Human Rights, Poland 2011

During winter break 2011, SMU students and professors and Dallas community members are traveling to Poland with SMU’s Embrey Human Rights Program. The group will visit Holocaust sites to pay tribute and bear witness to those who perished and survived.

Included in the group are six professors traveling on behalf of the Boone Family Foundation’s Texas Project for Human Rights Education grant. They are: SMU’s Perkins School of Theology Professor Sze-kar Wan, Dedman College Psychology Professor George W. Holden and Cox School of Business Assistant Professor Robert W. Rasberry, along with TCU Associate Professor of Social Work Harriet L. Cohen, South Texas College of Law Associate Professor Katerina Lewinbuk and University of North Texas Assistant Professor of Political Science Jacqueline H.R. DeMeritt. Also with the group is Alice Murray, president and CEO of the Dallas Holocaust Museum, so stay tuned in.

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A long day in Berlin

An update from Jacqueline H.R. DeMeritt, assistant professor of political science at the University of North Texas:

December 18, 6:45 a.m.
Went “sightseeing” last night in Berlin; the Berlin Holocaust Memorial is eerie and breathtaking, row upon row of smooth concrete columnscoffins, neatly aligned, orderly. The cobblestone pathways rise and fall, simulating hills, valleys, countrysides, and each columncoffin represents a Jewish community wiped out by the terror. Though it was evening, I took pictures.

Saw, too, the Brandenburg Gate – party symbol of Nazi power. Took pictures there, too, including some of myself in front of the site. Screw you, buddy … I’m a Jew, and I’m still here. Also saw the memorial to the T4 aktion, Germany’s early eugenics/euthanasia program. Took pictures; we all stood in front and smiled for the camera; I’m not sure why. In hindsight, it seems odd.

Did not sleep well; vivid dreams of nothing, night sweats and stomach cramps.

On the bus now, heading to Ravensbruck. To the extent that one can, I’m looking forward to it.

1 p.m.
Underwhelming as it sounds, Ravensbruck was powerful. As many photos as I’ve seen of big open gated spaces, as many museum exhibits of cells and chimneys, it’s just unspeakably immense to put eyes on it. Walk down the road and walls. Inside, a huge open yard. Around the yard, barracks.

In the cells, in one building, different countries sent representatives to design their own memorials. The sculpture in the Polish cell, of hands reaching up and clawing at a stone edifice, and a photo running the length of the bottom of one wall – feet in a cattle car, perhaps. Women’s feet, to be sure. The Russian cell, one half spare and concise: a stool and the letters CCCP against one wall, radiator in the corner; photos of smiling Russian prisoners along the other walls – strong, tough, built to withstand, right to the end.

Survivors tend rose gardens outside the crematoriums. Right now, the roses are cut stems. Though I know they are merely hibernating until spring, they look dead.

There was a cat. He lives there. I sat on a bench on the porch of an SS officer house and looked at him. He saw my outstretched fingers and came over, climbed onto my lap and gave love and asked for love and snuggled and purred like an outboard motor. I wonder how long he has been there, who his parents were, and what his story is. Nobody lives there now; did his great great grandparents comfort the women or accompany the guards? Did they pretend to love the guards and their families in order to give comfort to the women? This cat was sturdy, thick with short ears and calm stoicism. A German cat, and I hope he is one of the good guys. I think he is; he was happy to be loved and held and nuzzled. He didn’t want me to leave, but he didn’t need to be protected.

He was there for me, not the other way around.

3 p.m.
Sachsenhausen, final home of ~35,000 German homosexuals, political opponents, and juvenile “delinquents” (defined: didn’t go to school, or listen to American music). There is a Soviet memorial, large and stark and strong and imposing. There are brick crematoriums (crematoria?), one after the next after the next. They crumble slowly, but remain. Cold metal stretchers, covered in dust, lay atop a few. One way in, and just across from it a guard’s canteen where the 3,000 camp perpetrators could drink, relax, unwind, feel good about themselves. Juxtaposition is truly a powerful thing.

4 p.m.
Berlin-Grunewald Track 17. A flag reads (in part) “Nizkor L’ad”: remember always. I have the identical phrase tattooed on my wrist.

5 p.m.
Checkpoint Charlie and the Berlin Wall. For a political scientist, especially, this was an unexpected gift.

5:30 p.m.
Topography of Terror. Equally unexpected, and a very different kind of gift. A largely photographic chronology of the process and institutions of Nazi terror, built at the site of the headquarters of the Secret State Police (Gestapo), the SS and the Reich Security Main Office. I don’t remember the last time a photo made me catch my breath. Tonight, it happened a dozen or more times.

SMU Human Rights director Rick Halperin says violation of the right to life is not so severe as violation of the right to life with dignity. I believe Rick is right. It has been a very long day.

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