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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Jedwabne and Treblinka

An update from Gracyn, a senior theatre major and human rights minor:

Hello!  We are in Warsaw now, and I am in love with it.  It is beautiful and large and a city I definitely hope to visit again.  I am working hard on my Polish and converse only a little, but I hope to come back when I know more.  Perhaps I will try to live in the Polish section in Brooklyn … or at least visit it often.

When we arrived in Warsaw, by train, it began to snow.  This was Warsaw’s first snow of the year that stuck.  That night we toured around and then had a reflection group about the places we had visited.

Where the barn once stood

The first place we went was Jedwabne.  This is a place that is very controversial in Poland and barely known in the United States.  I think it would be hard to find someone who would recognize the name, but it was here that a horrible event, called a pogrom, took place.

The Poles of Jedwabne gathered up all the Jews in their town (over 300) who had been their neighbors, business partners and friends, and put them in a barn and set the barn on fire.  If anyone tried to escape they would cut off their limbs to make sure they couldn’t get out.  The memorial is the outline of the barn and a charred door in the middle.  Soon after this they destroyed the Jewish cemetery just a few feet across the street.  Now all that remains is the wall around the cemetery and the trees that grow in place of the graves.

Church overlooking the barn

All of this happened in sight of two Catholic churches. While we were there, I kept thinking about the scene in The Patriot.  This is perhaps the hardest scene to watch in any movie, and to be standing on a similar ground where so much hate and violence occurred is heartbreaking.

As I said, this place is not well known. It has no real road leading up to it, and it wasn’t until 2000 that this event was even brought up in the country, much less the world. Jan Gross published the book Neighbors that told the story and asked how neighbors could turn so violently upon each other. Poland was in an uproar. Some people mourned, but most were extremely angry – the Poles were victims and wanted to remain so. The evil was in Germany, not Poland. However, looking back at the history of the Holocaust, it was often that people turned in their neighbors and helped to capture Jews.

The remainders of a swastika

In September of this year the memorial was graffitied with swastikas and the phrases “They were flammable,” and “Don’t apologize for Jedwabne.” The vestiges can be made out on the back of the monument. Anti-Semitism is very present in Poland, something I was surprised to hear. Our Warsaw tour guide, Olga, said it is the uneducated who believe the Jews killed and persecuted the Jesuits and who want revenge. I do not say this as a fact, but just as the belief of one.

There are many Poles who mourn the event, too. While we were there, a man from the town saw us get off the bus and followed a ways behind us as we walked to the site. I thought he was making sure we didn’t leave behind any graffiti, but he eventually came up and asked in Polish for us to take his picture. We did so, and then he began taking pictures using his timer of himself and the site. While we were at the cemetery, I looked over and saw him lying on the snow cradling his head and rocking while sobbing. This was incredibly moving.

Never again

Treblinka has perhaps had the biggest impact on me so far. About 800,000 people died there. Treblinka was different than the other permanent camps because it was more like an assembly line. People were put on trains from the Warsaw ghetto and told they were on their way to a better city just for them. When they arrived, they walked into what looked like a train station and were told they were going to take a shower before entering. They took off their clothes and then were forced down an outdoor corridor to the gas chamber and were gassed within 20 minutes of arriving. No documents were taken; they were just gotten rid of. Instead of Zyklon B, carbon monoxide was used – a much slower death. Some Jews from Eastern Europe heard of Treblinka and thought it was a better place for them to go and bought expensive tickets. They brought their furs and jewelry, which were taken by the camp officers and sent home to Germany. After they had been gassed, the Jews who had been spared because they had professions that would benefit the troops (like tailors) would gather the bodies and put them on an enormous grill and burn them. This often wasn’t efficient enough, and they would dig mass graves.

Extends until you cannot see

It is important to note that there was also a labor camp that was part of Treblinka. This is where the Poles and POWs went. Although many died from the conditions at the work camp, it was only Jews who were sent to the gas chambers.

When I walked to the main part of the memorial, my breath was taken away. It is beautiful. This bothered some people in my group, but I actually greatly appreciated it. The memorial is treated as a cemetery to those who passed. I found it almost more of a place of hope and a reminder of life. When you enter, you see large coffin-sized stones that represent the railroad. They travel into the distance, and you are greeted with a stone platform. This is where the people would get off the trains. You turn the corner and the space from the camp appears. In the middle lies a large stone monument that says in many languages “Never Again,” and around it are many stones.

17,000 stones

Different communities have donated engraved stones, and they have been placed where the burial pits were. They total about 17,000 stones. This is an overwhelming amount to see, and to imagine 800,000 is impossible. It is to me a place of peace and honor and beauty built specifically for the people who passed and whose names are not even known. I like this idea.

At Stutthof I felt ashamed to be looking at the ashes in the memorial. I feel those people deserve their rest and peace and something beautiful just for them. If they couldn’t have it at the end of their lives, it seems important to have after they are dead. I think the feeling of anger and disgust that I felt looking at them is important to feel at these places, but at the expense of the people lost, it seems a bit wrong.

As you can see, the site was covered with snow. Our tour guide at Stutthof said, “These camps speak in this weather,” and she is absolutely right. It was so quiet and still, and I could almost hear the stones speaking. Some were crying, some were screaming, some were humming. This place spoke to me, and I was glad to hear them. Very few people visit any sites except Auschwitz, and an incredible number have been forgotten by most of the people in the world. I wanted to lie down and just be there for a while. Someday I hope to come back in the summer and do so.

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