As a young Jewish girl in Germany during World War II, Inge Auerbacher survived deportation and internment in a concentration camp, malnutrition and tuberculosis.
Out of 15,000 children imprisoned in Terezin, in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, she was one of only 132 who lived to see liberation. She has a photo of her classmates and friends taken before the war, and she was the only one who survived.
She returned to Terezin this summer, accompanied by 21 Western Carolina University students. Prior to the trip, students in the “Psychology of Hate” course taught by Alvin Malesky, associate professor of psychology, examined the social, political and historical factors that set the stage for Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.
Today Auerbacher, 81, lives in New York City and is the author of six books, as well as being a frequent lecturer internationally on the Holocaust. The doll that she clung to throughout her ordeal is now on exhibit at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Her first book, “I Am a Star, Child of the Holocaust” is being expanded for a new paperback edition by Penguin Books.
“Everyone always asks, ‘how could this happen?’ How does a man like Adolf Hitler rise up in government and have an entire country comply?” Auerbacher said. “And we should keep asking. We should always remember.
“I do not forgive – no. The past is past; we can’t change that,” she said. “Most of the Germans I come in contact with today were born after the war and had nothing to do with the past. The past is a warning to them and the whole world.”
In addition to Terezin, the WCU group visited Auschwitz, near Krakow, Poland, and Dachau, outside of Munich, Germany, during its 15-day excursion.
“Auschwitz hit me the hardest, emotionally,” said Rachel Sanders, a senior majoring in psychology from Waynesville. “It is hard to process when you are there. You just can’t understand how something so awful took place where you are standing. The enormity of it all, the horror and evil perpetrated against people, and today you look around, you think but you can’t imagine….” More than a million people died there, she said.
The course examined the many factors of individual and group behavior. The students studied the psychological aspects of obedience and conformity, and how research suggests that many will follow instructions even to hurt someone if they are ordered to do so by an authority figure. This becomes even more pronounced when they can distance themselves from the victim. The Third Reich is a significant period of modern history to concentrate on, Malesky said. “Predominantly the class examined the Jewish experience, though Nazi atrocities extended well beyond that population to the Romani people (Gypsies), homosexuals, people with disabilities, communists and political dissidents as enemies of the state,” he said. “So, we were looking at how otherwise seemingly normal people can do horrific things to their fellow human beings when the conditions are ‘right.’ Hopefully this awareness can help decrease the likelihood that these and similar type atrocities occur in the future.”
The Holocaust killed about six million Jews and five million others through a systematic operation of forced labor and death camps.
“I am embraced by German people now,” Auerbacher said of her return visits to her former home. “I enjoy visiting. It is so beautiful and such wonderful people.”