A Cadet's Perspective: Holocaust Days of Remembrance

(Courtesy photo)

(Courtesy photo)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Through the many exchange opportunities at the Academy, cadets have a unique opportunity to see the world. Cadet 3rd Class Robert Breen, a prior-enlisted Airman now majoring in history at the Academy, took advantage of those opportunities and traveled to Europe last summer. While there, he studied many of the remaining landmarks of the Holocaust. With Holocaust Memorial Day being recognized at the Academy, I sat down with Breene to talk about his experiences there.

"You can read about history in a book, but it doesn't evoke emotion like seeing it with your own eyes," he told me.

Breen visited several concentration camps, including Auschwitz-Birkenau, Therezinstadt and Majdanek. His visit to Auschwitz really helped his understanding and visualization of the sheer extent of torture during the Holocaust, he said. Most people know what happened during Holocaust, but he wanted to learn for himself. He learned persecution was not limited to individuals of the Jewish faith; many more were targeted and murdered - homosexuals, gypsies, homeless people, Polish Christians, Jehovah's Witnesses and anyone who resisted the Nazis.

I asked Breen if he believed this persecution and discrimination is still happening today, and without hesitation he said yes.

"Stereotypes and discrimination against people for who they are and what they believe happens every day," he said.

Breen said in order to stop another Holocaust from happening again we need to start small. There is no room for intolerance and hate at the smallest level, he said. We need to stick up for each other and support our differences instead of ignoring them. We cannot continue to be bystanders -- if we are too afraid to stand up for ourselves and our wingmen, fear and intolerance will prevail.

"What do you think we can do at the Academy to build a climate of respect and understanding?" I asked.

He said respect needs to be in each of our foundations. Cultural awareness is not something you can learn from a computer-based training, it's something you must understand and feel around you. When we all become equals, we can learn from and support each other. That's what people needed during the Holocaust, he said, someone to fight for them and support them. When people are deprived of respect, nothing is accomplished.

"We have to make respect the norm; you can't be considered a pariah for standing up for yourself or a classmate," Breen said.

He said he was taken aback by the emotions evoked by the camp.

"I don't know if I would have survived," he said. "It would have been so incredibly difficult to comprehend you were enduring torturous and dehumanizing treatment just because of who you were. The power of the human spirit is something I will never underestimate after seeing what they went through at the camps."

Breen told me what stands out in his mind the most from his trip to the camps was the distinct smell, the piles of ashes and belongings still remaining.

"It smelled like something horrible had happened there," he said.

Breen said without bringing awareness to the events of the Holocaust, we will become desensitized to the terror and intolerance. We must never forget so we can make our place and time in the world better, not just for ourselves, but for all who must live in it.