By Teresa Kennedy, 2015 ASAP Alum
On a chilly Saturday morning in February, when most 19-year-olds are still sleeping, the Plebes of 18th Company at the U.S. Naval Academy are arriving in Washington, D.C. As the sun peeks over the Washington Monument across the street, these 40 freshmen enter the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum through a side entrance before the building is open to the public. They walk through the silent halls to the exhibit, where staff members guide them, unfolding the story of the Holocaust in order to show these future military officers their role in “Never Again”.
Every year, all 1,100 freshmen at the Naval Academy attend the museum in this manner. Senior midshipmen from each of the 30 companies undergo training in the connections between the USHMM’s exhibition and the Naval Academy’s leadership and character curricula. For the last four years, an alumnus of the American Service Academies Program has led this training. These alumni have incorporated experience and education from the program with the Naval Academy’s curriculum on character development to better address the issues these freshmen will be grappling with during their visit.
Meeting in one of the museum’s classrooms in August, this year’s group of 1/C Midshipmen collectively brainstormed the main objectives of the Saturday Morning Training program: “To understand the importance of ethical decision-making in the context of the Holocaust and genocide prevention.” Before each company’s visit during the academic year, these seniors prepare the freshmen to think critically about issues of authority in mass atrocity. From readings of Ordinary Men to showings of The Pianist and Conspiracy, the freshmen arrive at the museum well informed about what happened, and then after are able to discuss in-depth how, why, and their responsibility in preventing atrocities in the future.
The program fosters an understanding of German and Polish soldiers’ mindsets during World War II. Acknowledging the “perpetrator mindset” forces midshipmen to notice similarities between these soldiers and themselves, identifying where these soldiers failed to execute the ethics that the Naval Academy is dedicated to developing.
“While I was there, I connected to soldiers on both sides of the war,” Midshipman 4/C Frances Kratz told me after our visit, recognizing links from the exhibit to her leadership class at the Naval Academy. “I felt the struggle they faced while they made leadership decisions.”
Other midshipmen were faced with deep emotional reactions to the exhibit, most lighting candles in the Remembrance Hall, and a few stopping to bow their heads in prayer. All, however, left the museum with the gravity of the somber responsibility on their shoulders, a full realization of the power of their uniform, and a renewed dedication to be an officer in the U.S. Navy, an organization which prides itself for being a “global force for good.”
Teresa Kennedy is a senior at the United States Naval Academy. She will graduate in May with a Bachelor of Science in English and a commission as an Ensign into the Surface Warfare Community. In the fall, Teresa will travel to the University of Oxford to complete her MPhil in Social Anthropology. Teresa became passionate about genocide prevention after completing the American Service Academies Program in 2014 with the AJC and was honored to receive the Truman Scholarship in recognition of this passion. She intends to pursue a career dedicated to public advocacy for genocide prevention.
The Auschwitz Jewish Center is operated by the Museum in Oświęcim, Poland. For additional blog entries by and about the Auschwitz Jewish Center, please visit mjhnyc.org/tag/ajc. All Spring 2016 newsletter articles are found here.