Learning the fate of children in the Holocaust moved Army 1st Sgt. Christopher Hunter and colleagues on their visit to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on April 12.
Hunter, part of a group from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC), visited the museum on a trip sponsored by the Bethesda Multicultural Committee in observance of Holocaust Days of Remembrance.
"They separated the children from the adults, and some of them survived and others did not," Hunter said. "It really hits home when you talk about the children. They wondered what happened to their parents, and they probably knew what happened, but they still asked the questions, 'Where is my mom?' 'Where is my dad?'
"[The Nazi Germans] would lead them into the gas chambers [with them] thinking they were preparing them for something different, but instead it was annihilation," Hunter said. He added, "It's incredible to me how one commander could influence his soldiers to go out and do this, not question what they were doing, and just carry out the orders. That, and the many people they killed, is just astonishing."
Army Sgt. 1st Class Jason Zielske, Equal Opportunity advisor and chairman of the Bethesda Multicultural Committee, explained the purpose for the Holocaust museum visit was to provide an educational opportunity for people from the WRNMMC community to learn about the Holocaust and remember those who lost their lives. "Bethesda Multicultural Committee's goal is to support and promote a culture that embraces diversity," he added.
The museum visit was a learning and emotional experience for Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Damion Johnson. "I acquired a lot of knowledge," he said, adding the information at the museum was more in-depth than what he learned in school. "It was well-worth the trip."
Johnson said he was moved by an exhibit allowing visitors to sit in a booth and hear individual voices of Holocaust survivors. "It kind of flowed together and gives you a perspective of what took place back then."
"I always wanted to go to the museum, but was afraid to see the horrific things you often hear about of what happened during the Holocaust," said Staff Sgt. Sheila Vaughn. "I decided to look deep within and told myself, 'Be strong and go.' I realized that by not attending, I was being disrespectful to those who suffered and died, and I needed to pay my respects to them. I also realized that I will never have answers to all the questions I had in reference to the Holocaust just through hearsay; I needed to come to my own conclusions."
Vaughn described the trip as "an eye-opener and extremely emotional. I understand that there are bad people out there, but never imagined to what degree." She explained an exhibit showing the atrocities committed by a German doctor on Jewish war camp prisoners "was horrific" and something she will never forget. "Just to know that the Holocaust occurred, and [afterwards] similar events have occurred, hit straight to the heart and makes me wish I was omnipotent to end such things."
"It's always good to know of the experiences of others," said Meki Gulley, of WRNMMC Postal Operations, in explaining her reason for visiting the museum. She added that when she was in Germany a few years ago, she visited Buchenwald concentration camp, and her visit to the Holocaust museum last week brought back memories.
Gulley said the exhibit at the museum which stood out for her was one explaining the plight of the MS St. Louis, a German ocean liner. Also called the "Voyage of the Damned," the captain of the MS St. Louis, Gustav Schroder, tried to find homes for more than 900 German Jewish migrants seeking asylum from Nazi German persecution in 1939.
"Of the passengers, some didn't survive the Holocaust," Gulley added.
Hospitalman Breton Holbrook said the exhibit that touched him most in the Holocaust museum was one with a picture of Anne Frank, the 15-year-old Holocaust victim whose diary provides a vivid account of her family's years in hiding from the Nazi Germans in the Netherlands and has been read by millions worldwide.
"One of the reports I did in high school was about that book," Holbrook said. "She's a very big symbol of lost potential, being a child who died at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. It was very difficult, very difficult."
It was the story of one Holocaust survivor, Jacqueline Mendels Birn, which also touched Army Sgt. Arcola Hester during the museum visit. Birn was the guest speaker during a special presentation at the Holocaust museum for the WRNMMC group.
"To hear her accounts, and actually see the pain in her eyes and her fighting back tears, made this experience surreal," Hester said.
It was a series of miracles that kept Birn and her family alive during the Holocaust, she said. Born on April 23, 1935, in Paris, France, Birn's father, Frits Mendels, ran a food import-export business before the war. She described her childhood with an older sister, Manuela, as normal until the outbreak of the war in 1939 and Germany invasion of France in May 1940. Her father was forced to sell his share of his business to his non-Jewish partner, although he would continue to work at the business and hide in the back room if someone came in. Her mother, Ellen, took care of the daughters.
In June 1942, 13,000 Jews were gathered and sent to Drancy transit camp where most were deported to Auschwitz, Birn explained. Most of the roundups took place in the areas of Paris that had many foreign Jews, but the Mendels family lived in a primarily Catholic, French neighborhood where they were one of only a few Jewish families and the authorities did not come for them. "That was a miracle," Birn said.
As it became increasingly dangerous for Jewish families in Paris because of the German invasion, the Mendels decided to leave the city for the Vichy-controlled southern region of France in July 1942. At the train station where they were supposed to depart Paris for the "so-called free zones," Jews were being "rounded up," Birn recalled. Another miracle happened when the train the Mendels were on was not searched as were many others, she recalled.
After the train ride, the family was helped across the demarcation line separating occupied and unoccupied France by two farm boys. She said it was again a miracle that the family was not captured because German soldiers were "very, very close."
The family eventually made it to free zone and settled in two upstairs room of a house with no electricity or water in the tiny village of Le Got where they lived for the next 29 months in hiding, often hungry and with only bare necessities. In 1943, Ellen Mendels gave birth under terrible conditions to a son they named Franklin after President Franklin Roosevelt, who they hoped would help theirs and others situation.
After the liberation of Paris, the family returned there in November 1944 to rebuild their lives.
Frits Mendels got the family's apartment back that they had before the war, although all of the furniture was gone. There was nothing left of his business in Paris, so he sold jam from door-to-door "to try to make a little money," Birn said. "I don't know how we survived." They also learned when they returned to Paris that about 20 of their close family members had been deported, and did not survive because they were killed in Sobibor and Auschwitz.
"I'm alive, and my sister is alive," Birn said with tears in her eyes. "We have children and grandchildren."
The Bethesda Multicultural Committee, which sponsored the Holocaust museum visit, organizes various multicultural events for the WRNMMC and Naval Support Activity Bethesda community. For more information about the committee, call Sgt. 1st Class Jason Zielske at (301) 400-2847.