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Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership
Auschwitz Jewish Center of Poland wall of remembrance

MIDN 2/C Claire Miller

Before we traveled overseas, Mr. Tom Brokaw addressed our group about his past experience at Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau. I remember many things he said that night, but one portion of the speech stood out and stuck with me for the duration of the trip. He said that our hearts will grow in many different ways but the importance of this journey is that  growth will exist no matter what. This was very poignant to me, because up until this point of the program I had felt a bit lost in the academia side of the experience. I was unable to realize a personal connection with the exhibits we had seen and the raw, emotional testimonies we experienced. This sentiment from Mr. Brokaw signified to me that everyone could bear witness to the atrocities of the Holocaust, regardless of a lack of a direct association with the events. I recognized that all I and anyone else needed was a heart and feeling of compassion for humankind. This realization, along with many other gifts I received from the program, became my most valued.

The culmination of all the study and the discussion with my peers finally came to a head when we made our way through Auschwitz II- Birkenau. I found the point behind the trip delved much further than identifying errs in accountability and the Military ethic. This was heavily emphasized, of course, but the greater lesson lay in the humanity component that composed and enabled the Holocaust. Walking through the empty camp, the most striking memories that came to mind were of the survivors’ testimonies, the victims’ thousands upon thousands of confiscated belongings, and the expressions on the faces of the Nazi SS as seen through the lens of the Karl Hoecker Album. 

It was then I realized the importance of recalling these memories in the place where they had their most authentic meaning. Here lay the most poignant fact of the Holocaust that I could not have completely grasped unless I had witnessed Auschwitz II first-hand: It was an operation completely carried out by human beings. I could not help holding this thought back as I saw the barracks, the barbed wire, the watchtowers, and the destroyed gas chambers that were all so carefully constructed throughout the camp. Not only did the Nazis create these hellish places, but a large component of Hitler’s agenda was to keep them hidden from the outside world. Even today, his propaganda scheme succeeds as many continue to deny the Holocaust ever occurred in the face of astounding evidence and thousands of personal accounts.

After hearing Mrs. Helen Goldkind’s survivor testimony, the group had the opportunity to discuss and reflect on what we had heard that evening. For many of us, it was our first testimony, and we were uncertain of how to respond. One even said, “Whoa, I will never complain again.” To this, Shiri responded, “No, this is the freedom that she would want you to enjoy, the freedom she lives to see you enjoy.” At the time, I was in doubt as to why many of the survivors often just live for their grandchildren, for the next generation. They love young people, especially interested young people so much because we are the ones who carry her story along, who do not allow it to be forgotten or to become a footnote in a history book.

Upon returning to the States, my friends and family were very curious of my experiences during the trip. At first I found it very difficult to convey what I had seen and couldn’t relive the emotion poured out by every member of the group during our visit to Auschwitz II. I felt that I couldn’t honor the places I had seen in the way that I had witnessed them. But I then realized that I carry the same responsibility that scholars spoke of to us. Although I will never be able to take my friends and family on the same journey, I am responsible to Mrs. Goldkind, to every survivor, every countless victim and their families to tell their story as I saw it during those three weeks. Through all of the lectures, testimony, and tours, Mr. Brokaw was indeed correct. Upon entering Auschwitz, there is a definite uncertainty of one’s individual reaction, but I know that I and everyone participating in this program walked away with a bigger heart for humanity. 

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