The first time Todd T. visited a German concentration camp was as a chaperone to a group of teenage soccer players. While touring the country, the group visited Buchenwald. Walking through the gates, Todd quickly realized that, to no fault of their own, the students weren’t prepared for the visit. They didn’t understand the significance of what they were about to see. Within the two hours that they visited the site, however, the transformation these young men had was visible. “They clearly understood the meaning and value of life a bit better because of this experience,” said Todd.
Todd saw how important the experience was for the kids, but it wasn’t until marrying his wife years later that he understood how the visit had impacted him. The tragic events surrounding the Holocaust made the stories and pictures at Buchenwald sink in that much deeper. They easily could have been those of his wife’s family members, who are Jewish. Visiting the concentration camp years ago was heart wrenching, but this new connection caused him to reflect on it through a more personal lens.
Todd’s trip to Germany inspired him to continue taking his English students abroad in hopes of providing them with similar experiences. Years later, while planning his 3rd tour with EF to Berlin, Prague and the Alps, Todd turned on the History Channel and found himself enthralled by a documentary chronicling the story of Ernie Gross, a Holocaust survivor and Don Greenbaum, a WWII Veteran and Dachau Liberator. Ernie was 15 years old when the Hungarian government deported him and his family to the Seulish ghetto for three weeks before deporting them to Auschwitz. Within days of losing his parents and his younger siblings, he was sent to a labor camp. When he was no longer strong enough to work, he was moved to Dachau. The same day Ernie arrived at Dachau, the American army arrived to liberate the camp. Don was one of the soldiers who helped set Ernie and the other prisoners free.
Photo Credit: Sage Ross
Years later the two connected after Ernie saw a mention of Don in a local newspaper. Together they decided they must share their stories so younger generations could continue to learn from the past.
Todd knew that he had to invite these two men to come to his school and talk with his travelers. The documentary had reminded him how important the experience of visiting Dachau would be for his students. Meeting his wife had showed him how important a personal connection is for understanding the magnitude of these historical events. He tracked down the contact information for Ernie’s son and reached out. Weeks passed with no response until one day he got a letter.
Ernie and Don were eager to share their stories with Todd’s school community, wanting them to hear two different perspectives of the Holocaust. Sharing their stories would ensure that younger generations could continue to learn from the past. This is how their story would live on.
Now all Todd had to figure out was how the two men were going to get there. Ernie and Don lived in Philadelphia and Todd and his students lived in North Carolina. While the two men had often gone to schools and communities to speak, they had never traveled past the tri-state area. Together, Ernie and Don, the school community and even Todd’s closest family members pitched in and pooled enough money to cover food and accommodations for their trip. Deciding it was worth asking, Todd called his Tour Consultant at EF and explained the opportunity in front of his students. After checking with his team members, EF was able to secure flights for the two men to travel to North Carolina.
The event exceeded Todd’s expectations. Over 175 students and family members came out to hear Ernie and Don’s story. Every eye in the audience was laser focused on these two men as they shared their story and provided students with an intimate, personal account of this moment in history. “After watching their documentary and seeing what these two men went through and then to see these two men right in front of them, everyone was speechless,” said Todd.
After speaking to the group, the two sat with the students for dinner. They discussed everything from the student’s upcoming trip, to what they like to do in their free time. Ernie and Don were personable and honest with the students as they asked questions about their experiences. Most importantly, they took the time to become friends with everyone. These were the personal connections that Todd longed for his students to have prior to visiting Dachau.
That night, Ernie and Don took pictures with each of the travelers. Before entering the gates of Dachau, Todd will give a copy of each photo to his students to remind them of the personal connection they now have to these events in history, deepening their experience and memory of visiting Dachau.