Human Rights in Poland 2012

Eighteen professors, academic professionals, students and community members from SMU, Dallas and across Texas will be traveling through Poland Dec. 19-29 to study the Holocaust. Led by SMU Embrey Human Rights Program Director Rick Halperin, the group will visit cities and death camps where, during World War II, some 4,375,000 people were murdered during the country’s Nazi, Germany, occupation. Professor Halperin also will lead six Texas professors serving as 2012 fellows for the Texas Project for Human Rights Education, and a member of SMU’s News & Communications team, to Berlin, Dec. 16-19, to explore the origins of Adolf Hitler’s “Final Solution.”


Our group contemplates Belzec in icy, frigid-cold weather.

A hooded down coat, three layers of clothing underneath it, a wool hat, two scarves, waterproof gloves, two pairs of socks, rugged wool-lined boots and foot/hand warmers are still not enough insulation as we plod through the snowy (yet thankfully sunny) landscape of Sobibor.

There, less than an hour from Ukraine, the former death camp and current Holocaust memorial feels every bit of 4 degrees.

The frigid weather is made to order for SMU Embrey Human Rights Director Rick Halperin. He wants us to experience even just a hint of what people at the death camp had to endure 70 years ago.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for people to be physically comfortable while trying to absorb such places of unimaginable suffering and horror,” he says. “It’s not a place to be distracted by beautiful weather.”

A survivor’s drawing of a prisoner lost to the brutal weather conditions at Stutthof, in northern Poland.

Those imprisoned at Sobibor and other camps tried to survive (and more often didn’t) in Nazi-issued striped cotton uniforms. During arctic-cold weather, such lightweight clothing seemed irrelevant — though the coats taken from dead prisoners helped slightly, more so when padded with hay and paper. During summer’s blazing heat, that same clothing became an itch-inducing encumbrance that was never free of lice. Year-round, the prisoners had to wear mercilessly uncomfortable wooden clogs, ones in which they had to constantly run (or be beaten). They also were forced to wear caps — not for comfort, but to continually salute their captors (or be beaten).

SMU Embrey Human Rights Program Coordinator Sherry Aikman removes snow from a memorial stone at the death camp Sobibor.

That people even survived such places at all is a testament to the sheer will to live, and in many cases, the power of faith. That reflection leads us to realize we take so much for granted.

“If you can come back from this and complain about things in your own life, you’ve missed a key component of this trip: To stop complaining, to put yourself in better balance with the world,” Dr. Halperin says.

Older adults on the trip are particularly taken by this idea. How trivial much of our worries are in retrospect.

We’re also struck by how the SMU students with whom we’re traveling are much more aware of the world, and engaged in it, than we were at their age. It’s obvious their early educators, their families and their own individual consciences have provided just the right exposure and support for them. That framework allows SMU to further guide them toward being caring and responsible global citizens — and an inspiration for generations to come.

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Recipes for Survival

Confiscated cookware is displayed with countless other personal possessions at Auschwitz.

One of the most powerful displays at Auschwitz, and one of its most sickening, is a darkened room piled to the ceiling with human hair. Behind an expanse of glass is nearly two tons of it, some of it still in braids — all of it shorn from an estimated 140,000 women killed in the camp’s gas chambers. (We also see how the hair was used in industrial-grade carpet and upholstery.) Some in our group leave in tears; others wonder how much more they can take.

After being shaken to the core by viewing a manmade mountain of hair, then rafter-high piles of vitally important prosthetic legs, favorite shoes and cherished family suitcases, the raw emotion I’ve desperately tried to keep in check unravels in an adjacent room. I’m at a small display most visitors probably overlook, especially while grappling with the preceding gut-wrenching exhibits. It’s probably my passion for cooking and sharing food, however, that allows the glint of cooking utensils to catch my eye. I survey a mix of well-loved pieces confiscated from prisoners upon their arrival. (Sadly, within hours, many of those people, if not most of them, would be gone forever.)

What would the owners of these wares have cooked for comfort, had they been able to? Had any of these items belonged to their mothers or grandmothers? When forced from their homes, why did they choose to pack cookware while scrambling to take only their most valuable possessions?

