It’s now Thursday, day seven for some of us (others arrived on day three). I am now sitting toward the back of a 45-seat Mercedes-Benz bus, returning to Warsaw after witnessing our fifth killing site, Chelmno. This location, about a 3-hour ride west of Warsaw, was the first exterminating “camp.” There actually wasn’t a camp, because Jews and others were loaded into large vans that transported them 3 kilometers to a burial site. Naked and terrified men, women and children were ushered into the vans, and then the van’s exhaust was used to kill them over the next 20 minutes or so. This technique was used to murder some 360,000 people, but then abandoned in favor of a more efficient killing method – the gas chamber.
You get the idea of what we have been experiencing on this extraordinary trip. This tour is the 15th edition of Rick Halperin’s annual group pilgrimage to the German Nazi death camps in occupied Poland. He has been coming since 1983 but started taking groups in 1996. As a historian he has encyclopedic knowledge of World War II and the Holocaust. The current trip, with a cohort of 21 SMU undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, and people from the community, is the second largest group he has taken.
Although the death camps and the Holocaust are the central focus of our trip, this is but one of his international trips to important human rights sites. One cannot help but absorb information about human rights issues – another of the many fascinating subtexts to the trip. There are many others.
We are learning some about the rich and troubled Polish history that included the visit for two of us (while the others were having lunch) to a massive medieval castle in Malbork, dating from the 13th century, that boasts the use of more than 35 million bricks in its construction.
We are learning about the Cold War and hear stories from our translators about the imprisonment and in some cases murder of their relatives. (Our translator in Gdansk provides the same service to former trade union leader and Polish President Lech Walesa.)
But most of all we are trying to comprehend the largest planned mass genocide in world history committed about 70 years ago. We are trying to understand why the Nazis devoted so much human and material resources to trying to eliminate the Jewish “parasites” and other undesirables in the face of their deteriorating military situation. We are trying to understand the psychology of their collaborators … and the terror and plight of the victims. We search for signs of goodness and hope for humankind in the face of such evil. We are also troubled by the lack of justice after the war. Very few perpetrators ever went to court, and fewer still received any form of punishment for their crimes.
It is time to sign off because we have just arrived back in Warsaw, in time to meet five Jewish survivors of the war.