Four Naval Academy midshipmen will travel to Europe next month for a harrowing reminder of the importance of moral courage in the military.
As part of an annual program funded by the Auschwitz Jewish Center, they will go to Poland with cadets from the nation's other service academies to study the Holocaust.
Marjorie Drake and John Shaffo, who will be seniors, and soon-to-be juniors Justin Bardin and Carlin Song were awarded the scholarships, each valued between $10,000 and $15,000, by the center after a rigorous application process.
The grants are awarded to four students at the Naval Academy, U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., and U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.
"This will be a really good opportunity for me to be able to go to a different culture and basically learn about the Holocaust," Song said. "I was very thankful for the opportunity to educate myself more about the culture, and to go back 60 years later and see what has changed and what hasn't."
Midshipmen often spend their summers in career programs, called "professional development" at the academy, that help them decide how to spend their five years or more of service in the military.
In this program, the Mids and cadets will go through a weeklong orientation in Washington, meeting with diplomats and members of Congress and then touring the New York Museum of Jewish Heritage.
From there, they will travel to Poland for two and a half weeks, visiting Warsaw, Krakow, Oswiecim and Galicia. They are scheduled to meet Holocaust survivors and senior Polish officials, study the rise of the Third Reich at Krakow's Jagellonian University, attend a reception at the U.S. Embassy and spend three to four days at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camps, where between 1,100,000 and 1,500,000 Jews, Poles, Gypsies and prisoners of war were killed, according to the museum's Web site.
The goal of the program, according to the site, is to "to help future military leaders understand the ongoing relevance of the Holocaust to their work" and "to inspire and empower them to share their insights and understanding with others."
Daniel Eisenstadt, vice president of the Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation, said the center initiated the program three years ago.
"Since we have an educational center a few miles from the former death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, we decided to run a program to teach military cadets and midshipmen the importance of fighting against genocide, protecting human rights and protecting the dignity of every individual," he said.
Most who are involved complete an independent project about the trip, including essays, poetry or photography.
"We've been stunned by what they've produced, by the depth of their thinking and the importance to the cadets of the experience," Eisenstadt said.
Wendy Schreiber, who sits on the board of directors of the Auschwitz Jewish Center and helps select the students who go on the trip, said many of the cadets and midshipmen describe the experience as "life-altering."
One cadet, she said, told her he was humbled by the chance to meet a "righteous gentile," or a man who saved Jews by helping them to hide and escape.
"He said to me: `When I looked into [his] eyes, I could only ask myself, `Would I have the strength of character to do that, to risk my life and the life of my family for these people?'"
Song said he hopes the program will help him as an officer to spot a troubling situation in advance.
"I've said this before, but I think it's interesting to realize the conditions under which evil flourishes," he said. "It's important as an officer to be able to recognize the telltale signs, the red flags, that tell you something's wrong and train you in developing moral courage."firstname.lastname@example.org