The Davidson men’s basketball team made a journey of remembrance, flying to Poland to visit Auschwitz, the former Nazi concentration camp. During their four-day trip—with no basketball on the itinerary—the team was guided by Eva Mozes Kor, a victim of Josef Mengele’s inhuman experiments.
Why take this trip?
“The volatility of our world today invites a response,” said Davidson men’s basketball coach Bob McKillop, who visited Auschwitz years ago. “A trip like this prepares us exceptionally well as … our coaching staff and our players are [granted a platform to be]out front, leading the charge about the dignity of human life.”
players are [granted a platform to be]out front, leading the charge about the dignity of human life.”
The trip grew out of an invitation from the Maimonides Institute for Medicine, Ethics and the Holocaust (MIMEH), a non-profit focused on Holocaust education and remembrance, and CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center, founded by Mozes Kor.
Amanda Caleb ’02, who helped to organize the trip with MIMEH, and Patrick Casey ’20, a member of the basketball team, reflect on the experiences below.
Of Character and Compassion
By Amanda (Mordavsky) Caleb ’02
It is an unusual thing: to be a college professor, trained in studying Victorian literature and medicine, spending three days in Auschwitz-Birkenau with survivor Eva Mozes Kor and the Davidson College men’s basketball team. Yet there I was in July, in Auschwitz, witnessing the transformation of these young adults as they were asked to bear witness to the atrocities of the Holocaust, and to experience Eva’s message of hope and forgiveness.
I was there because colleagues from the Maimonides Institute for Medicine, Ethics and the Holocaust and CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center had approached me about developing a trip to Auschwitz. They were inspired by NBA Hall of Famer Ray Allen’s 2017 trip to Auschwitz, and they wanted to call other athletes to bear witness.
They were looking for professional basketball players, but my mind went back to Davidson. I played field hockey for the Wildcats 20 years ago, and this trip immediately reminded me of something my coach had told me: “It’s not how you want to play on the field, but who you want to be as a person.”
This maxim spoke to everything I knew about Davidson athletics firsthand, and what I had witnessed over the years in Coach McKillop’s Wildcats. Here was an opportunity to work with the next generation of athletes, young people who I knew pursued lives of leadership and service. As I learned many years ago, Davidson athletes are more than their respective sports; they are future leaders who care passionately about the world and respect the platform they have been given to have a voice and make a difference.
I have struggled to describe the experience of being on the Birkenau selection platform with Eva and the team. How does one describe the emotional range of walking through the physical embodiment of hatred, horror and suffering while hearing Eva’s message of hope and forgiveness?
At best, I can provide glimpses into the experience and how I witnessed the young people grow from talented athletes into ambassadors of the human spirit.
I watched Kellan Grady skip lunch and a tour of Krakow so he could spend an afternoon with Eva. He listened to her intently—his emotional reflections throughout the trip revealed the effect she had on him.
I spoke with Dusan Kovacevic about the international community’s callous disregard for the Nazi threat.
I listened to Patrick Casey speak about his close relationship with his family, and how difficult it was to see the children’s barracks in Birkenau, or drawings by imprisoned children displayed at Auschwitz.
I saw anguish as Eva read a letter she wrote a few years ago to her murdered mother, revealing the challenges she faced growing up without her and the grief she experiences today. One player was brought to tears, and teammate KiShawn Pritchett, who said nothing, simply hugged him.
I, too, felt the embrace of the team. When visiting the Shoah exhibit and viewing home movies of people who would later be imprisoned and murdered during the Holocaust, I found myself openly weeping. During this moment of unabashed sorrow, Cal Freundlich walked over to me and hugged me without saying a word. This simple act proved the empathy and humanity at the heart of this team and of Davidson students.
There are many more stories I could tell, and they all embody the high character of each of these young men. They were changed by the experience, but they will also change the world. Many of them emailed me after the trip to share that they were still processing the experience, or to ask what they can do now.
The experience could have broken them, could have made them doubt that there is any good in humanity. Instead, they proved that they are filled with grace, humility, compassion and, most important, hope.
That hope burns brightly in Eva. I had heard her story at my own university last September—and had the privilege of speaking with her privately on several occasions—so I knew her message of forgiveness, of remembrance, and of hope.
But hearing her describe being separated from her parents and two older sisters forever and walking between the barbed wire fences at Auschwitz, was utterly transformative.
At the end our time in Auschwitz, we lit candles at the International Monument at Birkenau, in memory of those who were murdered, of past atrocities, and of current injustices perpetrated against those who have done nothing wrong, but have been dehumanized for their desire for a better, safer life.