Tiny handwritten cookbooks discovered at Ravensbrück concentration camp reflect the lives of women in “inhumane conditions, trying to talk about just ordinary things, just things from their life before,” said Holocaust researcher Katya Neklyudova. Simply remembering family feasts was “a way to remain human, to remain a woman.” [Photo: Barry Gray / The Hamilton Spectator]

I’m reminded of something I learned during our visit to the women’s concentration camp, Ravensbrück. To survive at least emotionally, if not physically, many of the imprisoned women talked at length about what they’d cook once returning home, or what they wished their mothers could make for them. Some prepared imaginary meals for each other. Others shared recipes. Since they weren’t allowed to write anything down, survivors say they memorized them. A few risked being beaten or killed by writing the recipes on scraps of paper before hiding them.

Some Holocaust survivors, such Regina Finer (imprisoned at Majdanek), have written cookbooks. Home cooking is “that thread that can take you from tragedy to triumph,” Finer said shortly after her book was published. Savoring her family’s food in her mind during life’s darkest hours, “was comforting and nourishing and nurturing. And that was the place that was the happiest.”

May we be forever blessed with such food for the soul.


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Remembrance & Respect

SMU student Genesis Reed lights a candle at the former Nazi extermination camp Belzec, near Lublin, Poland.

On an arctic-cold day at the Sobibor death camp memorial near Lublin, SMU student Joey Ottolenghi reads from the Jewish “Kaddish” prayer of mourning.










At each Holocaust memorial site, one of us lights a candle on behalf of everyone in our group. Afterward, one of several Jewish friends traveling with us reads aloud from the “Kaddish” prayer of mourning as we bow our heads.

Such gestures are important not only to us, but also to the people around us (which don’t amount to many this time of year). Our guides are especially appreciative. Some tell us that few people other than older adults with direct connections to the Holocaust pay their respects in this way anymore.

SMU Professor Rick Halperin offers an Embrey Human Rights Program wristband to our Auschwitz-Birkenau guide, Lucas Lipovitz. His grandfather had been imprisoned at the Nazi death camp near Krakow, Poland, but luckily managed to survive. Some 1.1 million other people would not.

Another guide, Lukasz Lipinski, who led us through the former Auschwitz-Birkenau camps, tells us how meaningful our words and actions are, especially since his grandfather had been a prisoner there. Hearing this makes us realize how important it is to be there, especially at a time when no one else really is — the day after Christmas, in our case.

As we leave the grim, vast expanse of Birkenau, we see a Scottish bagpipe player in full regalia playing “Amazing Grace.” His backdrop is a formerly electrified barbed wire fence and an eerie steel-gray sky.

Dr. Halperin says it’s the first time in his 30 years of visiting the camps he’s ever witnessed such a moment. Knowing the uniqueness of the occasion makes us feel even more privileged to be there.

A Scottish bagpipe troubadour performs “Amazing Grace” at Birkenau.

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During nine months of 1942, more than 500,000 people were brutally murdered at Belzec, a death camp near Lublin, Poland. It’s a place very few have heard of, and even fewer visit, as our group did on this snowy, windy Christmas Eve. What stands on the site now is a powerfully designed and curated memorial landscape and museum.

Fellow traveler Paul Lake was born on Sept. 12, 1942, to a Jewish family in Philadelphia. It’s difficult for him, and all of us, to realize that had he been born in Warsaw, or anywhere in Nazi-occupied Europe, he likely wouldn’t be alive today.

A retired businessman, Paul now volunteers at the Dallas Holocaust Museum. It was there he learned that “by the end of 1942, 80 percent of the 6 million Jews who hadn’t been killed yet were killed,” he says. “That has always stuck with me.” So has a deep desire to understand how and why the Holocaust happened.

“There was more bloodletting in 1942 than in any other year of the war,” Dr. Halperin tells us. “That year was the nadir of the Holocaust, when the Nazi killing regime was in full operational throttle. Killing camps and daily mass murder were in effect in every corner of Poland in particular, and throughout Nazi-dominated Europe in general.”

Sadly, Adolf Hitler’s work was made easier by anti-Semitism, which reached as far as America. “Anti-Semitism was rampant then, and had been since the Crusades,” Paul says. “And it hasn’t ended.”

As he works to learn more about the Holocaust, he also tries to enlighten others, especially children. “So many of them come into the museum and don’t know anything about it. Or they’ve never heard the word, ‘Aryan,’ ” he says. “If I can make even just one of them understand what really happened and why, I’ve really done something.”

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In Poland: At Chelmno, Hitler’s first death camp, as many as 350,000 people were killed, many in vans that pumped in carbon monoxide from captured Soviet tanks.

