So we never forget: Local teacher, student tour death camps

By: 
Ashley Roness
Star Staff Writer

Two Miles City residents made the trip of a lifetime this summer. 

John Tooke, Custer County District High School history teacher, and student Lynsey Crump, 16, made the trip to Poland with Holocaust survivor Eva Kor.

Kor, through the Candles Holocaust Museum and Education Center, takes groups to tour the Auschwitz concentration camp, where Jewish people were murdered by the Nazis, and hear her story from where it took place.

Tooke, who played a big role in bringing Kor to Miles City for an appearance in April, couldn’t pass up the opportunity to take the trip. 

“I just wanted to pursue Eva’s story and hear it from her in Auschwitz,” Tooke said. 

Crump expressed the same sentiments. “Eva’s story just intrigued me. I figured why not,” she said.

In 1944, Kor and her family were taken to the Auschwitz concentration camp. Kor and her twin sister, Miriam, only 10 years old at the time, became part of the group of children who were experimented on by Dr. Josef Mengele. 

Tooke and Crump were part of a group of about 80 that spent 10 days in Poland with Kor. 

The first day was spent touring the city of Krakow. This was meant to give the group time to adjust and get their feet under them before venturing to the concentration camps.

Driving to Birkenau Concentration Camp was like looking at the Montana countryside with all the fields, Tooke said.

Once inside Birkenau the area felt like being on a college campus if people didn’t know where they were. It consisted of several big buildings that looked like college dorms from the outside.

The group was greeted by four tour guides who helped all three days of the tour of Birkenau and Auschwitz. The guides handed out radio headphones that allowed them to speak directly to each person.

“It was a great way to come in and try to get over the shock of being there,” Tooke said while talking about the tour guides.

“They sit there and talk you through the process and try to help you understand it more. But I just can’t. I went there expecting to find out a lot and I found out that I have more questions now. You don’t really get the answers you’re looking for.”

Some of the first things they saw were the tracks leading to where the selection platform is, several burned down crematoriums, a water treatment plant and the restrooms. 

The selection platform is the last place Kor saw her family. It’s the last place that many prisoners saw their families as they were separated to either die or be sent into the concentration camp. 

The restrooms were a safe haven for prisoners because the Germans wouldn’t go inside, Tooke said. A job in the restrooms was considered one of the best in the camp.

The second part of the first day Kor took over the tour.

She took the group to the selection platform, where she read letters of forgiveness to her parents.

“She told her dad when she was eight that they should leave and they didn’t,” Tooke explained. “Part of her blames her parents but she never had a chance to reconcile that.”

The letters of forgiveness were the most memorable part for Crump.

“It was personal because the way Eva does everything is factual but this had a personal touch, not just facts,” Crump explained.

The group then boarded the bus for Auschwitz. The ride there took about 45 minutes, giving Kor a chance to speak to the group about her life as a Holocaust survivor. 

“Nothing can really prepare you for that,” Crump said while talking about the camp. “Everyone has seen pictures but it’s not the same.”

At Auschwitz the group followed Kor to the lab where they took her blood samples as part of the twin experiments, and the barracks where she lived. Most of these buildings were not original but had been restored.

“Eva was great. She was willing to talk to anyone at anytime and answer any questions they had,” Tooke said. 

The group then returned to Krakow.

Day two was spent in Auschwitz.

While there they saw a tour group of Israeli soldiers, which was important to Kor, who once served in the armed forces in Israel. 

The soldiers were blown away when they met her, Tooke said, describing what he called an amazing moment. 

As the group went deeper into the camp it became harder to deal with.

They saw everything from actual paperwork ordering the pesticide Zyklon B, which was used in the gas chambers, and rooms filled with the items taken from the prisoners. Two of those rooms were stacked high with shoes and hair brushes. 

Another exhibit consisted of recreations of drawings that the children who were in the camp made. While some drawings were happy with families most consisted of death and violence.

“For me the hardest part of going there (Auschwitz) was walking around and you’re in kind of a shock. You go through many exhibits in those dorms and then you get to leave. That was probably the hardest part. I don’t know why. You get to go home,” Tooke said, trying to describe what being there felt like. 

Tooke is hoping to be able to take more students on the trip in the future. 

“It’s a once in a lifetime experience. It’s well worth it. I would go again,” Crump said.

The trip costs around  $4,500 per person. Currently, he’s working on different fundraising ideas to help pay for the trip. 

“It’s definitely life-changing,” Tooke said of the trip.

For more information on the trip contact Tooke at jtooke@milescity.k12.mt.us.

(Contact Ashley Roness at starnews@midrivers.com or 406-234-0450.)

(EDITOR'S NOTE: Please see the the photo gallery Poland for more photos)

 

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