Students walk silently through Auschwitz concentration camp, where Nazis killed
more than one million people in four and a half years.
by Madeleine Gearan
“I want to tell you about three people I knew for only a short time,” said Sally Wasserman. “My mother, my father and my brother.”
Wasserman was a hidden child of the Holocaust. A non-Jewish couple – the Turkins - concealed her in their small apartment for two years and in doing so, saved her life. Mr. Turkin met Sally while doing electrical work in the Polish ghetto where she and her family were forced to live. He wrote to Sally’s mother offering to hide the little girl. Because of the Turkins, Wasserman escaped the fate of her parents and six-year old brother. Her entire family was killed at Auschwitz- Birkenau.
Wasserman was one of the Holocaust survivors who accompanied “The March: Bearing Witness to Hope,” a Holocaust remembrance journey that included 40 students from Hobart and William Smith and Nazareth Colleges. The group visited memorial sites and concentration camps in Germany and Poland and listened to the stories of those who survived.
“It was the most meaningful experience of my life,” says Margaret McConnell ’14. “It took my classroom knowledge of the Holocaust to the sites where the atrocities occurred. It was more than just learning history, it was like touching it.”
Professor of Religious Studies Michael Dobkowski was instrumental in establishing the March trip at the Colleges more than 10 years ago. Dobkowski, along with faculty from Nazareth College, has led students on the March every two years since 2002.
This year, the generosity of the Farash Foundation made the March a reality for even more students from both institutions.
“We are very grateful to the Farash Foundation for their support of a program that is educational and deeply meaningful for our students,” says President Mark D. Gearan, who also attended this year.
“The students are not just learning about history, but with their physical presence they are touching and indeed entering history, living that history and bringing it forward to inform their present and their future,” writes Dobkowski in his piece Why We March and Remember. “They are among the last in their generation who will have the privilege of traveling with and learning from survivors of the Shoah.”
Only a few blocks away from historic Brandenburg Gate, the group assembles
in front of the recently constructed Berlin Holocaust Memorial.
Also on the trip was survivor Henry Silberstern. In 1942, Henry and his mother were sent to Terezin concentration camp. Of the 15,000 boys who were sent to Terezin, just 150 survived the Holocaust. Henry and his mother were then sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in 1944, where Silberstern was one of 89 boys selected by Nazi doctor Josef Mengele to be a slave worker. These 89 boys are known as the “Birkenau Boys.”
Silberstern was liberated on April 15, 1945 –his 15th birthday. His mother survived the war, but died of typhus during liberation. Silberstern’s daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren joined him on the March. “It is important that people remember what happened here,” Silberstern explained. “That is why I am honored to be on this trip with all of you. And being here with my family is especially moving for me.”
Silberstern is the only member of his 54-person extended family to have survived the Holocaust.
“I think of this time in my life, my years trying to survive here, like the life of a different person,” he said. “It’s easier that way.”
Walking through the camps with Wasserman and Silberstern made the numbers of those who died all the more staggering.
“The Nazis murdered six million people during the Holocaust,” says Andrew Frolich ’15. “But being there with Sally and Henry allowed me to gaze into the past and feel the pain of the Holocaust in new and profound ways. These wonderful people were able to transform our collective sorrow into hope and energy for the future with their encouraging words of wisdom.”
Beth O’Connor ’12, who went on the 2010 March and helped Dobkowski organize the 2012 March, notes that these relationships, “add to our understanding through the appreciation of survivors beyond their victimization,” she says. “The personal testimony offered by survivors, complemented by the lectures and vignettes of tour guides and professors, makes the March a very unique experience.”
Students take a moment to reflect on a memorial to
those members of the Jewish community who perished
fighting in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944.
Devan Mizzoni ’13, who studied abroad in Berlin during the spring semester, reflected that as students, “we were surrounded by personal, academic and reflective accounts from our leaders, community members, and fellow students. This was one of the most valuable aspects of the trip.”
In addition to Dobkowski and Gearan, Associate Professor of Religious Studies Richard Salter ’86, P’15 accompanied students on the March. “It was a privilege to see firsthand a program that has meant so much to our students and faculty for more than a decade,” says Gearan.
In Berlin, students went to multiple memorials including the site of the Wannsee Conference where Nazis crafted the “Final Solution” to exterminate the Jews, as well as the newly built Berlin Holocaust Memorial near Brandenburg Gate.
Students then journeyed to Poland where they saw the location of the Warsaw Ghetto and other sites commemorating destroyed Jewish life. Participants walked through Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek and Treblinka – three Nazi death camps where millions were killed.
“It’s difficult to step outside of our comfort zones as young adults. And this trip tested the will and character of many students,” says Henry Rubin ’13.
Despite raw realizations of ethnic intolerance, participants also heard a narrative of hope. In Krakow, the group saw Oskar Schindler’s factory, made famous by Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed film “Schindler’s List.” Schindler saved 1,200 Jewish people by recruiting them to work in his factory. In Warsaw, students met Chesawa Zak who helped her family hide 14 Jewish people in their small Warsaw apartment for the length of the war. Today, the Council of Yad Vashem honors these individuals in Israel as being “Righteous Among the Nations” for their efforts to save Jews during the Holocaust.
“Survivors are proof that things can and will get better if we remember our moral obligation to fight for equal human rights,” says Emily Surprenant ’15. “And now, it is our responsibility to learn from the past, examine the present, and make the change so that genocide is something we only read about in history books.”
Gearan notes that the students on this trip “were thoughtful and engaged, representing the Colleges exceedingly well. I was proud of their interactions with the survivors who joined us, impressed with their understanding of history and the implications for today’s world, and grateful for their support to one another.”
About the author: Madeleine Gearan accompanied her father, President Mark D. Gearan, on “The March: Bearing Witness to Hope.”