Sometimes during quiet moments I glimpse a shadowy blur. It’s gone as fast as it’s there. But it’s there. Occasionally what follows is a faint odor I now know well: the smell of death. At nearly every camp we visit, the smell still lingers, even 70 years after it operated as hell on earth, even if there’s a thick blanket of snow on the ground (but especially if there’s not a blanket of snow on the ground.)

Am I seeing spirits? Maybe. Perhaps I’m just having sensory hallucinations. Either way, this much is certain: I’ll be haunted by what I’ve been witnessing.

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Powerful Doses of Reality

The medical room used for “treating” prisoners at Stuttho, the Nazis’ first concentration camp outside of Germany.

At snowy Stutthof concentration camp near Gdansk, Poland, we huddle in a stark, damp-cold room with low ceilings, a long wooden examining table and large black & white image of syringes. We learn from our guide that medical treatments were conducted here, but ones usually not for saving lives — for taking them.

We discuss that the administering of lethal doses of phenol or Zyklon B didn’t start and end with the Nazis. Their genocidal actions to perpetuate the Aryan race were greatly influenced by America’s eugenics movement — the science of human improvement through controlled breeding. “It’s a parallel Americans don’t like to make because it’s too disturbing,” Dr. Halperin says. (For a related story, click here.)

Few know that from 1907 to 1977, our own country forcibly sterilized some 68,000 people in a medicalized effort to eliminate breeding of the mentally and physically disabled, the poor as well as the “immoral” (i.e., violent criminals and sexual deviants). The U.S. also enacted racial segregation and restrictions on mixed-race marriage and immigration to further such social engineering.

Three decades after America enacted its eugenics measures (that by this point were being discredited by modern science), the Third Reich began sterilizing people in 1933. Initially the Nazis aimed to eradicate “defective” Germans, which included even those with drinking problems or vision/hearing disorders. Two years later came Germany’s Nuremberg Laws of racial hygiene, and in 1939, its T4 euthanasia program.

One of the best-known Auschwitz inmates to be executed with a phenol injection was St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Catholic priest who volunteered to undergo two weeks of starvation and dehydration in the place of another inmate.

These Nazi actions of racial cleansing would be precursors to their full-scale genocide of 11 million people, including 6 million Jews, whom they deemed “parasitic vermin” in need of total annihilation. From 1933 to 1939 (the first phase of euthanasia killings), as many as 425,000 people would be sterilized, and after the T-4 program, 70,273 would die by lethal injection and poison gas. After the second phase that occurred during World War II, the total number of deaths would reach more than 325,000 (including massive killings in concentration camps).

The Germans were grateful to America’s Rockefeller Foundation for having helped them develop and fund eugenics programs on par with the Carnegie Institution Department of Genetics in Cold Spring Harbor, N. Y. One of the programs that evolved from this exchange of ideas included Josef Mengele, later infamous for his barbaric research at Auschwitz. Another figure influenced by the collaboration included Hitler’s personal physician, Karl Brandt, “the father of lethal injection.” He was the first to use and advocate cyanide injections to the heart to kill “defective” children, and later, others.

“Euthanasia reached beyond Germany when, under cover of war, many of the medical personnel in charge of killing patients there were shipped east to Poland to oversee the death camps’ mass gassing of people that began in 1942,” Dr. Halperin says.

After capital punishment was re-legalized in America on July 2, 1976, lethal injections would gain favor six years later as being a more “humane” way of execution; the condemned death row inmate would lose consciousness before he or she died from a poisonous chemical cocktail administered intravenously. Thirty-three states now carry out the death penalty, primarily through lethal injection. (Though European pharmaceutical companies, in countries without the death penalty, are making the necessary drugs more difficult for the U.S. to obtain.)

An empty canister of Zyklon B, the cyanide-based poison used in the Nazis’ gas chambers.

As for the gas chamber, only Mississippi and Arizona continue its use, though only for prisoners convicted before lethal injection was instituted in each state. During such executions, hydrogen cyanide pellets similar to Zyklon B emit a poisonous gas, and, if all goes as planned (which, like lethal injections, sometimes don’t), within 18 to 25 minutes the person being gassed meets the same violent physical end as those killed in gas chambers during the Holocaust.

The death penalty maintains strong support in America; the end justifies the means, advocates say. Abolitionists concur it amounts to cruel and unusual punishment and that innocent people have died. Either way, “it’s important to put the use of lethal injection and the gas chamber into historical perspective,” Dr. Halperin says.

With both killing mechanisms in our face at every turn, that’s not difficult for us to do.