In our current climate, we desperately need what Pastor Shannon Kershner called “a strong and tender heart,” one that is willing to learn, to feel, and to take action. I have no doubt that these players will be the voice of humanity that we need—my experience on this trip tells me that these are passionate, caring, motivated people, who will fight injustice.
The trip has filled me with a strong, enduring faith in what these players will do with their futures. They may be known as talented basketball players, but they are truly blessed with the capacity to love unreservedly.
It truly is a great day to be a Wildcat.
Reflections from Auschwitz
By Patrick Casey ’20
In July, I had the incredible privilege and opportunity to travel with the Davidson men’s basketball team to Poland and tour the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps. We were given tours of the camps by Eva Mozes Kor, a survivor of Auschwitz and the medical experiments on twins that were performed by Nazi Dr. Josef Mengele.
It is difficult to comprehend the size and scale of the camps until you are actually there. The Birkenau camp held 100,000 people at one point. Walking down the selection ramp was particularly moving. That is where the majority of Jews in the camps were sent to their deaths. Train loads of people would come in, and the Nazis would either point left, to the gas chamber, or right, to the labor camp, where they would be abused, starved and forced to work in inhumane conditions.
Everything the Nazis did was geared toward stripping the Jews of their dignity, humanity and ultimately, their will to live.
I talked with some of my teammates about how efficient it all was. The Nazis planned everything perfectly, to kill people as quickly as possible. Everything from the ghettos to the train rides to the forced labor, and of course the gas chambers, was all put in place to systematically erase a group of people from the planet.
They would tell the Jews that they were going to take a shower and get new clothes as they marched them to gas chambers. I kept asking myself: How could you do this to another human being?
Some images that will stick with me forever: small children being led directly to the gas chamber, Eva telling us about the moment she was torn from her mother, never to see her again, the scratches on the walls of the gas chambers, the children’s drawings etched on the walls, the rooms full of personal belongings, hair, suitcases, shoes, glasses, brushes by the thousands, the pits where bodies were openly burned.
I think about the emotions I felt while I was walking through the camp. First, I felt incredible sorrow and grief for the victims of the Holocaust, but soon after, I felt an immense amount of anger for the perpetrators, the Nazis. The anger did not stop there. I also felt anger for those who were complicit—the ones who knew what was happening and let it happen.
The United States was among the countries that would not accept Jewish immigrants when Hitler started rounding them up—case in point, the MS St. Louis, a German ocean liner carrying more than 900 Jewish refugees that was turned away from the United States in 1939.
The Catholic Church did not address what was happening. I am a Christian, and this was one of the things that hurt me the most. How could the church turn their back on these people? I do not know if I will ever be able to shake that feeling of anger.
I cannot imagine how survivors of the camps felt; I think that is what makes Eva’s story so special. She also felt immense anger, but she has come to forgive those who wronged her and offers a message of kindness and forgiveness, and she has dedicated her life to the preservation of human dignity.
It was very difficult for me to process the experience. As time has passed since the trip, I have been able to gather my thoughts and have gained a better understanding of how to apply the lessons we learned from Auschwitz. It helped me a lot to read the sermon by Pastor Kershner. The idea of having a strong and tender heart is one that I think is essential for us to make a difference. We must first have a tender heart to be able to empathize with those who are disadvantaged and persecuted, but then we must have a strong heart to be able to have the courage to act.
No doubt there were countless people during the Holocaust who could have been charged with thinking it was wrong, but not doing anything to change it. While I was walking through the camps all I could think about was what I would have done if I was an inmate, a guard, a civilian of the surrounding town. I always pictured myself doing something to change the situation.
I hope and pray that in difficult times I have the courage to do something. On a very tangible level, I will be on the lookout for the language of dehumanization. A culture that is okay with dehumanization is a breeding ground for violence and hate. I have now seen firsthand what that dehumanization and hatred can become, and I hope that I will never live to see an evil like that. We are always closer to repeating history than we think, and that is why we must remember the Holocaust, and fight to stop it from happening again.
After reading an op-ed by Coach McKillop (“Why take our college basketball team to Auschwitz?”) in the July 3 Washington Post, Rev. Shannon Kerchner, pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, mentioned the team’s trip in her sermon the following Sunday.
A brief excerpt is below. Patrick Casey ’20 answered Pastor Kerchner’s call with his reflection.
“My prayer is that God is using that moment in their young lives to make their hearts stronger and more tender at the same time. That God is expanding their vision about who is family and why that matters. That they are being immersed into the profound importance of both recognizing the dignity of every person and fighting for that dignity to be seen by every person. Now that their journey is over and after they have had time to debrief with each other and with their families, I hope they will write about their experiences, because, as their coach stated, quoting General Eisenhower, ’the lessons of indescribable horror [that they are learning]remain as urgent and timely as ever.’”