About 30 students and teachers from several Pittsburgh private schools recently had the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of a Holocaust survivor.
Members of Classrooms Without Borders traveled from Pittsburgh to Poland for a chance to visit the remains of concentration camps and ghettos. Led by Holocaust survivor Howard Chandler, they walked through camps where millions were killed during World War II.
The 84-year-old Chandler stood in a barrack of Auschwitz, telling the students and educators his experiences as an adolescent in that very camp.
"You know, we suffered so much, and the thought, I think, was, the sooner they do away with us, the sooner we will stop suffering," Chandler said.
The students, at first, had a hard time comprehending the atrocities inflicted by Nazi Germany. Rachel Harmatz, a student at the Ellis School, participated in one of many reflection sessions during the journey abroad.
"They were stripped of their identity basically, I-I can't relate to that because, I don't know, I take it for granted," Harmatz said, "and it's just really hard, emotionally, to go through that."
Chandler recalled having to resort to eating grease.
"I remember and I can still smell it today. It was an Italian plane, I think it was, and they found containers with grease, and the Russian prisoners of war ate that, so I helped myself too," Chandler said.
At other times, Chandler did not eat anything for days on end.
"So when we were let into the camp, the first thing you had to do was line up — I think it was according to alphabetical order — and they tattooed a number on you," recalled Chandler, "and when this was finished, you got a piece of bread and soup, which was quite welcome after not having eaten in I don't know for how many days."
He went on to tell the group how cigarettes were like currency in the concentration camp, and explained how he once gave an Auschwitz guard two cigarettes in exchange for not being selected for extermination.
Student Rachel Harmatz said hearing that millions died in the camps didn't quite hit her, but the images generated by walking through the gas chambers and crematoriums struck home.
"I feel like when I walked on the camp, the concentration camp, I just immediately thought of my brother, and I thought of my mom and my dad," she said.
The students weren't the only ones impacted. History, music and art educators made the journey with their students. Both groups admitted seeing each other outside of school was awkward at first, but the environment created a learning experience impossible to get from the confines inside a classroom.
Destin Groff is a student at Shady Side Academy.
"It wasn't just something you read about in a textbook or talk about in history class, and I guess the reality of it was very overwhelming," Groff said, "and it's definitely something that I need to think about more and just reflect on more, and I have so many more questions now after being there, and it's an experience I'll never forget."
The overarching goal for Classrooms Without Borders was to educate students and teachers and ensure the Holocaust is not forgotten. The participants were challenged to carry on Chandler's story to Pittsburgh and elsewhere.