Thursday, June 14, 2012

Special Thanks to our Hosts

It has been a few days since the group of students, veterans and survivors returned to the United States. One by one, we have enjoyed hearing from them as they recall the highlights of the trip. Some reflect on specific locations, some on the relationships that developed. There are no complaints - only gratitude for an experience that has changed each one for the better.

This would not be possible without the professional work of Ray and Cristy Pfeiffer of Historic Tours, Inc. The Pfeiffers have hosted three such patriotic trips for College of the Ozarks, and have been operating commemorative tours in Europe for 29 years, focusing on the role of American forces in WWII. Ray is a lifelong student of the war. He and Cristy had a home on Omaha Beach, and have directed tours for the White House, Congressional delegations, and other institutions.

College of the Ozarks is blessed to partner with such knowledgeable and caring people. The Pfeiffers spend countless hours in advance of our tour to set up tours, special ceremonies, commemorative events, and more. They are well-connected with officials and leaders at every stop along the way. If you have a need, they will see that it is met.

Thank you, Ray and Cristy, for providing a trip of a lifetime for our students, and for treating our veterans and survivors with the honor and respect they so deserve. We appreciate your partnership with our patriotic program, and look forward to working with you again!

From the Keeter Center for Character Education
College of the Ozarks


Monday, June 11, 2012

The Greatest Generation

Ten days, five countries, four concentration camps and 34 lives changed forever. This journey began with three objectives: 1) to remember the fallen, 2) to honor the Veterans and Survivors and 3) to educate the students. We were given the task to facilitate, to sponsor and to negotiate this great adventure of historical discovery and revelation. As we all expected, while all these roles are important, our greatest role became to participate as history unfolded around us.

Whether we were designated as a sponsor, a nurse, a photographer or any of the other myriad of titles, we found our main focus in being present with the Veterans, Survivors and students. Participating in the Veteran and Survivor personal experiences proved enriching for our lives.

Our "Remembering the Holocaust" trip afforded amazing opportunities. This trip allowed Survivors to return to the camps where they were imprisoned for the first time since being liberated. This trip allowed a Veteran to meet a prisoner of the concentration camp he liberated...face-to-face. For many of the Veterans and Survivors, these experiences gave them a final sense of closure and healing to the thoughts that have wounded them for so long. This trip created life-long friendships between Veterans, Survivors, faculty and students.

One Veteran, Mr. Mickey Dorsey, brought along several magazine articles and pictures about World War II and the Holocaust for students and staff to read. A fifty year Holocaust commemorative article from US News and World Report (April 3, 1995) cites an article from Christian Century entitled "Gazing Into the Pit" which said, "the Holocaust shows 'the horror of humanity itself when it surrendered to its capacity for evil. Buchenwald and other concentration camps spell doom. But it is not only the doom of the Nazi's; it is the doom of man unless he can be brought to worship at the feet of the living God.'" As we seek truth, as defined by a Biblical worldview, this becomes our greatest commission in the war of ideas to prevent the next Holocaust. As Jesus said, " 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the great and foremost commandment.  The second is like it, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets." (Matthew 22:37-40 NAS) As we embrace these two greatest commandments, we protect ourselves and the next generation as we pass on these most essential truths.  

We are very fortunate to work for an institution that values patriotism and character and is willing to go above and beyond to instill those same values in the students. Thank you to College of the Ozarks for this wonderful experience and never-ending pursuit of Christ-like character.

We are also very blessed to participate in this trip with our Veterans and Survivors. It is such an honor to accompany real heroes to the places that have built and shaped our country. The freedoms we have to teach, work, live and even write this blog were fought for by these brave men.

As remarkable as the entire trip has been, the students have shown bright through all they have experienced. It was amazing to see them envelop themselves in the lives of our Survivors and Veterans. It was an honor to accompany fine Americans through these difficult places. The strength of their every action revealed the love of Christ.

We all feel very blessed to have had this opportunity to travel and experience history. In addition, we also are very blessed to be able to work with this exceptional group of students on a daily basis. Not only have we traveled and developed friendships with the greatest generation, we have also had the blessing and honor of teaching and mentoring the next greatest generation.

Paul Baker
Bill Gebhart
Gary Herchenroeder
Lisa Herchenroeder
Fred Mullinax

Saturday, June 9, 2012

A Thank You From One Generation to Another

Dearest Dr. Brent,      
You have changed our hearts forever. We will always treasure our time with you as some of the most influential moments of our lives. Not only did you surprise us with your witty sarcasm, but you blessed us with your sweet comments. Thank you for your honesty. Thank you for your guidance. Thank you for your lessons.      

