Jonathan in Poland

Jonathan, a junior in the Creative Writing program in Dedman College’s English Department, is participating in the SMU Human Rights Education Program’s December trip to Poland. There, program director Rick Halperin will lead visits to World War II Nazi death camps.

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Gross Rosen: Our last stop

I’m not too sure what to expect from the final camp on this tour, Gross Rosen. Once again, we’re hours from the nearest major city, and I haven’t even heard of this place until now.

Professor Halperin informed us the other day that had the Nazis not blown up their furnaces at Auschwitz, they would’ve been shipped here. Primarily a work camp at the beginning of the war, Gross Rosen would’ve been turned into a cleanup site in the remaining days of the Final Solution.

The camp is built sort of terraced into the side of a hill. The museum has virtually no English in it, showing just how few international visitors it gets. Apparently we also were in luck, as we managed to come on the day when the only English-speaking employee happened to be there.

Despite not being able to read almost anything in the museum, the pictures spoke volumes. Brass statues and stained-glass windows depict emaciated men and women in various states of suffering. Photos of gaunt and dying prisoners are everywhere, in stark contrast to the snapshots of jovial SS officers, which are about as plentiful.

Upon leaving the museum and walking up a steep embankment, you’re led to a deep rock quarry. While being a forced labor camp, Gross Rosen was a sheer money-making venture for the SS. High-quality granite was excavated on the backs of prisoners, who were literally worked to the bone, driven by ruthless SS officers whose only goals were to collect a check and sip schnapps. It makes sense that there were so many brimming SS faces in those photographs; this place was a virtual paradise for them.

Walking through the ruins of the camp and exploring the terrible bathhouse and kitchen, I’m glad that this was the last camp that we visited. Completely different from anything that we’ve seen in its cruelty, Gross Rosen was a separate experience entirely. I can’t help but know that this was normal, though. It’s not hard to imagine how many camps and sub-camps existed like this one, completely under the radar and today almost unknown.

Walking back to the van with the knowledge that I’m officially done and coming down the home stretch, I’m somewhat relieved. Each day, visiting a graveyard for thousands, sometimes over a million people and only being able to leave a small stone in remembrance takes a toll on you. The long rides back to the hotel, thinking about the lump in your throat where that stone in your pocket used to be, seem a lot longer.

I keep telling myself that I won’t be back here, but I will be someday. This trip changes people in a way that no one can foresee, its effects unique to every person. Visiting sites that show both the depths and depravity of human nature as well as the shining hope of the few – powerful is a word that might fall short of trying to describe this trip.

You can read every book, see every movie, and listen to every interview and testimonial, but you’ll never truly understand until you’ve been to these places. To all you armchair historians out there, it takes a trip like this to really open your eyes to the atrocities that occurred and that still go one today around the world. Words like Darfur and Rwanda hold a new prominence in your eyes as you try to imagine the horrors of the past in the present.

Like I said, I’m glad to be headed home, but I couldn’t be happier that I came.

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