Shuffling up to the grave with a flickering candle in her hand, junior Lauren Cole mourned the thousands of people buried in the mass grave as if they were all her own family. Thousands of people, all in one single place together, as if it were nothing. All of them stacked one by one on top of each other, elbows touching.
Cole was visiting the Bergen Belsen Concentration Camp in Germany, silently observing where her ancestors once lived behind barbed wire fences.
This year, spring break for Cole wasn’t filled with spending time with her friends on the beach, but reflecting on her ancestor’s past and rekindling the fire to her religion. Cole was learning more about the tragedy that took over her family’s life, and the reason they came to the U.S. in 1938 with only $4.
“It’s always hard to think about what happened to the Jews because I am one,” Cole said.
Before arriving in Germany, Cole’s family contacted Gunter Demnig, an artist from Berlin who creates commemorative art for victims of the Holocaust. He travels through Europe and installs brass stones called “stolpersteine” into cobblestone streets.
Cole’s family requested the placing of six stones outside “Rizza Strasse 27,” the address of her grandfather’s old home in Koblenz, Germany. Cole and her family stood outside the four-unit apartment complex that used to be her grandf
ather’s home before it was flattened by the war.
Demnig handed the brass pieces to the shaking hands of Cole and her family to be wedged into the street. When the stones were secured, emotions flooded into the weeping family, trying hard to shield themselves from images of starvation and torture.
“It was like attending a funeral for my grandfather and his family 80 years late,” Cole said.
When the ceremony came to an end, Cole and her father were left standing outside the apartment complex with wet streams falling down their cheeks.
“I was so surprised to find myself crying like someone would at a funeral,” Steven Cole, Lauren’s dad said.
Following the ceremony, the Coles drove four hours to Geilenkirchen, a town of only 900 people, to tour her grandmother’s hometown. Freshly painted buildings all covered with what used to be parts of her grandmother’s life: her school, her work and her home. Each gave Cole a sense of how her grandmother’s life was ripped away from her.
“When we were in my grandmother’s hometown it was easy for me to see that she had a life just like me,” Cole said “Then one day it was all just taken away.”
Cole and her father then went to the Max-Von-Laue Gymnasium, a school in Koblenz, as another part of their trip. They spoke to a group of high school students with eager ears as Cold and her father shared the story of how their family deserted Germany and were stripped of their lives.
“Even if it might not happen again, why would we want it to be forgotten?” Cole said. “It’s a tremendous part of history.”
Cole’s father – a second generation speaker – shares their story through the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education. He educates people on the importance of what happened to his parents and grandparents as they endured days without even a crumb of bread
“I try to help people understand that what is now a history book item really did impact people who live among them,” Steven Cole said.
Cole understands the importance of keeping this horrific event alive. She proudly stands up if the word “Jew” is ignorantly thrown around at school by sixteen-year-olds.
Cole initially felt that the trip wouldn’t be the ideal vacation for a junior in high school: visiting her grandparents’ old homes, touring concentration camps and speaking to high schoolers about WWII, but Cole now knows why she should know where she comes from.
“The trip was important because it gave Lauren a deeper appreciation and understanding of her religion,” junior Lily Gasper, a close friend of Cole’s.