Students, Survivors and Visitors Make Hallmark Trip to Holocaust Sites
The year was 1945, and Gershon Ron was a prisoner at the Mauthausen death camp in Austria.
Then one morning, word spread throughout camp that the German guards had left the main gate unattended. Ron and two friends wanted to see if the rumor was true. It was.
“So we walked out,” Ron recalled. “We walked out, and we said, ‘We are not going back.’”
The boys walked 13 miles until they encountered the American troops who eventually liberated the nearby village of Gunskirchen. Ron was 16 years old.
Ron, now 84, will have the opportunity next week to return. On May 31, Ron will join two other Holocaust survivors, four World War II liberators, and 17 students from the College of the Ozarks to embark on a journey like none other. The group will travel to Dachau, Mauthausen-Gusen, Gunskirchen and Auschwitz—the same places where these veterans and victims found themselves more than 60 years ago.
The trip is part of a series of programs that promotes patriotism—one of five pillars embraced at the Point Lookout, Mo., school. The program began in 2009, when the Presbyterian institution began sending students to famous WWII battle sites in Europe and Asia.
This journey marks the first time Holocaust survivors will accompany students to relive these powerful moments. And for Ron, it’s not so much about reliving the past as heralding the future.
“I have no more tears. After what happened to me, I never cried again,” said Ron, who was interred at five different concentration camps throughout the war. “I’m not looking for thrills. I’m willing to be helpful, that’s just it. They thought I am of some value.”
A friend told Ron about the program after seeing a similar tour on TV. She encouraged him to apply. Turns out, Ron’s cousin had led that publicized trip.
Liberator Leslie Gordon Blasius, 87, also heard about the opportunity through a friend. And like Ron, his goals focus on educating the youth. His division arrived at Mauthausen two days after American troops discovered the camp.
“It’s going to help me enrich my life. I’ll be able to ask questions that I could not ask years ago,” Blasius said. “It’s a wonderful experience to share with students who are seeking to uncover some of the things done years ago.”
By the time Blasius reached Mauthausen in 1945, troops had rescued many of the survivors. But he vividly recalls cleaning the barracks where thousands of Jewish prisoners suffered.
“These were human beings who were tortured, put to death. These people should be remembered.”
But College of the Ozarks student Sarah Unruh, 20, said she wants to remember something slightly different: her fellow travelers.
“My generation really is the last generation that will really ever get to have face-to-face conversations with a veteran or a Holocaust survivor. It is so important to get these stories and meet these men and women who went through so much and be able to pass it on.” Unruh said she looks forward to hearing candid stories from the veterans and survivors, many of whom she believes have kept mum on the topic.
The public relations major applied for the trip last year by submitting an essay explaining her interest in a specific tour. Unruh wrote about her great-great-step-grandfather, who helped liberate Dachau. She remembers viewing his old photographs as a child, horrified by the piles of bodies.
“I’m nervous. It’s such a horrific period in history,” she explained. “I think I’ll be in shock.”
To better prepare for what figures to be an emotional tour, Unruh and her classmates have been meeting once a month to discuss related issues. They’ve read Night, written by Holocaust survivor and activist Elie Wiesel.
In addition to visiting the concentration camps, the group will also tour the cities of Munich, Vienna, and Linz. They’ll even get the chance to ride in Adolf Hitler’s famed brass elevator.
A professional photographer will accompany the travelers, and students will blog about their impressions and experiences. Unruh not only wants to share these mementos with her family, but with the public. She mentioned even possibly publishing her entries and photos.
“My hope is that the feelings we experience won’t ever die or be forgotten. We’ll hold each other accountable and remember these experiences for a long time to come.”
In the meantime, Blasius preoccupies himself with packing: everything from medical prescriptions to new cotton flannel pants. But in his suitcase he has set aside a special place for old pictures and documents that “might be of interest to the students.”
At first Blasius said he felt weary about making the trip to Europe. But he’s since experienced a change of heart.
“I guess I had the old timer’s feelings. It’s easier to stay at home than pack. But now I’m getting excited. It’ll be nice to have college students with which to interact. Maybe I’ll ask them some questions too…about their relationship with the world.”
The group returns to the United States June 1.
Anyone can track the group’s progress during the two-week trip by visiting The Holocaust Memorial Tour.