Love always,
Sabrina Elliott, Michael Dickinson, and Emma Martin

Dear Chan,
Thank you for sharing your stories and being a wonderful teacher to us these past few days. It was an honor to walk with you through so many historical places and be a witness to your memories. You have permanently made a mark on all our hearts, and we hope we have done the same for you. Thank you for your service in the military, and fighting for us so we didn't have to. We will be sure to share your legacy with as many people as possible, so that what you have done for us is never forgotten!

We love you and hope to see you again soon!
April Van Haitsma, Grace Helms, and Sarah Unruh

Dear Hall,
Thank you so much for all the memories and stories you have shared with us. We are proud to have made a friendship that will last a lifetime. You have been a blessing to be around and have changed the way we look at history forever. We look forward to hearing from you more in the future.

With love and humbled hearts,
Austin Plummer and Bonnie Andersen

Dearest Gershon,
First of are phenomenal and we are so blessed to have you in our lives. We would not trade our time with you for anything because we have developed a relationship that is bound by something stronger than words. Your life stories are unforgettable and we cherish all that you are, past and present. Thank you for being such an influential man in our lives. We love you like family, Grandpa Gerk. We are both excited to maintain our relationship with you for years to come.

Ashley Bench and Trey Owens

To our good friend Gordon,
Thank you for the joy and wisdom you have shared with us over the past week. Your positive outlook on life has helped to keep smiles on our faces,  even as we witnessed the horrors of mankind. The time we have shared with you is forever planted in our hearts. We appreciate your service to this country and your stories will not be forgotten.  We look forward to seeing you in the future.

With Love,
Tara Paczowski and Ryan Meeks

Dear Mr. Spooner,
Thank you for joining us on this trip. You continuously told us that our lives will be changed when the trip is over and you are right. You have kindly opened up and shared your experiences of trials and triumphs. Your stories and passionate words have left lasting effects on our lives. We will take your experiences and share them with others so they can better understand the horrors and consequences of hatred. We thank you again and we hope to see soon in the future.

Alex Berner and Kari Jurgena

To Mr. Mickey Dorsey,
You are truly one of a kind. Thank you for all of the laughs, memories you shared of your past experiences, your willingness to participate in every activity, and the time you invested into us.  Thank you for your bravery in serving our country to protect our freedoms and for being an outstanding example of overcoming adversity. They say you learn from history only by experiencing it, and we believe you are one of the greatest teachers. Even when we return home, we will take a piece of you with us always.

Ashton Phillips, John Withrow and Alexis Schields

Golf Carts in Krakow

Auschwitz & Birkenau

Friday, June 8, 2012

I Wish I Could Cry

One of our guides told us students that we are witnesses to the witness. We felt the great weight of this responsibility in a very real way today as we walked through what Dr. Brent aptly called "the most terrible place on earth." As we drove into the massive complex that is Auschwitz, we were shocked by its size. The air was thick with the tension each of us held about the day: Survivors who had never been back, Veterans who liberated, and students who were ready to learn and share. None of us knew what to expect from this day.

As a group, we laid a wreath to honor those lost to the horrors of the Holocaust. Again, we lined up to hug our Survivors and Veterans, and the weight of their experiences was transferred onto each of us.

Today we saw what hatred could do, but we also saw what love can do. Dr. Brent shared with us the Jewish tradition of laying a stone on the burial site of a loved one as a way to honor their passing. He leaned down to the railroad track at Birkenau and chose a stone to place at his father's grave. He straightened up and muttered, "I wish I could cry."

In a way, this moment made us see our trip in a different light; just as in the Jewish tradition of placing a stone on the grave of a loved one, our Survivors are placing a stone on the grave of the Holocaust. They are laying down the heavy burden they have carried for over half a century. As they lay them down, we now carry the great privilege and responsibility of ensuring that these stories are never forgotten and that these atrocities will never be repeated. We refuse to let the stories of Dr. Brent, Gershon Ron, and George Spooner leave our memories.

This day was difficult; it brought tears, both of sorrow for the past and hope for the future. But today was an essential moment in each of our lives, one that we were chosen to receive. Seeing the gratitude and relief in the eyes of our Survivors and Veterans made every difficult moment worth the tears. It brings a great joy and peace to our hearts to see them at rest, knowing their memories are safely preserved.

"Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." - Matthew 11:28 (ESV)

Michael Dickinson, junior
Sabrina Elliot, junior
Emma Martin, senior

A Survivors Discussion - Part 3

Holocaust Survivors (Dr. George Brent, Mr. George Spooner and Mr. Gershon Ron) discuss history and events surrounding the rise of the Nazi party and the effect it had on their lives.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Stand United and Know the Truth

"First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out, for I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out, for I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the gypsies and I did not speak out, for I was not a gypsy. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, for I was not Jewish. Then they came for me. And there was no-one left to speak out for me." - Martin Niemöller, Dachau Survivor

Thus far, we have visited Dachau and Mauthausen, both concentration camps under the Third Reich. Families were divided and taken to various camps, depending on their abilities. The elderly were some of the first to be terminated, along with women and small children. With such horrible things happening all around, why didn't communities rise up against the Nazi party in an effort to stop the extermination of innocent people? Did they know what was going on around them? The Survivors and Veterans on this trip have answered those questions for us from their perspectives. Gershon Ron, a Holocaust Survivor, said "I was lucky. Very lucky."

The mindst of the people who lived through the camps is remarkable. These camps were all throughout Eastern Europe even though we only hear about a few. Realizing how wide spread it was sends chills down your spine. Our tour guide through Mauthausen grew up around the area. She said the camps were not discussed, even 20 years after the war was over. It wasn't until later in life that she decided to research the concentration camps and discovered that she grew up very close to one. Her parents and neighbors who lived there while all this was going on, didn't speak about it, even though they knew, to an extent, the inhumane atrocities that were happening.

Our tour guide also shared a quote from a German WWII Veteran, "I spent my youth in obedience, my soldier's life in denial, my adulthood in regret and sorrow, and my old age in acceptance." That sad but real understanding can disturb any American who has never lived under Communism or experienced that kind of tyranny. In America, we are very used to freedom. This trip has given us a better appreciation of that freedom by sharing these priceless moments with such incredible men. And the responsibility that comes along with that is high.

"The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing." - Edmond Burke

This experience, if nothing else, has taught us that we can't sit back and watch as life goes on around us- we must be active participants, seeking out truth, and standing up for what we believe. As Americans, and especially as Christians, we believe that if we stand together in Christ, we can overcome all things. We begin to walk in the light of Christ, when we stand united and know the truth.

Seeing these sites and hearing the stories of people who were deeply affected first hand at these concentration camps, have given us a glimpse at what human depravity can produce.

Austin Plummer, senior
Bonnie Andersen, junior
Dr. Hall Duncan, WWII Veteran

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

I Could Have Used a Hug in 1945

György Balaesa, known to us as Dr. George Brent, has become our hero in the last seven days. Still sporting his Hungarian accent, Dr. Brent surprises us constantly with his wit and sarcasm. His quiet personality does not hold him back from speaking his mind about anything and everything--including the events he survived several decades ago.

Born to a Jewish family in 1929, he was fourteen in 1944 when he and his entire family were transported by cattle car to Auschwitz-Birkenau with thousands of other Hungarian Jews. Those who were still alive were pushed, shoved, and dragged off the cars and forced into lines. An SS (Schutzstaffel) soldier stood and made the selection: left or right. He and his father were sent one direction: to life; his mother and ten year-old brother were sent the other direction: to the "showers." They were stripped of their clothes, their heads were shaved, and their freedom was taken.

At Mauthausen yesterday, the wind chill made it feel like winter. We stood shivering as we looked around us at the place that brought the deaths of so many. The three Survivors and four Veterans were honored before we entered the confines of the camp. After the short wreath-laying ceremony, the students made a line to thank these seven men. As we hugged our hero, he whispered the words, "Where were you in 1945? I could have used a hug."

As we walked arm-in-arm with Dr. Brent through both Dachau and Mauthausen, he shared stories and information that can never be properly displayed through a history book. Dr. Brent lived through the Holocaust. He survived the brutal beatings, the cruel treatment, the hunger, and the extreme cold, and he has given us the incredible gift of sharing his stories.

He arrived at Mauthausen by cattle car in January 1945, was forced to make the walk up the hill to the fortress, strip down, shower, and stand naked in the bitter cold and wind while the SS arranged the rags he would wear for the next miserable months of his life. As he told us this story, we could not fathom bearing this wind and cold in January 1945, with no clothes, no food, no strength, as he watched the last threads of hope slip away.

