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Students Learn, Bring Insights, on Polish Exchange

Dr. Paul Vincent with Julia Peet, right, and Grace Miller
Dr. Paul Vincent with Julia Peet, right, and Grace Miller

Julia Peet and Grace Miller, Keene State Holocaust and genocide studies students who are studying abroad at Jagiellonian University in Poland, participated on April 12 in Holocaust Remembrance Day – Yom HaShoah – by taking part in the International March of the Living. Peet made a big impression on two of her fellow marchers.

During the annual march, more than 10,000 Jews from around the world walk roughly two miles together from the small Auschwitz main camp to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where mass exterminations took place.

Peet and Miller traveled with separate groups on buses from Krakow to Auschwitz. Peet told the story of her experiences to Dr. Paul Vincent, a Keene State emeritus professor who is teaching at Jagiellonian this semester.

“Julia told me her delight at sitting with a Jewish survivor now living in Florida; the woman could scarcely believe she was traveling to Auschwitz with a non-Jewish student from New Hampshire,” Vincent wrote.

She made even more of an impression on a Polish nun she encountered upon arriving at Auschwitz. With some time to spare before the march began, Peet and the nun visited Block 11 at the main camp. When they arrived at a space where prisoners were systematically murdered with a small caliber pistol shot, the nun said she wanted to tell Peet about a very special Polish prisoner.

“Julia asked if it might be Father Maximilian Kolbe,” Vincent wrote. “The woman was stunned: ‘How,’ she asked, ‘do you know about Father Kolbe?’”

In fact, Peet had learned about Father Kolbe through her coursework. He was a prisoner at Auschwitz who gave his own life in exchange for that of another prisoner who had been randomly selected to die by starvation as retribution for an escape on their block.

The exchange illustrates the difference that Holocaust and genocide studies students make in the world, wrote Vincent: “The impression Julia must have made at Auschwitz in explaining to a Polish nun that she was a student of the Holocaust at Keene State College must not be underrated. That she also related the story of a cherished Polish Catholic martyr is priceless. With the backdrop of a European continent encountering levels of ethnic nationalism not seen since 1945, and marked by widespread and not-so-subtle efforts to tamper with historical truth, our HGS students don’t simply come to Jagiellonian University to learn; they bring knowledge, insights, and a degree of human understanding that makes them beacons of light for many they encounter. To say that I’m proud of our students goes without saying; indeed, what they so often do is reinforce for me the value of a life dedicated to the classroom.”

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