MIDN 1/C Kenneth Barnes
The trip started for me when I launched myself into the reading list we were to complete before arriving in Washington D.C. for the first day of the American Service Academy Program. I naively thought my studies could prepare me for what lay ahead, but books could never impart the experience as told through the eyes of the survivors we met in person. It was not until hearing the incredible stories of endurance in person that the history lessons were brought to life. The survivors recalled minute details and fond memories from their childhood, but each testimony became a nightmare when the survivor told of how his or her family was torn apart and often separated forever. When a survivor got to a point in his or her testimony, stared into the distance, and said "and that was the last time I saw my mother," or father, sister, brother, cousin, it was beyond my comprehension. The Holocaust was no longer a history lesson. It was more personal. I now knew the stories of survivors, their childhoods, their dreams, and their nightmares.
Before this trip I had always been able to think of the Holocaust in abstract terms where the people responsible and the places where genocide occurred were far removed from our world today, but this all changed over the course of our trip. The numbers changed from mere statistics to individual stories and faces as we listened to survivors give their testimony. The victims were not just numbers. They were real people who had real, loving families, and these men, women, and children were murdered for no other reason than being born Jewish.
The next part of the trip that made our experience personal was walking through Auschwitz. How can I adequately describe how I felt walking under the gates of Auschwitz and into a place marked by such immense death and tragedy? It was a moment that I will never forget.
We had studied and discussed several aspects of the Holocaust on our trip, but when I walked through the gates of Auschwitz, there was no denying the truth. As much as I wished that the Holocaust did not happen, that people could not be that evil, that a minority could not have been singled out for extermination, I could not hold onto that dangerous idea any longer. The barracks were real, the blown up gas chambers were real, and they were all built by human hands and watched over by human guards.
The Holocaust was never personal to me until I saw it through the eyes of the survivors who spoke to us and until I walked through the places where they experienced it. While I am thankful for my entire experience, I realize that the years survivors have left are limited, and the number of my generation they can meet in person are limited. One day there will no longer be a survivor of the Holocaust left to tell the story, and students will be forced to fill this void with books, a method that did not work for me.
As a result, I left the trip feeling responsible for passing on my experience as clearly and vividly as possible to those who may never have the opportunity to walk through Auschwitz or speak to a survivor in person. While I have doubts about my ability to tell their stories with the detail and justice they deserve, my newly-realized responsibility is to try anyway. This paper is only the beginning of that journey.