A distance swimmer at Albion College, one would have to believe Katie Ferrero, '19, has ample opportunity to put her life in perspective as she ticks off the yards in the pool.
She developed a fresh perspective, however, standing in the barracks of a concentration camp in Auschwitz where millions of Jews were held during World War II. Flanked by classmates and college staff on a trip to Poland in early May as the capstone of the College's Holocaust Studies Service Learning Project, Ferrero looked out, gazed at the fence, and could not help but ask why.
"The phrase 'not taking anything for granted' is overused, but this experience made me realize how much I've been given," Ferrero, a Royal Oak, Mich., native said. "The trip made me realize what really matters and how much of an impact I have on other people.
"I've read memoirs (written by prisoners who survived the camp), but it did not put it in perspective until I was there," the exercise science major who serves as vice president of the Britons Student-Athlete Advisory Committee added. "None of us know exactly how those people felt and grateful has an entirely new meaning to me.
"No one said a word on the tour," she continued. "There were three shelves in the barrack and four people were supposed to be shoved into little section, but you know way more than four were on the shelf at one time. To sum it up, I mainly was thinking about how the barrack we were in was mainly for children. As a child, I don't think I would have known to stay next to the chimneys for warmth at night to survive."
Among the required reading during the spring semester included books by Holocaust survivors Judith Magyar Isaacson, Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel and Gerda Weissmann Klein, and another by Nechama Tec, whose family found refuge with Polish Christians during the Holocaust.
The tour of Auschwitz followed four days of work restoring a section of the New Jewish Cemetery in Wroclaw, property that fell into disrepair after the Polish government expelled Jews from the city after the Six-Day Arab-Israeli War in 1967. Holocaust Studies Service Learning groups from Albion have been working on clearing the trees, dirt and ivy that had covered graves that had not been seen for 50 or 60 years since the trips began on a biennial basis in 1999.
Ferrero admitted to a sense of confusion as she entered the site that she described as looking forgotten and unloved. She was troubled at the thought of finding grave markers tipped over and knowing married couples never rested in peace next to their loved one.
Those troubled emotions, however, subsided under the sense of purpose of the mission.
Rachel Zawodny, '18, a history major who a concentration in secondary education who plays in the back row for the Britons volleyball team, doesn't like yardwork. Weeding, in particular. However, she said the service work was done with joy, as a photograph of Zawodny smiling as she carried to load of tree branches away indicates.
"There was sadness thinking, 'How much does a person have to hate to deface a tombstone'," Zawodny said. "But, in a place where so many lives are impacted the work wasn't a chore. We were honoring families. When you step back and think about the last time someone saw these graves and to think I'm part of that person's family."
In fact, Zawodny added a photograph of her kneeling by a grave site to her Facebook wall with the text, "Salo, Eugenie and Kurtel; I may not have been a part of your lives but thank you for changing mine."
The learning on the tour included a visit to Oskar Schindler's factory and a Shabbat service in Wroclaw.
"The people we met are strong to share that kind of past," Zawodny said. "I am thankful to those who were willing to share their stories and past so that we can share those stories with our friends and families and anyone else we may meet. These are not just stories, they are lessons in humanity.
"I always thought I was an open person, but I am even more so now," she concluded. "My goal is to be kind to everyone, live to the fullest and show as much love as I can."
Robert Joerg, '19, a political science major with a concentration in the College's Gerald R. Ford Institute for Leadership in Public Policy and Service and the No. 3 singles player for the Briton men's tennis team, said the spring semester class and trip met its objective of laying out the history in hopes a period like the Holocaust never happens again.
"What I took from the Holocaust Studies class and the ensuing trip is how we must preserve the history of the Holocaust so that we can use this knowledge to prevent genocide from happening in the future," Joerg said. "In less than 10 years after assuming power, Adolph Hitler began the mass extermination of Jews and other targeted groups. This slippery slide from democratic government into mass murder can happen anywhere, which is why we need to use the lessons from the Holocaust to call out persecution when it arises.
"Working in the cemetery, seeing the cities where the Holocaust occurred, and learning about Jewish culture has enriched my knowledge of the world," he added. "It has also given me a new perspective on the importance of human life – viewing the tons of human hair in Block 4 of Auschwitz is something that is indescribable."
Please see the Holocaust Studies Service Learning Project blog for more reflections.
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