An Airman’s Perspective: Holocaust Days of Remembrance

(Courtesy photo)

(Courtesy photo)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- The Holocaust was a horrible event with global repercussions. Although I have never visited any of the concentration camps in Europe, with Holocaust Memorial Day coming up at the Academy, I sat down with Capt. Michele Gatheridge, a neurologist at the 10th Medical Group here to discuss her experiences at one of the camps.

Gatheridge spent a day at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps in March 2013. She was in Poland for a year teaching neurology and neurologic medicine to Polish medical students. She said the monumental loss, death and horrendous actions that occurred at Auschwitz were "unfathomable."

The captain described what it felt like first seeing the gates at Auschwitz and learning what they meant. The gates read "Arbeit macht Frei," which translates to "Work Makes You Free." This deliberate deception is terribly sad and it makes the events at Auschwitz that much more disturbing, she said. The amount of belongings prisoners were made to abandon helped to create a visible, real demonstration of just how many people were stripped of their identity and dignity at Auschwitz. Gatheridge described the awful, massive piles of hair, sunglasses and shoes on display at Auschwitz. Just hearing about it gave me goosebumps.

I asked if her experiences at Auschwitz-Birkenau changed her understanding or feelings about the Holocaust. She explained that she had visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., but that seeing the camps with her own eyes and standing on the same ground made the horrific piece of history feel "100 times more real." Being there, where so many different social classes, religious groups and outsiders were robbed of their freedom and lives was "heartbreaking," she said. "You cannot understand or fully comprehend the extent of the destruction until you see it in real life."

She told me the unimaginable level of degradation at the concentration camps is something she will never forget.

"They shaved their heads, tattooed them with a number and took away their name," she told me. She described how the prisoners were transported to the crematoriums - they were led to believe they were being transported to the showers. When the train arrived at the crematorium, the prisoners were told to get out and proceed to the building. Once inside, they would be killed via a poisonous gas called Zyklon B.

As we wrapped up our conversation, I asked if she thought this type of persecution was still happening.

"Of course," she said. She told me people will always have a problem with those who are different from them. She attributes this problem to a lack of education about other religions and cultures. It is easier to automatically hate someone for their differences than to learn about the differences and accept them.

I asked Gatheridge how we, as Airmen can create a better climate of respect and a more culturally-aware Air Force. She said training and education are helpful and beneficial, because we become more aware and more accepting when we are educated about people or cultures we are not familiar with.

"The Holocaust was not that long ago," she said. "We cannot let future generations go uneducated about this tragic time in our world history. The Holocaust can never be forgotten."

Gatheridge's recollection of her experience made me feel like I had also visited these concentration camps. Her story gave me the ability to paint a vivid picture of the events and horrific crimes committed during this terrible time in history. I believe that never forgetting and continuing to educate future generations is the best advice. By learning where we have been, we are more inclined to help change and control our future for the better.