Six months after touring concentration camps and Holocaust memorials in Germany and Poland, a group of 10 Catholic students and their teachers relived the experience Nov. 9 at the College of Saint Elizabeth in Convent Station.
The occasion was the screening, in the college’s Annunciation Center, of a 58-minute documentary of their visit called Rest Here: Universal Lessons of the Holocaust, by Summit filmmaker Lisa Reznik. The pilgrimage began in Berlin on May 15 and ended six days later in Warsaw.
“It was a transformative trip for everybody, but it was a very difficult trip,” said Reznik as she introduced the video. “But the students who came are dedicated to fighting the anti-Semitism and genocide and racism that we experience today.”
Helping them understand the horrors that happened in the places they visited — Auschwitz, Majdanek, and Treblinka, the ghettos of Warsaw and Cracow — was a guide named Pinchas Gutter.
Born in 1932, he survived life in the terrorized Jewish enclaves in Lodz, then Warsaw, before he and his family were incarcerated in Majdanek. Gutter, who now lives in Toronto, brought his wife, Dorothy; his daughter, Rumi; and his 27-year-old grandson, Daniel, on the trip. Together they retraced his steps through the hellish years of World War II and shared his memories and their reflections with the students.
At one point he led the group of 33 into the barracks where he had been confined as an 11-year-old boy. In the film, standing in front of the bunks where he slept, Gutter told the group that he was kicked repeatedly and brutally by a kapo — one of the prisoners the Nazis had tasked with disciplining fellow inmates. Gutter said he still suffers the aftermath of that assault.
Since his first return to the camp in 2002, he has been especially interested in giving guided tours to non-Jews.
Carla Wittes, program director of the March of Remembrance and Hope, works with Gutter to conduct annual trips to Holocaust sites for “very diverse groups” of college students. She said Gutter’s lesson is: “The Holocaust was not a Jewish story; it was a story for all of humanity, and Pinchas feels impelled to take it beyond the Jewish community.”
Said Amy Weiss, director of the college’s Center for Holocaust and Genocide Education, “It’s not just a Jewish concern.”
Contrary to expectations, the attendees said the mood of the trip was not altogether morose.
“It was an invigorating and uplifting shared experience,” said Margaret Roman, a professor of English at Saint Elizabeth’s who went on the trip along with Harriet Sepinwall, the recently retired director of the college’s Holocaust center. “The film should be shown to other students to give them a sense of adventure and learning. It may be sad at times but it was very fulfilling.”
Three of the undergraduates who went on the trip addressed the audience after the screening, at the college’s Annunciation Center.
“Looking back at the video I got more emotional than I did on the trip,” said Dana Fuardo. “I will be forever grateful for this video. There are no words to describe when you are actually there.”
Mia Shevere said the trip was “very intense for me. The hardest part for me was seeing Auschwitz, and I got very emotional.”
Morgan Sim said she has been fascinated with the Holocaust since she learned about it in seventh and eighth grades and wanted to visit its infamous landmarks “to learn all the history there was to it.” She intends to become a teacher of Holocaust studies “so I can hopefully make a difference so that it never happens again.”
The students were asked how they related as non-Jews to the events of the Holocaust and whether the might have risked their own lives to save Jews from persecution.
“I definitely thought about that,” said Fuardo. “You are trying to save your own life and there are so many people around you who are being sent to ghettos and concentration camps…. You see death all around. I definitely would want to help as much as possible.”
Sim said that the trip to Poland intensified her interest in teaching the Holocaust. “I will be able to say, ‘I went to Treblinka and all these other places’ and it gives me more of a personal aspect.”
Reznik said she hopes to receive grant money to complete the editing process on the film and have it shown at film festivals and on public television. She would also like to see it used as an educational tool. Like the students, it was her first visit to the camps and ghettos. “It showed me the importance of making sure that genocide never happens again,” she said.
The event was part of CSE’s 26th Annual Kristallnacht Commemoration-Week of Holocaust Remembrance.