Why I Went to Auschwitz
by Ray Allen, Ten-time All-star, Three-time all NBA Shooting
There was a small
hole in the kitchen floor that led to a secret crawl space. That image
is burned into my memory. The space was maybe five feet long by five feet
The owner of the
house said, "They used to fit six people inside there. When the Nazis
His name was Tadeusz
Skoczylas, and the house we were in had belonged to his family during
World War II. It was a small brick house in the town of Ciepielów,
Poland. It had a red roof that had seen better days. The front door was
just a few steps off the street. In the backyard were a few barns and
other small shacks.
I had been in Poland
for a few days already, and the horror of the history I had experienced
was overwhelming. But this was something different. This was so personal.
I'm looking at this
tiny space. And I'm imagining six people down there, hiding from death.
Six real people. Crawling through that little hole right in front of me.
Not that long ago. It wasn't a history book. It wasn't a museum. It was
that one day in 1942, Nazi soldiers visited the house on a tip. Someone
in the village had told them that the family had been harboring Jewish
people. There were supposed to be 10 Skoczylas living in the house. On
this particular day, the youngest boy in the family was not home when
the soldiers came by. The Nazis grew suspicious and began tearing the
house apart. They found the hole and the crawl space, but the Jewish people
the family had been hiding were not there. They had already moved on.
Without saying a
word, the Nazis went next door to a neighboring family and took their
young son. The punishment for hiding Jews was death for the entire family,
and they had a quota to fill.
The soldiers took all 10 people out back and executed them right in front
of those barns and shacks that are still standing there today.
When the little Skoczylas
boy returned home, he found his entire family dead.
That little boy was Tadeusz's grandfather. The house stayed in the Skoczylas
family, and his grandfather lived in it. Now Tadeusz and his mother live
I couldn't believe
it. And as I walked through the rest of the house, this feeling sort of
took over me. There was all this history right in front of me. And it
was real. I could reach out and touch it. I could feel it between my fingers
and smell it in the air. It was a tangible thing.
* * *
I took that trip
just a few months ago. It was my first time in Poland. I went there to
learn more about something that had fascinated me since I was a teenager:
the Holocaust. I'd read so many books and articles about it, but reading
words on a page is not the same thing as seeing things up close.
Then I visited the
Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C., for the first time. It was 1998,
and I was playing for the Milwaukee Bucks. I was in D.C. meeting our owner,
Herb Kohl, over the summer. We had some time free time on my last day
in the city, and Mr. Kohl suggested we go to the Holocaust Museum on the
National Mall. I'll never forget how I felt after those two hours in there
- I could have spent two days. My immediate feeling was that everyone
needs to go there.
was one room in particular, though, that I think about often. It's filled
with photos of Jews from a town in Poland. The pictures line the walls
and extend up toward the sky, where light floods in from a window. Almost
90% of the people in the images were sent to their death. Before they
were taken to concentration camps or executed, they would leave their
prized possessions behind with friends or family.
The people of these
Jewish communities were pushed to the absolute limit of their human instincts.
They just wanted to survive. And from that, the tales of brotherhood and
camaraderie are so awe-inspiring. It was a reminder of what the human
spirit is capable of - both for good and evil.
made me feel sort of irrelevant. Which was a strange thought to have as
a young NBA player who was supposed to be on top of the world. I was realizing
that there were things outside of my bubble that mattered so much more.
I wanted my teammates to feel that as well. So every team I played on
after that, whenever we were in D.C. playing the Wizards, I would ask
our coach if we had time to go through the museum. Every visit was different,
but each guy came out thanking me for taking us there. I could see in
their eyes that they had a different perspective on life after that experience.
I thought I knew
what the Holocaust was, and what it meant. I went to Poland with a few
close friends to learn more. But I wasn't prepared for how deeply the
visit would affect me. I had seen so many documentaries and films on Auschwitz,
but nothing really prepares you for being there. The first thing I felt
when I walked through those iron gates was
heavy. The air around
me felt heavy. I stood on the train tracks where the prisoners of the
camp would arrive, and I felt like I could hear the trains coming to a
halt. I had to take a breath to center myself. It was so immediate. So
We walked through
the barracks and gas chambers and what I remember most is what I heard:
nothing. I've never experienced silence like that. Apart from footsteps,
the complete lack of sound was almost jarring. It's eerie and sobering.
You're standing in these rooms where so much death has taken place and
your mind is trying to come to terms with all that's happened in this
One question keeps
repeating over and over and over in your mind: How can human beings do
this to one another?
How does somebody
process that? You can't.
This is not history.
This is humanity. This is now. This is a living lesson for us as a people.
* * *
After Tadeusz Skoczylas
took us through his family's home, I stood outside for a while by myself,
thinking about everything I had experienced.
Why do we learn about
the Holocaust? Is it just so we can make sure nothing like this ever happens
again? Is it because six million people died? Yes, but there's a bigger
reason, I think.
The Holocaust was about how human beings - real, normal people like you
and me - treat each other.
When the Skoczylas
family was risking their own lives to hide people they barely knew, they
weren't doing it because they practiced the same religion or were the
same race. They did it because they were decent, courageous human beings.
They were the same as those people crouched in a hole. And they knew that
those people didn't deserve what was being done to them.
I asked myself a
really tough question: Would I have done the same?
Really, would I have
done the same?
When I returned home
to America, I got some very disheartening messages directed toward me
on social media regarding my trip. Some people didn't like the fact that
I was going to Poland to raise awareness for the issues that happened
there and not using that time or energy to support people in the black
I was told my ancestors
would be ashamed of me.
I know there are
trolls online and I shouldn't even pay attention, but that one sort of
got to me. Because I understood where they were coming from. I understand
that there are plenty of issues in our own country right now, but they
were looking at my trip the wrong way. I didn't go to Poland as a black
person, a white person, a Christian person or a Jewish person - I went
as a human being.
It's easy to say
"I went to make sure these things don't happen again." But I
went to learn about the true reality of what happened during the Holocaust,
and what we can take from that. The people who believe that I am not spending
my time the way the right way
well, they're missing the entire
point. We shouldn't label people as this thing or that thing. Because
by doing so, you create these preconceived notions, which is how we get
into these horrible situations in the first place.
We have to do a better
job breaking through ignorance and the close-mindedness and the divisions
that are plaguing our society in 2017.
I remember being
a kid in elementary school, and we all used to have a couple pen pals
from around the world. I was so excited to hear back from people in different
countries. I wanted to know about how they lived. I was curious about
their lives. And I feel like we've lost that a little bit. It seems like
now, we only see us. We only want to look out for us. Whatever us even
I think about the Tadeusz family. Who did they define as us?
They saw us as every
human being, regardless of what they looked like, or what they believed.
They thought everyone
was worth protecting. And they were willing to die for it.
That is something
worth remembering, always.
Source: The Players' Tribune, August 3, 2017