The Davidson men's basketball team flies to Poland this Saturday to visit Auschwitz, the former Nazi concentration camp, guided by a victim of Josef Mengele's inhuman experiments and hoping to help strengthen the world's memory of victims of the Holocaust.
"The volatility of our world today invites a response," said Davidson men's basketball coach Bob McKillop, who visited Auschwitz years ago. "A trip like this prepares us exceptionally well as ... our coaching staff and our players are [granted a platform to be] out front, leading the charge about the dignity of human life."
The four-day trip, with not a moment of basketball on the itinerary, grew out of an invitation from a Davidson alumna connected to the Maimonides Institute for Medicine, Ethics and the Holocaust (MIMEH), a non-profit focused on Holocaust education and remembrance. MIMEH, which is organizing and supporting the trip, is planning a documentary about the team's experience.
MIMEH partnered with CANDLES, a nonprofit organization founded by Eva Mozes Kor, a survivor of Mengele's medical experimentation in Auschwitz. Mozes Kor will help lead the team's visit, sharing her story and mission of healing and forgiveness as they walk through the camp.
"This is a great opportunity for our guys to become coaches in life, to coach themselves through this experience," McKillop said. "And once you're able to coach yourself, you can coach others."
His hope is that the players, through the experience, will have an impact on the lives of their classmates and the Davidson college community, if not all of those they encounter throughout their lives.
"I always say when I'm 40, sitting at the dinner table, I want to be able to talk about things besides basketball," said guard Kellan Grady '21 and 2017-18 Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year. "We have the opportunity to go and learn and not even touch a basketball."
The idea for the trip started with Amanda Caleb '02, a former Wildcat scholar-athlete, and Stacy Gallin, the founder and director of MIMEH. Gallin and MIMEH proposed that athletes could help tell the story of the Holocaust to young people, for whom the Holocaust is increasingly distant. Just last year, 10-time NBA All-Star Ray Allen visited Auschwitz, penning a moving recollection for the Players Tribune. Gallin and Caleb wondered if it would be possible to send a team instead of a single athlete.
"Davidson just popped in my head immediately," said Caleb, a four-year field hockey player, now an English professor at Misericordia University specializing in literature, medicine and science and MIMEH's educational consultant. "At Davidson, being an athlete was more than sports. It was about more than what happened on the field; it was about who you wanted to be. I remember how special that was."
She reached out to the team and McKillop quickly accepted.
"What keeps me so alive at Davidson is the fact that our players are not just players," he said. "They're human beings and scholar-athletes and they're in an environment here that nurtures, encourages and cultivates that kind of development."
The players embraced the opportunity to travel and learn first-hand about such a cataclysmic period.
"It's so important to learn from something that was so tragic, to make sure that it never happens again," forward Pat Casey '20 said. "We can be among the voices of humanity and of human dignity that can prevent anything like that from happening again."
German Studies professors Burkhard Henke and Scott Denham helped the team prepare for Auschwitz, where more than a million people were killed. Denham, Charles A. Dana Professor of German Studies and E. Craig Wall Jr. Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Humanities, teaches 20th century cultural studies with a focus on the Holocaust and how it is remembered.
"Professor Denham said that everybody breaks down, and it's going to happen at some point," guard Cal Freundlich '20 said. "Whether it's on the plane ride home or immediately, when you're in the actual space, or that night in your hotel room, you're going to break down and you're going to feel it."
The team hopes to return with greater insight into history, humanity–and a deeper bond among the players.
"We are going to have an experience in which we depend upon each other emotionally," McKillop said. "What we will experience, what we will see, how we will respond to it is going to require a tremendous degree of teamwork and emotional togetherness. We want to completely understand this experience. We see it as an experience for our life. We want them to bring it back here and to not just learn it, but to live it."
Though the first concentration camp was liberated more than 74 years ago, he said, the lessons of the past remain as urgent and timely as ever.