Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation, our affiliate in Poland, held its annual benefit dinner at the Museum last night. As you may know, one of the innovative educational initiatives that the AJC is known for is the American Service Academies Program (ASAP), an immersive three-week trip to Poland. First Lt. Nathan Custer spoke very eloquently about his experiences in the program in 2008. Below is an excerpt of his remarks.
In our travels in Poland, we saw towns where Jewish cultural life thrived prior to World War II that today have no Jews. Learning about the warmth and richness of Jewish culture made the near elimination of Jewish life in the Holocaust harder to bear. Hearing testimony from some of the bravest individuals I have ever met placed a human face on the historical accounts of the Holocaust. Standing at the entrance to the crematoria and in the barracks at Auschwitz-Birkenau made the statistics far more real and overwhelming to comprehend. Through these experiences, the idea that affected me most was that military leaders, especially those at the junior level, planned and executed atrocities that dehumanized and murdered millions of people. I came to realize that a nation of leaders in positions like mine made conscious decisions to commit seemingly unthinkable acts against other human beings. This experience reinforced the moral obligation we, as junior military officers, have in preventing atrocities like those that took place during the Holocaust from ever occurring again.
When I became a platoon leader and prepared to deploy to Iraq, I remembered the lessons I gained from my time in Poland. Prior to deploying, I had several group discussions with my paratroopers about the nature of the current wars and the importance of respect for other cultures. We talked about how the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are based on working with the population rather than achieving tangible military objectives. Also, we addressed the fact that any ethical deviation when interacting with the local populace could result in global consequences. I wasn’t sure if the discussions had an effect, but 6 months in Iraq demonstrated that my paratroopers understood the message.
While deployed to Ramadi and then Baghdad, my platoon worked alongside the Iraqi Army and interacted with the local population on a daily basis, often without direct supervision from my chain of command. During these operations, I was the highest-ranking leader and decision-maker present. On every patrol, my soldiers and I stood in government offices, businesses, or people’s living rooms interacting with civic leaders, corporate staffers, and everyday people. Thanks to the American Service Academies Program, I realized that if I deviated in word or deed when interacting with the Iraqi population, my soldiers would follow my example and potentially create a human rights issue with worldwide diplomatic and military effects.
While the ASAP opened my eyes to the rich complexity of Jewish culture, I never fully internalized the importance of cultural acceptance until working and training with the Iraqi Army. I am very thankful that my paratroopers paid attention during our talks, because for two months, my platoon of 19 paratroopers trained an Iraqi unit of 375 soldiers to conduct extremely dangerous combat operations against armed criminals. The relationship between my platoon and the Iraqi unit depended on quickly adapting, accepting, and working within Iraqi social and cultural norms. By helping my paratroopers to open their minds to learning about another culture, we created a greater level of trust between my platoon and the Iraqi soldiers. Even in frustrating situations, my soldiers maintained their professionalism and ethical conduct, which gave us overwhelming success and allowed every paratrooper to return home safely after 6 months.
My experiences with the Auschwitz Jewish Center helped to develop my perspective on my role as an officer and a military leader and contributed to my platoon’s success in combat. I cannot truly express the respect I have for the survivors who persevered in the face of the utmost adversity to preserve and pass on their beliefs and identity. I thank the Auschwitz Jewish Center very much for the opportunity to participate in such an enriching experience, and I thank you all for your continued support of the soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen who preserve our way of life.
Photo by Elena Olivo.