While taking Dr. Rick Halperin’s course “America’s Dilemma: The Struggle for Human Rights” in the fall of 2016, each Monday evening I found myself sickened, angry and heartbroken to learn intricate details of past and present-day atrocities. I convinced myself that taking the “Holocaust Germany Trip” would be just a mere extension of that class. Unbeknownst to me, it was far from “mere” in any respect.
The opportunity to walk the grounds, touch the buildings and comprehend the horror Holocaust victims experienced was well beyond anything I could have imagined.
Traversing each concentration camp was surreal. With each step, I became spiritually connected to the tortured individuals whose feet had taken the same path. I found myself being silent, just in case the towering trees or singing birds might offer some explanation of what happened here. And with each passing day, and each visit to another sacred place, my soul became more taxed.
Once you’ve stood in a gas chamber disguised to look like a shower – where hundreds of thousands of innocent people took their last, gasping breaths – you can never be the same again.
The victims’ cries of anguish that I could hear in my mind will last a lifetime. So will the question they prompted: “What kind of person does this to another living being?” I vowed to never again be silent about human rights violations.
The trip was life-changing, to say the least. That may sound cliché, but I have no other way to describe its magnitude. Getting to experience each place with others dedicated to learning from the past to improve our future was phenomenal.
Though all of us represented a diverse mix of backgrounds, together we formed a bond as a family, one that will be everlasting. We learned from each other and strengthened our levels of empathy as we listened and wiped away each other’s tears.
Because of my African American heritage, I viewed much of what I saw through an additional lens. Reading about the Nazi policies, I found the public policy taking shape in our country right now strikingly familiar. Each time I read the bio of a political prisoner, I couldn’t help but identify with that oppressed person. And with the possibility of protesting becoming a crime in the U.S., an outspoken person such as myself can’t help but wonder what the future holds.
I took to social media to share my daily experiences, and was astonished when friends would comment, “Enjoy!” or “Have a great time!” What they don’t know is that this trip was unlike any vacation. (During past trips, for example, I don’t recall crying, or dealing with a huge lump in my throat, on a daily basis.)
This experience will remain with me forever. And for that I can thank SMU’s commitment to shaping “World Changers.”
From this point forward, everywhere I go, I’ll use what I’ve learned during this trip to ensure I’m always an “upstander,” and never a bystander, as so many Germans were during Hitler’s regime. I’ll also spread the message that there is no such thing as a lesser person.