WHA Visit to Poland

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Story by Study Abroad Student Elizabeth Schmidt

On February 25th, the Webster Humanitarian Association (WHA) took a journey to Poland that left everyone on it changed forever. The group set out to discover the history of Krakow and understand what had happened at Auschwitz during World War Two.

The group arrived late Saturday night and toured the city of Krakow through Sunday, exploring its towering, intricate architecture, politically unique history, old university, and hearty food. Finn McFadyen found the city particularly welcoming; “Krakow was a student friendly city offering lots of entertainment at good prices. I would recommend anyone to go on the WHA trip to Poland.”

Within the beautiful buildings and rich culture of Poland lies a history of great suffering. The third day of the trip was spent in Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II, also called Birkenau. One of the participating students, Layan Almuhtaseb said, “The concentration camp is a place I have always wanted to visit to show my respect to all the lives that have been lost during the war. It was mind blowing, interesting, and thought provoking.”

The group started in Auschwitz I, where the first prisoners, primarily Polish, were taken to be worked to death. The group then continued to Birkenau, where prisoners were also forced to do hard labor and where hundreds of thousands of Jews were murdered. In both camps remain gas chambers and ovens used to incinerate the bodies of victims. The heaviness of suffering hangs over both sites, as does the feeling that what happened there is contradictory to humanity. In both places, the marks of resistance can still be found. The letter “B” in the famous sign above Auschwitz I stands upside down, a move made by the prisoner who was forced to forge it. In Birkenau stand memorials to four prisoners who destroyed one of the gas chambers. Within the camps, the group was able to touch the preserved memory of both indescribable suffering and bravery.

The group also experienced the camps’ barracks, in which prisoners lived in crowded, unsanitary, conditions in both unbearable heat and cold. Finn McFadyen reflected, “I think that it was breathtaking to see just how poorly the prisoners had to live in Auschwitz, and I think that it's something that everyone should see.”

In some of the barracks, pictures of the victims lined the walls with their age, profession, date of entry into the camp, and date of death. Many of them were the age of Webster students, some were younger. From the photos, you could see in some of them defiance, in others heartbreak, but each face was a reminder that these were real people who endured the unspeakable. These were parents and children, friends and partners, artists and laborers and scientists who loved and were loved. Each one of them carried a unique and precious story before all that was left was a mug shot and an empty pair of shoes.

Glimpsing the lives of the victims, their backgrounds and the places that they suffered and were murdered, one could begin to understand what was lost during the holocaust. The stories that were brought to a brutal end with each victim were reminders of how precious each life is and how much prejudice and contempt, unchecked, can destroy.

One of the participating Webster Geneva students, Dravid Lord, said, “I am very fortunate to have spent this time with this group for my second trip to Poland. To have been born in this century is one of my privileges. I am very downhearted about Auschwitz but also proud of the level of progress that we are at now, still there are many similar cases happening this moment all around the world. Hope we do our best for the future.”

When asked what he hopes visitors take away from Auschwitz, the memorial’s director said that he wants everyone to realize that they have a responsibility to take care of the small part of the world that they touch and the people that surround them. Seeing the memorial in person leaves one with a heavy heart, but to concede that we are powerless to stop such suffering or to dismiss injustices that we witness as someone else’s problem is to allow the millions of people murdered in camps like Auschwitz to have died in vain. We do not have to try to save the whole world, but the memory of Auschwitz calls us to do everything we can to make our personal influence one of compassion, humanity, and the courage and dedication to stand for both. For the members of WHA who attended the Poland trip, that calling cannot be unheard.