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Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership
This picture was taken at Auschwitz II-Birkenau

MIDN 1/C Keith Hollis

Before my journey on the 2009 American Service Academies Program, I had conjured in my thoughts what my experience would be like, what I would learn, and what I would walk away with to tell my friends and family about. In retrospect, it seems obscurely foolish to think about these unlearned ideas, but at the time I was almost positive I knew what experience I would have. I had these ideas as I filled out my application to the program and the months leading up to the program. However, after my time in Washington D.C., New York City, and Poland, those conceptions were all but extinguished...

When we looked at Jewish history and heritage in New York, I was rather indifferent at first and used the time to gather information. But as I began to see important parts of the religion, I began to think back to what I saw at the museum in Washington D.C. For example, at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, a survivor guided us through the exhibitions and made note of the importance of the Torah. From the pictures and exhibitions in D.C., I specifically remembered Torahs being thrown around, burned, and degraded. The only connection I could make to this was seeing something of utmost importance to me destroyed before my eyes. This provided only a small clip of what it must have felt like to be Jewish in an era of Anti-Semitism, but I still knew that it was impossible to really feel those emotions. I felt that I just needed to get to Poland, see Auschwitz myself, and bring things full circle so that I could finally put a period on my feelings towards the Holocaust...

Seeing the barracks, the tracks, and the dilapidated chimneystacks of Birkenau meant something to me, but I could never imagine what happened there, and I did not want to try to because of the injustice it would probably provide to those that experienced the camp. What was palpable to me, however, was the site where people were left before they were ushered into the gas chambers. Anna, our guide, told us the Nazis would convince them they were going to take a shower, and this provided me with one of the most jumbled thoughts of the trip. My immediate impression was one of happiness for the victims. I was almost relieved to hear her say this, and it provided me, even 65 years after it was said, with a sense of comfort. When we then saw the imploded chamber and the site of the ashes, my inability to comprehend the situation increased. I couldn't imagine each of the people, I couldn't imagine their final thoughts, I couldn't imagine those SS guards that ushered them into the chambers thoughts, I couldn't imagine a mother's thoughts as her child screamed as they were separated, and I couldn't imagine or feel anything. It was as if a cog was thrown into the inner workings of my mind. I am not sure if this is a natural event, but I am convinced that the mind cannot and was not made to comprehend such things. This is when I recognized that there was no discovering an answer for me. This experience was a sentence with no period, it was just not possible to classify the event and move on. I could not apply what I have learned my whole life, "that God has a plan for everyone," to this event. God could not have planned this for anyone, and in my mind it was decided by a human who was to live or die, not God. This is the concept that kept giving me rounded pieces to my puzzle, and I realized that no matter how hard I tried, I would never be able to piece them together.

With an overall feeling of helplessness and numbness as I left Birkenau, I thought back to the exhibit "From Memory to Action" at the Holocaust museum in Washington D.C. Going through each evolution of this program, I always had thoughts such as "well if I was there I would have..." and completed the sentence with some form of action that helped the innocent. However, history is history, and those thoughts are mere dreams that mean nothing to those who died in the Holocaust. More appropriately, those thoughts make me hypocritical, as today genocides are occurring in the world and at the present, I am completing that ambitious statement with "done nothing." Sixty-five years down the road, when my grandchildren ask me about a genocide they learned about in their history books and ask me what I did to help stop it, it would pain me to have to reply "nothing." I feel that by becoming active in helping those being persecuted may be one of the best and only ways to fill the voids placed within me by my knowledge and experience of the Holocaust. For with this empiricism, I feel a new sense of accountability for actions, or more befitting, inactions, that I may or may not take. After all, by doing nothing, I am merely a bystander.

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