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Cruel Beauty

An update from Denise Gee of SMU News & Communications:

The House of the Wannsee Conference in Berlin — where “the architects of the Holocaust” formalized in secrecy their intention to kill 11 million European Jews.

How places of serenity could cultivate unmitigated cruelty is a paradox that presents itself at the very start of our group’s Holocaust study tour. (It will be a continued theme.)

SMU Embrey Human Rights Program Director Rick Halperin has led us to the Berlin suburb of Wannsee, where an icy mist hangs outside a circa 1914 Italianate villa. The most respectable aspect of the elegant manse — designed by famed German architect Paul O. Baumgarten for the family of an industrialist — would be forever overshadowed after Jan. 20, 1942. That’s when the house, owned at that time by the Third Reich, brought together 15 Nazi SS and civil service members to formally agree on “The Final Solution to the Jewish Question in Europe.”

Nazi racial superiority propaganda exhibited at the Wannsee villa, which is now a Holocaust memorial and education site.

Their codified agreement, the Wannsee Protocol, officially set in motion the systematic murder of 6 million European Jews whom the Nazis considered “a storage problem” as well as a genetic threat to the Aryan race. (And while the conference was held in utmost secrecy, its minutes, discovered in 1947, served as key evidence at the Nuremberg Trials.)

While admiring the villa’s fine craftsmanship and design, including floor-to-ceiling views of formal gardens and the lake Greater Wannsee, it’s easy to see how the architects of the Holocaust could have arrogantly convinced themselves, cognac and cigars in hand, that they were sitting at the top of the world, holding the very keys to life and death.

While the House of the Wannsee Conference now stands as a structural embodiment of Nazi-era power and greed, its atonement serves in being a Holocaust memorial and educational site, opened to the public in 1992 on the 50th anniversary of the conference. (For a chilling dramatization of it, watch “Conspiracy.” The 2001 movie features Kenneth Branagh’s brilliant portrayal of SS security general Reinhard Heydrich, who chaired the conference in the home he planned to live in after a German victory in World War II.)

The colossal bronze sculpture, “die Tragende” (“burdoned woman”), faces the picturesque German village of Fürstenberg, where many of Ravensbrück concentration camp’s female prisoners worked as slave labor. The 1959 memorial was created by German sculptor Will Lammert, who went into exile in 1933 when Nazis deemed him a “degenerative artist” and sought him for high treason.

A closer look at “die Tragende.”

An even more breathtaking place of both beauty and wickedness is the concentration camp Ravensbrück, on the banks of Lake Schwedt, 70 miles north of Berlin. At the turn of the 20th century the site had been a popular spa retreat for well-heeled Germans.

At the start of World War II, however, the location’s remoteness, along with its access to rail lines and the River Havel, led to it being transformed into a women’s detainment camp. From 1939 to 1945, more than 130,000 females would either stay in Ravensbrück or pass through it en route to other camps. Women there were mostly political prisoners and resistance fighters, Jews, Romas and Sintis (“gypsies”), Jehovah’s Witnesses (who would swear allegiance only to God, not Adolf Hitler), “anti-socials” (alcoholics) and “degenerates” (homosexuals).

While seeing what remains at the camp — quite more than we expect, making for a deeply powerful start to our journey — we’re repulsed by the terror those at Ravensbrück had to experience. They were beaten, starved, shot, gassed, attacked by dogs, left to live in unimaginable filth, manipulated to turn on each other, forced to undergo abortions or watch their babies die from malnourishment or exposure, and made to work as sex and/or slave laborers (the latter of which included making electrical components for V-1 and V-2 rockets for the Siemens Electric Company). Some 90,000 women died at Ravensbrück, a statistic made even more torturous to consider in light of the camp’s pristine setting, where the medieval village of Fürstenberg across the lake looks like a Dutch Master painting.

Ravensbrück’s efforts at redemption emanate from an almost overwhelming collection of art by the camp’s former inmates and female artists from the countries they represented. Each room inside a restored cellblock, for instance, provides a powerful artistic response to what happened at the concentration camp; outdoors, so do two massive, haunting bronze sculptures that elicit tears.

Ravensbrück continues to operate as a camp, though a somewhat controversial one. Each summer, restored guard quarters open as a youth hostel and conference center. And every July, sections of the housing is made available as overnight accommodations for the few remaining camp survivors (most of whom were children while imprisoned there). But why, we wonder, would anyone choose to stay at Ravensbrück after such unprecedented horror took place there? The reason, our guide explains, is one based on many survivors’ wishes: That the grounds, which for many years inspired peace, should return to inspiring peace.


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