaust, and through the eyes of Eva Mozes Kor, a survivor of Mengele’s twin experiments. She will lead the way and tell the story, and our players will feel the incalculable weight of history.
A Davidson professor in German Studies, who is a Holocaust expert, cautioned in a pre-trip conversation with the team that each of them, at some point, will break down — in the camp, in the hotel room that night, on the trip home, back in North Carolina. The emotional tonnage is inescapable.
This is an opportunity for the players to coach — first themselves through this experience, then teammates, as they lean on one another, and then throughout their lives. They will depend on one another emotionally. The trip will require teamwork and togetherness of a new order for them. That is where we find our strength.
I want them to understand this experience, for life, and to bring it back here, not just as a lesson but to live what they learned. Our world needs leaders who aim to lead and to serve, as our college’s mission declares, guided by humane instincts and creative and disciplined minds. We need advocates for, and defenders of, human dignity.
Allied troops liberated the first Nazi concentration camps — what Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower called “indescribable horror” — 74 years ago. He called for members of Congress to come see it, as well as newspaper editors and British leaders. The lessons he sought to impart then remain as urgent and timely as ever.
That is why we are going.
Bob McKillop is head coach of the Davidson College men’s basketball team and the fifth-longest-serving active coach in the NCAA.