By Nick DAngelo
It was a beautiful day. The sun was bright and shining, and the temperatures reached up to 90 degrees. The picturesque summer day was in sharp contrast to our purpose in Poland, and though only four days into our journey, this would be one of our hardest. There is an eerie quietness to Auschwitz, which only adds to the thoughts of terror one experiences entering those infamous gates. A one-time Polish military camp, the perfectly manicured streets and identical brick buildings seem peaceful, and the image is only interrupted by the stories of horror, which accompany it.
Last week, Katie Barner ‘13, one of my fellow journeymen on the summer mini-term to Poland and Lithuania that is focused on Holocaust history, shared some wonderful memories of our work abroad. While the reconstruction of the Lithuanian Jewish cemetery was the climax of our three weeks, an intense Holocaust study accompanied that mission. I write about the mini-term not only because it became a hallmark of my four years here, but also because it is perhaps the single most important educational experience that Union has to offer.
When we were growing up, my brother and I heard stories about how our great-grandmother had fled Nazi-occupied Poland and how her father, a political opponent of fascism, had been murdered because he dared to stand against Hitler’s ideology. That is all we know. We do not know anything of our family before 1945, not even their names. While we have tried to re-create our ancestry, there are no records of any individual with our surname ever living in Poland. The Holocaust, which claimed the lives of millions of people, is still being felt today throughout our world.
While much of Holocaust studies has been focused on the tribulations of the Jewish people – as it rightfully should be – this is not only a Jewish history. Millions of non-Jews, like my family members, were eradicated because they did not align with the Nazi idolatry. During our three weeks, we learned a great deal about the targeting of Jews, but also about other individuals who were murdered.
There has been a lot of discussion over whether this mini-term will be offered again. To me, there is no debate. Union must continue to offer this experience because of the great importance of this subject. This history forces a realization of the terrors of bigotry, racism and despotism. It also unites individuals in a mission to neither forget, nor repeat this piece of history.
Our small group of 11 was certainly united. We were a group of students who probably would never have associated on campus had our paths not crossed on this journey. Sports players and theatre buffs. Seniors and freshmen. Every type of major was represented across our group. We depended on one another to digest the enormity of the history we studied and joined, hand in hand, to make a small contribution to the preservation of that history. There is, quite simply, no greater education.
Over the next year, we have all pledged ourselves to work to ensure that this mini-term is a recurring one at Union College. We will continue to share our experiences and we all plan to show our support for the program during the International Program’s Study Abroad Fair on Oct. 24. I know I speak for our collective group when I say how strongly we feel about the responsibility of knowledge, and the burden we each willingly carry to stimulate action. It is the great objective of education to force intellectual curiosity and inspire critical analysis. No program at Union so fully matches that objective as this one.
On June 6, 1944, after the D-Day landing at Normandy, General Dwight Eisenhower said of his men, “We may never see their like again.” Miles from Eisenhower’s new western front, the Nazi “Final Solution” was at its maxim. As we toured the solemn streets of Auschwitz, observed the fallen walls of the Warsaw Ghetto and walked among the ruins of the Aukstadvaris cemetery, Eisenhower’s words were constantly in my mind. We may never see their like again.
It is impossible to know how many doctors, teachers and scholars were eliminated in this purged generation and how their nonexistence may have delayed the further development of our world. We may never again see the great bravery that so many individuals were somehow able to demonstrate, and we hope we never have to.
As newly minted keepers of their stories though, we have been given a new duty, to not only honor their memories, but also to continue to vigilantly remind the world of those events.