Long-time Greenwich resident Don Snyder recently traveled to Poland with 13 American military cadets to visit Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp where more than one million Jews were murdered. What follows is his account of that trip.
By Don Snyder
OSWIECIM, Poland -- In an upstairs room at the only remaining synagogue in this town, 37 miles west of Krakow, 13 future American military officers wrestled with ethical questions in the actual shadow of Auschwitz.
Clad in jeans and T-shirts, the students from West Point, the U.S. Naval Academy, the Air Force Academy and the honors program of the United States Coast Guard Academy listened as Christopher Clifton, a 21-year-old student from the United States Coast Guard Academy, called the murderers who conceived of and carried out the killings at Auschwitz "evil people who enjoyed doing evil to people."
Clifton's remarks drew a quick response from his fellow participants in the American Service Academies program, sponsored by the Auschwitz Jewish Center in Oswiecim and the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York.
"The Holocaust goes beyond evil," said midshipman Jordan Foley. "This was not carried out by an army of psychopaths," he said, adding that blaming the Holocaust on "evil people" is simplistic and ignores the systemic character of Nazi racist ideology. "If we write the killers off as psychopaths for this event, then we excuse humanity for allowing this to happen."
Foley, from Butler, Penn. is a 23-year-old senior at Annapolis. A Chinese major, he spent an academic year living in Beijing to improve his language skills.
Regina DiMarco, a 19-year-old cadet from West Point, agreed with Foley. "It was not an army of psychopaths who did this," she said. "It was an army of idealists inspired by dangerous Nazi ideology."
DiMarco, a petite woman from Fort Leavenworth, Kan., plans to become an army doctor. She was one of 13 cadets and midshipmen chosen this year from among 170 applicants to participate in the annual, two-week educational program, for students from West Point, Annapolis, the Air Force Academy and the Honors Program at the Coast Guard Academy.
The American Service Academies program, intended to heighten awareness of ethical issues in the military, seeks to provide a framework for examining what can happen when ethical considerations are not taken into account and military leaders abandon their responsibility to prevent atrocities.
Such atrocities are not limited to Germans during the Nazi period.
"Everybody has the capacity for absolute evil," said Ian Cameron, a 21-year-old midshipman at Annapolis. "It's important to realize that we shouldn't build up the mystique that there was something particularly evil about the Nazis that we couldn't repeat."
Will the experience at Auschwitz help them face potential battlefield dilemmas in Iraq and Afghanistan?
Foley saw a connection between his experience at Auschwitz and a heightened sensitivity to civilian casualties of war. He is troubled that drone attacks have killed innocent civilians in Pakistan and Afghanistan. "How many civilians are we allowed to kill in order to get high-value targets?" he asked. "We can't keep killing civilians like this. That is something I struggle with."
Cameron believes every officer must ask questions about policy. "We rarely reflect on the ethical foundations of military operations that we are involved in," he said, adding that even if young officers are not involved in shaping military policy, they still should ask themselves if the policy is wise.
During their three days at Auschwitz, the future military officers struggled to understand the sheer horror of the Holocaust and the complicity of the German military.
"I thought I would come here and discover what the victims went through and come away understanding the Holocaust," said Foley. "What I can't understand is how Germany, such a well-educated country, could commit this atrocity."
Walking through the red brick barracks of Auschwitz I, the original camp with the perverse "Arbeit Macht Frei" sign at the entrance -- translated "Work Makes Free" -- the cadets and midshipmen appeared numb when they saw the enormous glass cases piled with human hair, shoes, eye glasses and other ordinary articles that once belonged to those who died in the gas chambers.
"I was able to touch the walls that prisoners touched," said DiMarco. "I saw what they saw. When you close your eyes, you feel something here that you don't feel in a museum."
The role of the German military and the issues involved in obeying unethical orders was a pervasive theme.
"I could not live with myself if I carried out an order, knowing that it would harm civilians," said Foley. He acknowledged he would follow Navy protocol to protest implementing a questionable order. "The protest must be public and well thought-out," he said. "My only regret would be if I carried out a questionable order to save my career."
West Point cadet Sara Roger explained that students are taught about military atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Asked how to recognize an immoral order, Roger said that it is common sense based on the development of a moral compass.
Paris Scott, a 22-year-old Annapolis senior from Waldorf, Md. who is preparing to serve on a nuclear submarine, said he was frightened when he entered the crematorium.
"I got sick walking through this graveyard," he said. "I will never know what it means, but it is so overwhelming to be there and know that some people deny it happened. I never would have survived this place," he continued. "Why do I want to feel what they felt?"
Kelly Laurent, a 21-year-old Air Force Academy student, said she cried when she heard someone say "See you tomorrow." She realized there were no tomorrows for those who died in the gas chamber.
On their last day in Oswiecim, the group worked at cleaning up a Jewish cemetery that dates back to the 18th century. While no Holocaust victims are buried here, the cemetery itself fell victim to the Germans who destroyed it and took away the tombstones.
The young Americans trimmed hedges, weeded walkways and removed snails from the tombstones. "Part of our program for the cadets is to have them do something real to preserve history," said Tomasz Kuncewicz ,director of the Auschwitz Jewish Center.
Foley related an incident in the cemetery that intensified his experience of the Holocaust. As they were working, they found a dying bird covered with flies. All agreed it should be put out of its misery, but no one was willing to actually do it. Finally, Foley killed the bird with a hoe.
"I felt really bad," he said, recalling the guide at Auschwitz telling how a German bashed an infant's head against a concrete wall. "How can someone do that to a human being?" he asked. "I had a rough time killing a dying bird."
Some of the Cadets and Midshipmen who participated in the program with the Auschwitz Jewish Center will be at Temple Sholom at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 11 to discuss their experiences in the American Service Academies Program. They will present in a roundtable format, followed by a question-and-answer period. Dessert and coffee will be served. There is no charge. The cadets discussion is part of a larger program called "Breaking the Silence: A Response to Genocide," presented by Temple Sholom, Christ Church and The Sholom Center. For a full schedule of events or to RSVP to the cadets forum, contact Lori Baden at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 203-542-7172.