By Sarah Sell, University Communications and Marketing
Eighteen students who took a study abroad trip to Europe focusing on the Holocaust came back with a deeper understanding of one of the darkest periods in history. The diverse group of students from USF's Judy Genshaft Honors College encountered grim details surrounding the persecution and genocide of millions of Jews from 1933-1945.
The ethics class, "Confronting the Holocaust," took them to Poland, the Czech Republic and Germany from June 1-15. Students explored tragic scenes at concentration and extermination camps while witnessing touching tributes and instances of humanity at museums and memorials. The goal was to bring depth of understanding to one of the worst mass murders in human history.
"Students began praying. It was very impactful. To contemplate what happened in the place where it happened, that was the challenge and beauty of the class.”
"It was the most impactful experience I've had in my academic career," said Taylor Herman, a political science major at USF St. Petersburg. "There are a lot of unknowns when planning to go abroad, but what we unpacked in Poland, the Czech Republic and Germany completely changed my perspectives on violence, conflict and humanity."
The group's first stop was in Warsaw, Poland, where they went on a day trip to one of the lesser-known extermination camps in Treblinka. The site was razed in the 1960s and replaced with stones representing the estimated 700,000 to 900,000 Jews who died there.
"Students began praying. It was very impactful,” said Thomas Smith, acting campus dean of the USF College of Arts & Sciences and professor of political science at USF St. Petersburg. “To contemplate what happened in the place where it happened, that was the challenge and beauty of the class.”
The group stopped in Krakow, now a center for modern Jewish life. It was home to Oskar Schindler, the humanitarian and member of the Nazi Party who is credited with saving the lives of 1,200 Jews by employing them in his factories.
They then traveled about an hour west to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest and most well-known concentration camp from World War II, with preserved gas chambers and artifacts. The site is one of the busiest destinations for visitors seeking knowledge and understanding of the Holocaust.
"We were there along with 5,000 other people that day, so it was a very different experience," Smith said. "Some things were so overwhelming that people didn't want to take pictures. There was a room that showed thousands of pounds of hair that had been cut from people's heads. It was horrible, just horrible."
In the Czech Republic, students saw another concentration camp in Terezin. Each stop allowed them to learn more about how the Holocaust developed over time.
The group ended their trip in Germany, where Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party first came to power in 1933. Students visited the town of Wannsee, just outside of Berlin, where government officials gathered for the Wannsee Conference of 1942. Here is where Nazi officials discussed the implementation of the "Final Solution of the Jewish Question," a euphemism that referred to the mass murder of European Jews. By the time the Holocaust ended in 1945, six million Jews and five million non-Jews were killed based on ethnicity, religion, political beliefs, disability or sexual orientation.
"This trip truly fascinated me with all the cities explored, the people we connected with and the memorials we visited," said Serena Lozandi, a biology major at USF St. Petersburg. "This experience has allowed me to develop a deeper understanding of the Holocaust and how it's memorialized in other countries, as well as have a deeper appreciation for different global perspectives."
During their two-week trip, students discussed what they saw and learned about the violence and inhumanity of the Holocaust. Each will write a final essay outlining their experience and weighing the ethical questions surrounding genocide and human rights today.