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.”

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Exposure

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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