Dr. Brent not only survived these horrors; he thrived. He came to America in 1949, saw the Statue of Liberty, and began to learn a new language and start over in life. Because of experience in a displaced person camp in Europe following World War II, Dr. Brent served as a dental assistant during the Korean War, attaining the rank of Airman First Class. Following his service, he was given the opportunity of attending dental school at University of Illinois. He practiced dentistry until 2011, when he retired at the age of 81. He raised four beautiful daughters and has eight lovely grandchildren, of whom he shared pictures with us.

Dr. Brent has changed us. Through his openness, we have learned a new depth to the value of human life and the will to survive against all odds. He, along with the other six men, have appointed us with the terrific duty and honor of sharing their stories with the generations to come. It is a heavy weight to bear, but it is an incredible blessing to carry these stories on.

Michael Dickinson, junior
Sabrina Elliot, junior
Emma Martin, senior


Tuesday, June 5, 2012

A Vow Never to Forget

Overwhelmed by history, our experience with Mr. Gershon Ron, Holocaust Survivor, personalizes the events that took place during a time of great hardship. Gershon was born a Jewish child in Czechoslovakia. At the age of 13, his father, a member of the Hungarian Army, was the first to be taken from his family. As a slave, he worked in a camp digging trenches. Following his father's arrest, his mother, younger brother and Gershon were taken to Birkenau where his nightmare began. Separated from his family on the day of their first selection, Gershon watched as his brother marched toward the gas chambers, meeting death. The whereabouts of his mother were unknown until he encountered a female friend who had been with her a few weeks following the separation. He waited at the fence for confirmation, but the SS (Schutzstaffel) chased him away before they met. After American liberation, Gershon believed he was alone. His fears were relieved when he was reunited with his mother. A joyous reunion indeed.

All expectations were exceeded by the prison walls that resembled a fortress of the Mauthausen concentration camp. Gershon mentioned an uneasy stomach as we approached the camp. The experience was intensified from a mood set by a dreary, cold forecast. As we entered the camp, we approached three plaques dedicated to the 11th Armored Division, 65th Infantry Division and the 26th Infantry Division (Yankee Division). To honor the Survivors and Veterans, a ceremonial wreath was placed at their feet as they were lined up below the plaques. Later, Gershon shared his feelings with us. "I wasn't expecting that to be so emotional, but the memories of the camp flooded back as we stood at the wall," said Gershon. "I felt like we were being lined up to be shot but in reality we were being honored. I felt such relief when you 'kids' came to hug me." That comment alone made the trip worth is as we were able to be a comfort in his time of need.

After the ceremony, Gershon rushed ahead to see the Wailing Wall, a place where inmates were stripped of their clothing and were forced to stand facing the wall in the freezing weather of January until the SS decided they could leave. Following the visit to the Wailing Wall, we visited one of the renovated barracks that were used to house close to 300 inmates in a single room.The room felt claustrophobic after this realization.

Next, we went to the gas chambers. Plaques on every wall described the atrocious actions that took place. We stood in the room where Nazis would degrade inmates after death further by throwing their bodies in the crematorium to remove all evidence. There was also a dissection room for removal of gold teeth, the tattooed skin of inmates and other experiments. The atmosphere was indescribable.

We then visited a chapel within the concentration camp where we meditated on the trials that occurred in this evil place. Mr. George Spooner, a Holocaust Survivor, recited Psalm 23 to the group and a prayer was said in remembrance of the lives lost. Even though the experience was hard, this was one of the highlights of our day as we had the opportunity to pray with Gershon. Everyone had the opportunity to sit in the presence of God and praise Him for being a merciful and gracious Father.

After having lunch in the town of Mauthausen, we traveled to the "Stairs of Death" located near the camp. The stairs consisted of 186 steps that inmates were forced to climb while carrying heavy granite boulders. The treacherous climb usually ended with death as the SS officers would force the prisoners to jump off the cliff. They called it Jewish Paratrooper Training as a cynical joke. At the top of the cliff stood numerous monuments from each country in remembrance of the people who lost their lives at Mauthausen. At the top of the cliff, a group of 6 students prayed over the impact of the camp and made a vow never to forget the responsibility to pass on the knowledge gained during this trip. We have stood where Hitler has stood, where fear and torture was used as a weapon, where tears were shed, where innocents lost their freedom and where millions were massacred. We are truly grateful for this time with Gershon and will take this experience with us throughout the rest of our lives. He says we are his adopted grandchildren and we plan on maintaining that relationship for a long time to come.

Ashley Bench, junior
Trey Owens, junior