ODU Students Make Personal Discoveries on Holocaust-based Study Abroad Trip
"Even though part of my family lost to the Nazis, I won. I beat them." - Rachel Chasin
Like many students at Old Dominion University and other higher education institutions, Rachel Chasin took advantage of a study abroad program to travel to Europe over the recent spring break vacation.
But for Chasin, the trip went far beyond academics. She learned the fate of several family members who were killed by the Nazis during the Holocaust.
The shocking revelation came during Annette Finley-Croswhite's March study abroad course: Paris/Auschwitz: The French Holocaust/Shoah. Through the program, which was funded by two grants from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, the history professor took 12 students on a 10-day excursion that explored the French and Polish experience and included a visit to the notorious Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp.
The group consisted of 10 undergraduates, one graduate student and Ruth Triplett, a criminologist in the ODU Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice who took the class as a student. Finley-Croswhite said she developed the course to strengthen Holocaust education offerings at ODU.
The study abroad course is unique in that it was developed by Finley-Croswhite through her Holocaust museum connections and previous research and did not rely on an outside agency for assistance, she said.
While in Paris, the group was able to meet for three hours with two Holocaust survivors, 88-year-old Jacques Aultmann and 90-year-old Raphael Esrail, the secretary-general of the Union of Auschwitz Survivors. The meeting was arranged through Finley-Croswhite's previously established relationship with Isabelle Williams, the wife of Rabbi Michael Williams who led the congregation of the Copernic Synagogue in Paris for 30 years.
"As a history teacher, having my students meet so closely with Holocaust survivors was such a great experience in teaching history and historical methodology," Finley-Croswhite said. "Holocaust survivors die every day and few are left. In the not-too-distant future, they will all be gone. So my students got to listen to their actual words - not just read about the Holocaust in books."
Chasin, who will graduate this year with a degree in communication, took the class to find out what happened to her great-great-grandparents and other family members who lived in the town of Rzepienik, Poland, near Krakow, during World War II. Chasin's family assumed they died at Auschwitz, but no one knew for sure.
While visiting Auschwitz, Chasin had been unsuccessful in getting answers from a camp database. But she caught a break while in Krakow, where Finley-Croswhite arranged a lecture by Edyta Gawron, director of the Jewish Studies program at Jagiellonian University. Over the course of dinner, Gawron was able to steer Chasin to a couple of websites which eventually led to an article that explained what happened in the town.
Chasin's family members never made it to Auschwitz; they were lined up and shot in groups of 10 near their home in 1942.
Finley-Croswhite noted that Chasin was "pretty torn up" upon learning the details of her family members' demise.
"This was an incredible moment on the trip," Finley-Croswhite said. She later added: "In 22 years at ODU, this is the most important course I've developed and it is only possible because of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the ODU Office of Study Abroad and Madame Isabelle Williams, in Paris."
During a recent reception held in ODU's Kornblau Alumni Center, Chasin reflected on the impact the discovery had on her.
"Even though part of my family lost to the Nazis, I won. I beat them," Chasin told a small crowd that gathered to hear the students share reflections from their spring break experience. "Hitler wanted to exterminate the Jewish people and have everyone forget about them - that they didn't matter. Because I found out how [my family members] died, I won. They'll never be able to take that away from me. And like the many others who were murdered, and those that survived, they will never ever be forgotten."
Chasin wasn't the only ODU student in Finley-Croswhite's study abroad class who had a compelling personal connection to the Holocaust.
Ben Ipson '15 is the grandson of Jay Ipson, a co-founder of the Virginia Holocaust Museum in Richmond. At the alumni center reception, the history major said he gained a new perspective on the Holocaust as a result of the trip.
"Getting to learn about the Holocaust, getting to go to Drancy, which was the largest internment camp in France, and going to Auschwitz-Birkenau where so many perished, it was very emotional for me as a Jew and the grandson of a Holocaust survivor," he said. "Many of my family members perished during the Holocaust. It just meant a lot to me to go there and learn about the Holocaust, and hopefully through the experience a lot of the students got, we can make sure to educate people about the Holocaust and prevent anything like it from happening again."
Ipson's grandfather Jay Ipson, who was a child survivor of the Kovno ghetto in Lithuania, said ODU should be commended for offering the Holocaust-related study abroad program.
"It's only been 70 years and people are saying, 'Well, the Holocaust is over with, it doesn't matter.' If we continue with this attitude the Holocaust can happen right here," he said. "Only from the experiences of what happened can the future be changed for the better."
To learn more about ODU's study abroad programs, visit the Office of International Programs website.