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

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