Originally Posted: October 17, 2017
DALLAS (SMU) – Bearing witness to Poland’s deep physical and emotional scars that linger long after World War II – when the Nazis made the country the epicenter of the Holocaust – is the focus of a new book by SMU’s Embrey Human Rights Program: No Resting Place: Holocaust Poland (Terrace Partners, $39.95).
The large-format hardcover combines more than 200 contemporary photos of occupied Poland’s deadliest Holocaust sites with historical vignettes and poignant observations from those who have experienced one of the most comprehensive, longest-running Shoah study trips offered by a U.S. university.
Preview the book here.
Each December, the two-week “Holocaust Poland” trip – led for more than 20 years by SMU Prof. Rick Halperin – exposes students and lifelong learners to the Third Reich’s genocidal “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.” Like the trip, No Resting Place visits 13 of the most notorious SS-run sites – Stutthof, Lodz, Chelmno, Warsaw, Treblinka, Jedwabne, Sobibor, Belzec, Majdanek, Auschwitz, Birkenau, Plaszow and Gross-Rosen – six designed solely for killing.
Poland had been home to Europe’s largest population of Jews when the Reich’s quest for racial supremacy and resource-rich land led Germany to invade the country on Sept. 1, 1939. During the resulting Second World War, the Nazi regime systematically slaughtered millions of perceived biological or political threats to the so-called “Aryan master race” – Jews, primarily, but also ethnic Slavs, Roma/Sinti (“Gypsies”), homosexuals, the disabled and political and religious dissidents.
By the war’s end in 1945, Poland was virtually one vast graveyard, where liberators discovered hundreds of remote killing fields and forests, walled-off ghettoes and prisons, and lethal concentration camps, where nearly one-third of all 11 million Holocaust victims had been murdered with unfathomable cruelty and efficiency.
Both the “Holocaust Poland” trip and book are meant to ensure historical remembrance and “history as warning,” says history professor and co-author Halperin. “In our increasingly polarized world, where hate crimes against Jews and Muslims are on the rise, the need for tolerance and understanding has never been greater.”
Dallas philanthropist and SMU alumna Lauren Embrey (’80, ’06) couldn’t agree more. Embrey’s life would be profoundly changed by the 2005 “Holocaust Poland” pilgrimage she took while pursuing a Master of Liberal Studies (MLS) degree at SMU. Prior to the trip, Halperin’s course, “America’s Dilemma: The Struggle for Human Rights,” had left her gob-smacked. “Why, at 47, was I just learning about so many humanitarian atrocities? And why wasn’t this subject something we taught our children?” she recalls.
Traveling to Poland with her two sons cemented Embrey’s desire to be a change-maker. “It was the first time I recognized the value of witnessing – understanding how atrocities continue to affect our lives,” she says. “I wanted to provide this learning opportunity to young people and others.”
In 2006, Lauren, her sister Gayle, and their Embrey Family Foundation would push human rights education to the forefront by funding the ground-breaking Embrey Human Rights Program, led by Halperin, within SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences. In 2012, enthusiasm for the program – supporting an innovative and interdisciplinary mix of curricula, public events and learning trips, and student-led community-outreach initiatives – allowed SMU to go from offering a human rights minor and MLS concentration in human rights & social justice to providing a pioneering Bachelor of Arts degree in the field (making SMU one of only five U.S. universities to do so; since then two others have followed suit).
Halperin’s interest in Holocaust Poland history stems from his first visit to the country in 1983, just as Eastern Europe’s Iron Curtain began to lift. As a history and human rights scholar who has traveled extensively (he’s been three-time board chair of Amnesty International USA), Halperin had seen numerous Holocaust sites in Germany and other Nazi-occupied countries.
“But what I discovered in Poland shook me to my core,” he recalls. “Some places looked as though the Germans had just left. Others were makeshift dumping grounds, where people with metal detectors were seen searching for valuables. It was beyond disturbing. How could the millions of people who died in these places be remembered – or not remembered – so callously? I committed myself to returning each year.”
Since Halperin began leading SMU study trips to Poland in 1996, the number of participants has grown from a handful to more than three dozen who went on the 20th anniversary pilgrimage in 2016 (including two dozen students able to travel thanks to a generous gift from SMU alumna Mike Disque ’64 and his wife Cherri).
To commemorate the program’s 10th anniversary and trip’s second decade, Halperin teamed up with SMU colleagues Sherry Aikman and Denise Gee to create No Resting Place. Embrey Human Rights Program Coordinator Aikman is an artist-photographer who has documented 10 years of the trips while serving as “den mother” to the pilgrims, and co-author Gee of SMU News & Communications is a nationally published writer who took a life-changing trip to Poland in 2012.
The trio’s primary objective was to produce a book sensitively depicting “the last places ever seen by millions of innocent people who didn’t want to die in such horrific places,” Halperin says. “And unlike most other Holocaust books we wanted this one to be produced in color – because the Holocaust happened in color.”
No Resting Place reveals the emotional and physically grueling experiences pilgrims often encounter in Poland the last weeks of each December – a time typically spent celebrating religious holidays and/or family festivities. “But being 5,000 miles away from loved ones, with limited cellular and Wi-Fi access, makes young people especially realize just who, and what, they often take for granted, and how lucky they are to have been born when and where they were.”
The group travels during some of Poland’s most frigid weather. That’s by design, Halperin says. “Even relatively brief exposure to what the prisoners endured then, with very little clothing or food, makes an immediate and lasting impression.”
Throughout the years, pilgrims have shared their heart-felt impressions about the trip for the “SMU Adventures” blog. There, a common theme emerges: “As we travel, we become like a family, consoling each other when needed,” Aikman says. “But all of us react to what we see in very different, personal ways.”
No Resting Place reveals how shaken pilgrims are by their first encounter with a gas chamber, crematorium, or massive mound of pulverized human remains. Some are overwhelmed when faced with two tons of human hair intended for use in industrial carpeting, or by the acrid smell of death sometimes detected in places uncovered by snow. They’re taken aback to see anti-Semitic graffiti that has desecrated some memorials, and Nazi-era kennels still housing German shepherd guard dogs outside a former labor camp. Some cry openly inside boxcars used to transport prisoners to the camps, and some are heartbroken by displays of fake claim-checks given to victims who believed their carefully labeled suitcases would be returned to them.
All are forever changed by what they’ve seen, and lifted up by stories of resistance, friendship and survival. They finish the trip vowing to be forces for positive change in the world – and fully embrace the Embrey Human Rights Program credo, “There is no such thing as a lesser person.”
The first part of the book’s title, “No Resting Place,” is inspired by an Old Testament passage featured a memorial wall at Belzec, Halperin says. “It best conveys our ceaseless physical and mental commitment to remember the Holocaust’s victims, while also showing what can happen when the world shrugs at inhumanity. Our ultimate goal is to eliminate the most dangerous phrase in the English language: ‘I didn’t know.’ ” READ MORE