MARQUETTE - Standing next to the gates of Auschwitz, Gwinn High School English teachers Heather Hollands and Amy Laitinen said the sheer weight of the atrocities perpetrated in the buildings behind them was almost too much to bear.
"They had a room full of hair that was shaved off of them and the hair was used to make textiles. I've seen pictures of the hair, and I've seen videos, but when you actually see it in person, you just get sick to your stomach," Laitinen said. "I felt like someone had punched me. It was horrible."
Hollands said it was difficult for the two to continue through the camp after seeing that room.
Gwinn High School teachers Heather Hollands and Amy Laitinen stand outside the gates of Auschwitz. The words written across the top of the gate translate to “Work sets you free.” The two educators made the trip overseas as a part of the Holocaust Educators Network. (Photo courtesy of Amy Laitinen)
Hollands and Laitinen pose for a photo in the holy city of Jerusalem. (Photo courtesy of Amy Laitinen)
"At that point, Amy and I both just wanted to turn around," Hollands said. "We were in tears."
The two educators visited Auschwitz and other sites related to the Holocaust during a 10-day trip to Poland and Israel.
The trip was offered at no cost to participants through the Holocaust Educators Network, a program sponsored by the Memorial Library in New York City.
The group traveled to several different camps, but the entire trip was not spent examining the horrors of World War II. They also were able to make a stop at the Dead Sea for a quick swim, and spent some time in Israel.
"We had to balance the heaviness of the topic with lighter moments," Hollands said.
And there were plenty of heavy moments to go around.
The group visited Majdanek, a concentration camp in Poland. Laitinen said seeing the original ovens at that camp that were used during the war, was an experience she won't likely forget.
"The crematorium was original. The ovens that we saw there, it was so hard to process the fact that they were used to get rid of human bodies. When you see those original things ..." Laitinen said before trailing off for a moment. "They had a huge dome of ashes, human ashes."
The effects of visiting the concentration camps can be seen on the faces of the two women in photographs from the trip: smiling and bright as they pose for a photograph in Jerusalem, tired and worn near the gates of Auschwitz.
Even the weather seemed to reflect the emotions the two were feeling at any given moment, Hollands said, with cloudy skies and a gloomy atmosphere accompanying them through Auschwitz, and sun and warmth during their visit to Jerusalem.
And though the trip would be memorable in its own right, Hollands and Laitinen said it was made even more so by one woman accompanying the group of educators: a Holocaust survivor.
On one of the trip's many stops, the group was very near a town the survivor had lived in after the war. They decided to go to the town, to see what it looked like nearly 63 years after the woman had left.
The group found the house the woman had lived in, and watched as she entered its doors once again, as she remembered what it had been like to live in post-WWII Poland.
"She was able to go up and look around. She hadn't been there in 63 years," Hollands said. "That was very special to be able to go through that experience with a survivor."
Both Hollands and Laitinen said it was a responsibility they felt toward the Holocaust survivors that drove them to continue providing Holocaust education to their students and other teachers, and ultimately to Poland.
What surprises them about the survivors they've met, they said, was the universal message of hope and love the survivors offer.
"It seems like every survivor that I have met has carried a message of love," Laitinen said. "They believe that human beings, we need to love each other, we need to get along. They struggle so much that World War II wasn't the last genocide."
Laitinen and Hollands have already begun using their experiences in Poland and Israel in their classrooms, and said the students are very receptive to and interested in learning about the Holocaust, something they said they hope will translate into the daily lives of their students with a message of acceptance and love for all people.
Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242.