Men’s Basketball Team Visits Auschwitz

 

By: Emma Brentjens ‘21

Staff Writer

 

Amid the flurry of the March Madness tournament, Davidson men’s basketball coach Bob McKillop received an unexpected email from Amanda Caleb ‘02, a former member of Davidson’s field hockey team.

Caleb, an advisory board member of the Maimonides Institute for Medicine, Ethics, and the Holocaust, invited the Davidson basketball team to a summer trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau, known as one of the most savage Holocaust concentration camps located in Poland.

“I’ve thoroughly enjoyed watching Davidson basketball over the years and have been repeatedly impressed with the ethos of the program, which is about more than winning games: it’s about character,” Caleb wrote.

Caleb considered the basketball team as a candidate for the trip so that they could “bear witness to the atrocities of the past, and … support human dignity and justice for all peoples.”

The team was accompanied by Eva Mozes Kor and her nonprofit organization, CANDLES (Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors [2]). As a Holocaust survivor and victim of Josef Mengele’s experiments on twins, a notoriously inhumane study conducted by Nazis to reinforce hereditary hierarchy over environment, Kor has turned her personal experience into advocacy and forgiveness.

McKillop explained that Mozes Kor played a prominent role in the team’s experience. “I think the most poignant aspect of the experience was standing on a selection platform with Eva Kor,” the same platform where she was separated from her family 74 years earlier. “For her to recapture that moment so vividly for us, and for her to have forgiveness in her heart was perhaps the most powerful message that I saw,” McKillop said.

When asked if he felt the same impact returning to Auschwitz four years after his first visit, McKillop felt it much more personally “because of the presence of Eva and knowing what she went through and how graphically she explained and recalled what her experience was.”

For sophomore on the team Kellan Grady ‘21, Kor’s stories were especially harrowing and unforgettable. He mentioned one instance in which she and other victims of the twin experiments “were starving, and there was no food for days.” While there was a table of food in a nearby house, Kor had a feeling that the food was poisoned and did not eat it. Grady was moved by “her resilient approach to live.”

“It’s crazy to think what basketball can do for you because we wouldn’t have been given that opportunity if it wasn’t [for] the basketball team,” said Grady.

McKillop said of his players and Kor, “I was so impressed with this interaction between 19, 20, 21-year-old men and an 84-year-old woman… At dinner each night, you’d see one or two of our guys sitting with her at dinner, gazing intently in her eyes and listening to every word she said.”

“We really want to make sure we live [by] Eva’s example in our everyday lives,” Grady said.

Senior guard on the team, KiShawn Pritchett ‘19 said that initially the team had “mixed emotions because of what [Auschwitz] was associated with.” Looking back in hindsight, the team is extremely grateful. “We understand that it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity,” he said.

Pritchett reflected on the team’s relationship after the trip: “I’ve been a part of four different teams, and I think this year’s team is the closest that it’s ever been…[Before the trip,] we had never gone through such experiences with each other, and we had never cried to each other,” he said.

McKillop said, “We all as a team have grown, benefited and were impacted powerfully by this experience.” Grady agreed, “When we weren’t touring Auschwitz and when we weren’t at the concentration camps, it was also a really good bonding experience for all of us as well.”

The team’s experience has influenced others beyond Davidson. While they were recruiting during the following month of July, McKillop explained, “We were approached on a number of occasions by an extraordinary number of college coaches who complimented us on this experience… and hinted that they might be looking into doing something very similar to this.”

Back on campus, Simon Lowen ‘19 and Alex Sinks ‘21 who recently traveled to Auschwitz, along with other concentration camps and museums, with Davidson’s Hillel, a Jewish international student-led organization, reflected on their own trip last spring. Lowen, Co-president of Hillel at Davidson, said that their trip was made possible by an anonymous donor who “wanted to help Jewish life on campus… by building connections among Jews…A great way to do that is to go on a trip, and the most apt trip to go on is to a place that’s so central to our history.”

According to Lowen, “The goal [of the trip] was to wrestle with really hard truths and learn a lot about ourselves and about humanity.”

“It wasn’t something I was expecting to see from the Men’s Basketball team,” Sinks said of the team’s trip to see Auschwitz. However, he thinks “it’s really good that the basketball team went.”

Lowen agreed; “I think it’s a good thing for everybody to experience.”

“Because they have more prevalence on campus, it brought the topic to more light… but I think it shouldn’t be something exclusive to the basketball team,” said Sinks, who wishes that more students have access to such opportunities.

McKillop emphasized that he “did not just feel this was special for Men’s Basketball,” but that a trip like this “would be important for any team or any group of students on our campus.”

A distinction between the trips was that the Hillel trip required an application. “I don’t think it’s weird that we had to apply because it’s a limited program with limited space,” Lowen said. Since the trip only took eight people, it was “really important that those eight are fully committed and involved, invested, willing to grapple with the tough stuff,” he continued.

Sinks noticed a difference in the attention levels given to both trips. “I think it’s… interesting how it was covered when the basketball team went, not when we went,” he said.

Davidson circulated a video about the team’s trip, and McKillop published a perspective piece in The Washington Post. Despite this, Sinks feels that “regardless, if you’re Jewish or even if you can’t identify with any of the other half-dozen groups that were also targeted in the genocide, you can still connect to the human cost, and I think that can give anyone a better perspective.”

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