ELIZABEHTOWN — One cannot fully grasp the horrors of German concentration camps without living through the ordeal, or at least visiting them, as did Kaleigh Ratliff.
A 2009 graduate of Elizabethtown Lewis Central School with a Bachelor of Arts in history and government from Daemen College in Amherst, Ratliff, 22, joined a college sponsored excursion to WWII sites in Poland as a student supervisor.
“Being taught history in a classroom and reading books and seeing photographs is not the same as my actually being there,” she said.
“For me, it was a life changing experience.”
Among the places on the group’s itinerary was a cemetery undergoing a restoration and mapping project that involved taking photos of graves and assigning them numbers for a computer database.
According to the project’s syllabus: “Students will analyze wartime memorials and related sites in three Polish cities: Warszawa, Krakow, and Przemysl. Students will have the opportunity to engage in service learning work related to the war’s legacy in the form of restoration and mapping of grave sites.”
“The first section (in a cemetery in Przemysl) we went to was quite nice and is considered active because there are still burials there,” Ratliff said.
“Once you got to the back of the cemetery, there were trees and other plants growing all around the stones. Many of the older stones (some from the 1850s) were destroyed during wartime by both the Nazis and the Poles.
“The local people revolted and took it out on the cemetery. Nearby, there was an older cemetery that was completely destroyed.”
What really got to Ratliff at the cemetery were the mass graves, some with 40 to 50 bodies and one with more than 100 contained within them.
“Just coming from here (the North Country), where we take care of graves, and then to see things like this made me very sad,” she said.
“The cemetery was just left for the town to take care of it, but no one does.”
She pointed out that there was a Nazi cemetery in the vicinity that is cared for, but there are no Jews in the area to see to the needs of the Jewish cemeteries.
On many of the stones in the Jewish burial ground were symbols such as books, which indicated if the person was educated or if he was a rabbi.
“These were apparently hardworking people,” Ratliff said. “It was very surreal. It’s hard to put words this in words.
“Actually being there is such a different experience. It puts things into perspective. We all felt the same way, to know something like (the Holocaust) could really happen.”
TRAIN TRACKS END
For the group, the concentration camps were even more difficult to visit.
“At least in the cemetery, they were buried by their own people,” Ratliff said. “It was so ironic that we visited the concentration camps on gorgeous days.
“To go to Auschwitz B (Birkenau) and see the train tracks just end there affected all of us. We were so quiet just trying to process what went on there. We all dealt with it in our minds by ourselves,” she said.
“A lot of people who visit the camp have their photo taken by the ‘Work will make you free’ (Arbeit macht frei) sign at the camp’s entrance, but I didn’t think it was appropriate to do that.
‘THESE WERE PEOPLE’
Covering her face with her hands and trying to hold back her emotions, Ratliff continued, “When we went into the gas chamber, it really got to me. I was nauseous. It just looked like a giant shower room, and right next to it was the crematorium.
“Then they took the ashes and mixed them for fertilizer. There still is a mound of their ashes. Just to think these were people.”
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