When I signed up for this trip, I had a very general idea of what it would be about. Father McManus told me I would be traveling through Romania and Moldova with a team interviewing witnesses of the Holocaust. That’s all I needed to know to sign up. After being in Father McManus’ pro-seminar, I knew this trip would be a wonderful opportunity for me to learn more about genocide, anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust. I could imagine this trip being heavily emotional and I could even imagine myself feeling homesick in Eastern Europe, but I could not let this opportunity pass me by. I had to go.
Now, as the trip comes close to an end, I can say that I was halfway right. It has been an emotional trip, but the interviews are so much like police investigations and the brutality of the locals, Romanian troops, and Nazis was so extreme that it has been difficult for me to digest most of what I’ve heard. I’m still in a bit of shock at how the witnesses we have spoken to were able to speak so casually about the executions. I think that the emotional pang will hit me when I get back home and take the time to play out everything I’ve heard and seen during this trip.
I did not expect to be confused for royalty when we visited the Gypsy community. I was in awe at the sight of the beautiful houses, the cute little girls, and the intricate skirts that the women were wearing. There was so much color, noise, and culture surrounding me. I wanted to admire all of it, see everything. I was also stupefied by the way that things turned so suddenly. Everyone looked so peaceful, and out of nowhere there was shouting, pushing, and pulling. Nonetheless, it was a wonderful experience, and one that I am grateful for. I don’t know if I’ll ever see another Gypsy community again in my life, but I feel extremely lucky to have experienced it.
Listening to witnesses and seeing the mass graves and cemeteries was definitely the best part of this trip. The Gypsy village was exciting, but it was the witnesses that brought me to Romania and Moldova. I wanted to hear their stories and their perspectives. I wanted to understand the genocide and I thought that perhaps seeing the landscape and listening to eyewitnesses would help. And it did, a little. I can see how the conflict escalated, how bigotry blinded people, but I still don’t understand how a person can look at other human beings and not see their humanity. I would like to think that in a situation like the Holocaust, I would be brave enough to help out those who are targeted. Despite this, I don’t think that the people we interviewed are evil. It’s easy to point fingers and blame them for not doing anything, but some did try to help. Others let things happen, but I don’t consider them monsters, I think they were just scared. I think that what most of the witnesses we interviewed lacked was courage and education.
During Father McManus’ pro-seminar, we concluded that courage is what distinguishes people like Jan Karski from a Nazi. Cowardice turns people into followers; courage turns people into heroes. I am not trying to make an excuse for the bystanders of the Holocaust, I just think that genocide isn’t as black and white as textbooks and high school classes make it seem. Everyone who lived during the Holocaust carries a different degree of responsibility, there are no innocents and it is not fair to simply blame the Germans or the locals. And in the end, even the perpetrators are human. They had fears, ambitions, and incentives like the rest of us. Students, parents, teachers, and government officials must realize that the entire world was to blame for the Holocaust and if it resulted in over 6 million dead Jews, it’s because most of the world was either afraid or indifferent to the crime.
All I can say for sure, is that this trip made me a little sadder. But it’s a good type of sadness that makes me want to learn more in order to help prevent future genocides and to assist in ridding societies of anti-Semitism.
This trip has been so much more than I ever expected: I learned about a topic I am passionate about, I explored two countries, I made some great friends, and I learned a few French and Romanian words.
If I could, I would do it again and I cannot wait for Yahad to offer another opportunity like this. My gratitude for everything I experienced during this trip expands beyond what I can express with words. This trip has become the highlight of my freshmen year at Georgetown. I will never forget it.