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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The shadows of Belzec

An update from Robert Rasberry, professor in Management and Organizational Behavior at the Cox School of Business, who focuses on communication, management and ethics:

Pathway to the memorial at Belzec, housed beneath a mountain of human ash and bone.

It is Christmas Eve, and the entire countryside of Poland seems to have retreated into their homes and the start of traditional Christmas celebrations. We have just returned from Belzec, and a very emotional day. This is a camp that 99 percent of the world’s people have never heard about, yet 600,000 people, mostly Jewish, were murdered here in just 8 months. This was the third largest Nazi death camp in Poland, and one of the smoothest run. I read where there were only 12 SS guards, and a few Ukranian staff, running the entire operation. When the trains arrived at Belzec, those inside the cattle cars only had three to four hours before their lives were extinguished.

There are no camp buildings left. All that is a part of the original scene is a mountain with rocks placed on it. The mountain is solid human ash and bone. The rocks were placed on top a few years ago because they found people digging for gold that they thought the Nazis had overlooked. As I take the long walk from the front of the memorial down to the center, I feel as if the walls are closing in, just like others must have felt on their way into the gas chamber.

The prayer room

Inside the museum the last exhibit is a prayer room. It is huge, probably 40 yards long. The walls are solid concrete, with the ceiling about 25 feet. There is a dim light on a quote as I enter.  The rest of the room is solid dark, with a dim projected light on the far wall. I am alone when I enter. My immediate thought is “This is how you feel when you are dying.” My immediate impulse is to walk forward toward the light, and not to retreat. The light grows larger as I advance a quarter, and then halfway toward the wall. It is like the out-of-body experiences I have read about.

Dan Pagis, a Romanian, survived the Holocaust and became a teacher and poet in Israel. He died in 1986.

I stop along the way and spend time in reflection and pray. I never make it to the end, but retreat and make my way to the tall, heavy steel exit door. My instinct is to pull it open. I pull but it does not budge. Thinking it is a trick, I pull again with no success. Finally I push and am able to leave.

Walking to the bus I pass a poignant quote. “Here in this carload I, Eve, with my son Abel. If you see my older boy, Cain, the son of man, tell him that I …” – Dan Pagis ‘Written in pencil in a sealed freight car.’

The memorial wall in part reads, “No place for my outcry.”

Tomorrow we go to Majdanek, a huge camp outside of Lublin. Everything is in place, just as it was when the Nazis quickly ran from it. I realize that my future Christmases will never be the same as those of the past. Next year Christmas Eve will be remembered through the shadows of Belzec, Christmas Day through the lens of a cold, damp, shower that was in reality a Nazi gas chamber.

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