Where martyrs stood and died|Visit to Holocaust sites impacts St. Ambrose University students

This is the Small Fortress at Theresienstadt where resistance fighters and other political prisoners were detained and executed during World War II. It is one of the Holocaust sites in Central and Eastern Europe that St. Ambrose University students visited in January.

By Barb Arland-Fye

During a January visit to Holocaust sites, Kate Golden dreamed someone told her she would have to give up her babies if she wanted to save her own life. Countless Jewish mothers were forced to make that heartbreaking decision during the murderous regime of Adolph Hitler in World War II. At the concentration camps she toured, Kate had seen pictures of young children being taken from their mothers.

“I couldn’t have done that; I couldn’t imagine going on and letting my children die by themselves. I dreamt about them over and over again,” said the 24-year-mother of two and senior at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.

She was among 19 St. Ambrose students who made a pilgrimage of Holocaust sites in Germany, the Czech Republic and Poland. Father Joe DeFrancisco, a St. Ambrose professor, and Rabbi Henry Karp, an adjunct instructor at the university, led the pilgrimage. Both teach about the Holo­caust and spent more than a year planning the trip.


They chose to travel in winter to convey the somber, cold atmosphere in which the prisoners of concentration camps and ghettos existed.  The student pilgrims were required to have taken one of the courses taught by either Rabbi Karp or Fr. DeFrancisco and to secure recommendations from two professors and approval of the Office of International Studies.

“Right from the get-go Fr. DeFrancisco and I understood this was a very special group of students we took with us,” Rabbi Karp said. “What students would choose to give up two weeks of their winter vacation to go to Central and Eastern Europe in the dead of winter to visit Holocaust sites?

“We knew they were caring and sensitive individuals. As teachers it was a pleasure to share these profound, emotional experiences with such a high caliber group.”

Visiting all of the places she had learned about in classes with Fr. DeFrancisco and Rabbi Karp was overwhelming for Golden. “We went to so many concentration camps and saw so much stuff. Toward the end, I was absolutely drained. By the time we went to the Palace of Justice and the Nazi campaign grounds, I didn’t take photos at all. I was numb. I was absolutely devastated by what I had learned.”

What she, her younger sister, Allison Dufuss, and other students learned on the trip has been captured in riveting journals and a PowerPoint presentation to be shown May 1 during Yom Hashoah 2011 at Temple Emanuel in Davenport where Rabbi Karp serves. Yom Hashoah means Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Learning about the Holocaust in class provided the necessary background, but the pilgrimage gave students the opportunity to experience reality, Fr. DeFrancisco said. Students walked in the places where prisoners, most of them Jews, were tortured, starved, experimented on and/or killed.

During a visit to the concentration camp at Auschwitz, students viewed the ovens in which Jews were forced to place the remains of other Jews — sometimes their own relatives — for cremation. “Three of our students were crying” at this point of the visit, Fr. DeFrancisco said.

St. Ambrose sophomore Elise Beck recalled seeing “standing cells” in the torture block at Auschwitz where three people at a time were forced to stand upright in a tiny cell for days on end without food. “I could not do it,” she said, imagining how she could have survived that punishment. She was astonished to see pictures of Jesus, a cross and other religious images that prisoners had carved in the cell walls with their fingernails.

“I wrote every night (in a journal) after we’d gone into a camp. I’d describe everything I saw.” She reviewed photos she’d taken to avoid missing any details. “I wanted to remember; I wanted my parents to read about it,” Beck said. Raised a Catholic, she said “it doesn’t matter what you believe. People shouldn’t be condemned to death because of their religion.”

Fr. DeFrancisco, who teaches world religions, among other courses, said “Jews have oftentimes found themselves in the minority and they’ve been blamed.” He said it’s hard to grasp the hatred against Jews by people of other faiths. “All of these religions are inspired by God; all of them are about love,” adds Fr. DeFrancisco, who’s made several pilgrimages over the years to Holocaust sites. “We’re distancing ourselves from the original message, the ideals.”

He made his first visit to a Holocaust site when he was a 19-year-old seminarian visiting prison camps in Poland, the country where his religious community was founded. “I thought it was very important in preparation for the priesthood,” he said. Having never been exposed to real suffering, “I was completely overwhelmed by the magnitude of the genocide … it was too much for me to process.”

While the students he and Rabbi Karp accompanied on the January pilgrimage didn’t talk much about what they had seen immediately after visiting each Holocaust site, “as I read their journals afterward, I knew that they were profoundly moved,” Rabbi Karp said.

And the students expressed determination to ensure that the Holocaust is not repeated.

“Despite the horror, I found some comfort in being able to see this place with my own eyes, to pay respect to those who suffered, and to try to come to terms with what happened here,” St. Ambrose student Katie McGuire says in one of the slides from the PowerPoint presentation. “Accepting the reality of this place made me realize how much I cherish my life, my freedom, and the security of my future. However, I found that it also raised more questions than it gave answers.”

What: Yom Hashoah 2011 (Holocaust Day of Remembrance)

When: Sunday, May 1, 2011, 7 p.m.

Where: Temple Emanuel, 1115 Mississippi Ave., Davenport.

Featured speaker: Walter Reed

Performers: Augustana College Chamber Singers conducted by Michael Zemek; Janina Ehrlich, cello;  Stephen Steely, organ.

Admission: Free

Information: Contact the Jewish Federation at (309) 793-1300 or aross@jfqc.org.

Walter Reed bio

Walter Reed was born Werner Rindsberg in 1924, in Wuerzburg, Germany.  On Kristallnacht, Walter, at age 14, was jailed for three days, along with other local Jewish boys and men. His father and the other men were sent to Dachau for four to six weeks. In June 1939, keeping his two younger brothers at home, Walter’s parents put him on a Kindertransport to Belgium, to save his life.  After living in a boys’ home near Brussels until the Germans invaded Belgium in 1940, Walter and over 90 other children were able to escape to southern France, where the children (ages 6 to 17) lived in a barn and later in an abandoned chateau. They became known as the Children of La Hille (after the name of this chateau). Through the efforts of his mother’s American siblings, he was able to leave France via Spain and Portugal for New York in August 1941.  Two years later he was drafted into the U.S. Army and changed his name to Walter Reed in 1943 when he became a U.S. citizen.

Back in Europe in 1944, he was transferred to the Military Intelligence Service and served in the 95th Infantry Division under General Patton. His MIS team’s main task was to interrogate German prisoners and civilians near the front lines. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and worked in the public relations profession until his retirement in 2002.

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