Auschwitz: Past is Present - A life changing event

Tue, 01/26/2016 - 3:14pm

In January 2015, I traveled to Poland for the Auschwitz: Past is Present professional development program, commemorating the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau. This entire experience, was and continues to be a life changing event for me on every level personally, professionally, and academically. It stands as a crossroads in my life from where everything I do, touch, and see in my life from being a father, a teacher, and an active community member, are all now influenced by my experiences from the program. From the moment I got back I knew that the experiences in Poland would forever influence my present, but I had no idea to what depth that would be.

Working with junior intern Charlie at Museum of the History of the Polish Jews in Warsaw.
Professional development

The program last year was a whirlwind in speed, but spoke to me on a spiritual level that I cannot adequately put into words. From our training to teach with testimony at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, our visit to the Warsaw Jewish Cemetery, to our adventurous bus trip in the snow to Krakow, and then finally our visit to Oswiecim culminating in the tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau and the 70th anniversary commemoration ceremony of the death camp’s liberation, were all powerful in their own way.

However, the most powerful part to me were the relationships I built and the connections I made with Holocaust survivors. Meeting survivors, building trust with them to share their memories, and finally having to say good bye to them knowing they were entrusting me with something important to not only them, but to the future of mankind. Being cognizant of the fact I would probably never see them again and they were the last direct physical link to the Shoah. Wow, it was powerful unlike anything I have ever felt other than giving my testimony of faith as a Muslim, and taking my wedding vows. The commitment, the trust, the ripple of effect of this mission to remember, teach, and to make a difference has been an epiphany.

Learning from survivors

When I returned from Poland I was numb emotionally in so many ways. The site of the former Warsaw Ghetto and Auschwitz and its environs are overwhelming to the senses. When I walked on those sites I walked on places where hundreds of thousands of people had struggled in fear, starved, fought, and eventually succumbed to the mechanism of genocide created by the Third Reich.

The how and why of the Holocaust cannot be taught or comprehended in its scope unless you understand the Nazis, their methods, and their twisted ideology. Through this program not only was I able to meet and connect with survivors, but through the tools entrusted to us as educators from USC Shoah Foundation’s educational platform IWitness I learned how to integrate what I learned into my classroom. It brought me full circle. Past and present made me a witness.

As a witness, I took the initiative to fight the denial I faced from people in my own Islamic community. Even though I was still very numb emotionally from my trip for months I gave presentations to staff and students at my school, and to youth groups in my community. I decided to pursue a different path in my research and study genocides throughout history with particular focus on the Holocaust. I attended a weeklong Holocaust Symposium at Appalachian State University where I gained a greater understanding of the most modern scholarly research in conjunction with new relationships I made with survivors who shared their testimonies with me.

Meeting survivor Manny Buchman
Connecting the past to the present

In order to be a reliable witness you must have the tools, the expertise, and the intestinal fortitude to deal with the harsh reality of denial based on religious, racial, and political intolerance, but that is not always enough. When I teach my students today I can speak to them about all of these things, I show them photos, survivor testimonies from IWitness, and tell them about meeting survivors. However, as Muslim students in an Islamic school, the anti-Muslim rhetoric in the news and even in American politics, has created an atmosphere that has shaken many of them into questioning their cultural prejudices, and forcing them to face what they were not allowed to learn culturally before. Once I had their eyes opened it was time to teach them another lesson.

There is a Hadith or a saying of the Prophet Muhammad (praise be unto him) that states, “Wherever you see an injustice do something about it. If you cannot do anything about it then speak out against it. If you cannot speak out against it at the very least condemn it in your heart.” I have used this to teach the lessons about the dangers of being a bystander, and have galvanized my students and young people in my community to stand out against injustice. In the past several months we have led numerous protests against terrorism, violence, and racism in our community and I have personally given lectures at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte against Islamophobia, nativism, and racial profiling.

If you asked me a year ago if I would have ever seen myself leading protests, standing up in fronts of crowds giving speeches, and being a witness for humanity against injustice I would have said no, but then I had not attended the Auschwitz: Past is Present Program. I had not stood under the gate that said “Arbeit Macht Frei.” I had not walked in the historical shadow of thousands who had been murdered in the name of an evil ideology.

I gave this solemn oath in Poland to survivors, Manny Buchman and Paula Lebovics. I made it in Boone, North Carolina to Zev Harel. I make it now to my friends, neighbors, family, and to those that have come before and are not here to witness, and to those who will come after I have gone. I will never forget, I will witness, teach, and fight against injustice wherever I find it in word, print, and deed as long as I have breath in my body and beyond, and I do this because of the blessing of being able to be a part of the Auschwitz: Past is Present Program which has truly changed my life. 

Keith Stringfellow