Chautauqua Lake group visits Holocaust sites in Europe

MAYVILLE – Powerful. Haunting. Eye-opening. These are just some of the ways students from Chautauqua Lake Central School described their recent study tour to sites where the Nazi Holocaust took place and where the atrocities of that era are commemorated.

Teacher Leigh-Anne Hendrick led the group of students, most of whom are enrolled in the elective course she teaches on the Holocaust and genocide studies. Although she had not yet taken the Holocaust course at Chautauqua Lake, Emilie Christie reported, “Mrs. Hendrick and the other girls took special care to make sure I understood the historical context of each place we visited.”

They started the trip in Berlin; visited Warsaw and Krakow in Poland; and spent two days in Prague, Czech Republic. The group enjoyed breakfast in Paris on the way home. It was educational just to experience these cultures and sample their foods. The students learned phrases such as “hello,” “good day,” “please” and “thank you” in languages that were new to them.

Heather Sampson was moved at seeing the remains of the Berlin Wall. “This whole travel experience made me appreciate life just that much more,” she explained. “I’m happy to be healthy, to live life free.” A bus tour of Berlin gave the group an overview of the formerly divided city, where they visited the Check Point Charlie Museum and the “Topography of Terror” museum on the site of buildings which during the Nazi regime were the headquarters of the Gestapo and the SS.

Two days in Warsaw followed, including a visit to the Old Town. It was 90 percent destroyed during World War II, but the town and its castle are now faithfully restored by UNESCO. In class the students had learned about the ghetto uprising and were familiar with the stories of the leaders, so that standing at the site of their death was a personal and powerful experience. “The leaders of the uprising showed audacity and are our heroes,” Hendrick remarked.

A two-day visit to Krakow included a trip to the salt mines and an emotional visit to the concentration and death camps at Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau, a stark contrast to the beauty of Krakow. “I was not sure how students would react,” said Hendrick, “and it impacted each of them differently.”

“I have never experienced anything so haunting,” Emilie explained. “Everywhere, you could feel death.” “It is difficult to take in,” she added. “My boots touched the same soil that millions of Jewish feet stumbled over on their way to systematic destruction.”

For Megan Stahlsmith, it was hard just to walk through the camps. “At points, I felt numb,” she admitted.

“We can see pictures of the Holocaust, but actually being there made it feel more real,” observed Ashley Moulton, adding, “It made me finally realize how tragic the Holocaust really was.”

Heather agreed. “This trip helped me understand more about the resistance of many Jews, their pain and also the loved ones lost.”

Lauren Cummings said she “really began to feel what freedom is like. As soon as you step into the gates of the camps, your feeling of freedom escapes you.”

Jordan Mulholland reported, “Reality hit me square in the face as I saw the [human] hair, the shoes, and the braces” left behind by those who were exterminated by the Nazis. For her, visiting the camps “made me appreciate the life that I have and never to take anything for granted. It also taught me to spread love throughout my family and friends as much as I possibly can.”

“The trip deepened my emotional understanding of the Holocaust,” said Megan. Even though she had studied about the Holocaust in school, “everything was just more real to me, because I saw where the Holocaust took place. Knowing the facts did not impact me emotionally like actually being at Auschwitz, or next to the Warsaw Ghetto wall, seeing where the Jews went to be deported, and so much more.”

Emilie’s parents say that the travel experience helped her learn to be more independent. “It was the experience of a lifetime,” said Emilie, adding that the trip “opened my eyes to the tragedies of the world, as well as the wonder it holds. It gave me more confidence and broadened my horizons,” a comment shared by several of her travel companions.

Megan concurred, “This trip made me want to travel more,” noting that she overcame her fear of flying. “It made me want to see the world, explore the history of the world, and experience new things.”

Heather summed up her reaction, “This whole travel experience made me appreciate life just that much more. I’m happy to be healthy, to live life free. I will remember it all forever.”

Lauren thinks about life differently after having visited the Holocaust sites. “Your life can change almost instantaneously,” she remarked. “You need to live life to the fullest.”