As Dustin Hutton-Alcorn of Abbotsford marched in silence and held hands with the people on either side of him, he felt triumphant – as if he and his companions were reclaiming the area.
The group of 60 walked from the site of the railway station at the Auschwitz I concentration camp to the Birkenau death camp. They marched in memory of those who lost their lives because of hate and intolerance, and for the heroes who fought for freedom.
Dustin walked in memory of his grandfather, William F.E. Hutton, who had been a sergeant with the Canadian Armed Forces in the Second World War.
It was because of him that the 20-year-old had grown up with a yearning to make a difference in the world.
His grandfather would talk about the war and the atrocities of the Holocaust, telling a young Dustin that it all stemmed from people not liking other people.
Dustin didn’t want the world to be that way. When he was in high school at Abbotsford Collegiate, he joined as many groups as he could to help his school and community, including the Abbotsford Youth Commission and the Kiwanis Club’s Key Club.
He went on to attend Carleton University in Ottawa, studying political science and human rights. Last fall, he participated in Holocaust Education Week, and that was when he learned about the March of Remembrance and Hope.
The annual event brings together 60 university and college students from across Canada for a two-day trip to Germany, followed by a five-day visit to Poland each May.
While there, participants visit locations related to the Holocaust, including the site of the Wannsee Conference (a meeting of senior Nazi officials in 1942 in which the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question” was presented), and concentration/death camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek in Poland.
Dustin was part of this experience from May 15 to 23. He wanted to learn more about this part of history and its applications in the modern world.
“I think a lot of people … have kind of put (the Holocaust) to the side and have not really thought about the lessons that can be learned,” he said.
The group travelled with two Holocaust survivors. One was a woman whose family was taken to a concentration camp when she was eight years old.
Her mother smuggled a pair of high-heeled shoes along for the girl to wear so that she would appear older, as younger children were usually taken to the gas chambers. She lost her entire family, except for her mom.
The other survivor was a man whose family, including his twin sister, was taken to Majdanek. He was separated from them all, and his last memory of his sister is seeing her long blond braid as she ran to catch up to their mother. He was the only survivor in his family.
Dustin was also impacted by the number of personal belongings that the Nazis kept of their victims and which were displayed at the museum in Auschwitz: suitcases, eyeglasses, shoes, clothing, and human hair that had been shorn off and was woven into items such as blankets.
As he looked at these items and walked through the area, he was overwhelmed by the inhumanity of it all.
“I was trying to come to grips with the notion that there are people who could do this to other people.”
Now back home in Abbotsford before returning to his fourth year of university, Dustin is intent on sharing his experiences with others. He believes there are parallels today in Canada with the prejudice and intolerance that fuelled the Holocaust – for example, with attitudes about homosexuality and race.
He will participate again this fall in Holocaust Education Week, and hopes for a career in human rights, advocacy or politics.