Human Rights, France

Eighteen students, faculty and staff from SMU and Dallas are traveling to France during spring break 2014 to study the role that country played in the Holocaust, when Nazi-occupied France deported 76,000 Jews to be murdered in or en route to extermination camps.

Three cities in France

An update from Forrest, a sophomore:

Paris. Strasbourg. Lyon. All world-class cities. All located near sites of atrocities against the Jews of France during the Second World War.

Paris. The site of the Drancy Deportation Center. Here French Jews were brought before they were deported on the train. Out of the country, out of sight.

Now people live here. The barracks built for the deportees are now suburban flats for families on the outskirts of Paris. At the center of the barracks/apartment buildings/homes is a reminder of the past that memorializes the plight of people brought here – a single boxcar.

Lyon. Near this beautiful city located very close to Switzerland is the very small and quaint village of Izieu, and the Memorial des Enfants Juifs Extermines. Possibly one of the most heinous crimes against the Jews of France, numerous orphans were deported from this home for orphans here on the orders of the infamous Klaus Barbie.

A simple museum and the house where the children lived commemorate the orphans and the adults who looked after them.

Strasbourg. Near it is the site of Natzweiller/Struthof camp. Formerly a ski resort, now a very well preserved concentration camp that is heavily visited by French and German schoolchildren.

It is another famous “rock quarry” camp, were death rates approached 50 percent. Built on the side of the hill, people interned here faced brutal days in the quarry, having to walk up and down the hillside all day. In addition, some Jews at this camp were selected for experimentation, and their corpses were transferred into the town of Lyon to the medical school for preservation after the people subject to these experiments died.

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It cannot be forgotten

An update from Erika, a Master’s student in Liberal Studies, with an emphasis on Human Rights:

“Oh my gosh, you’re going to have SUCH A BLAST! France is so fantastic.”

That’s what I repeatedly heard when I would tell friends and family that I was going to France on a study abroad trip about the Holocaust. I didn’t mean to, but I would get quite frustrated when they would say these things. I know that France is amazing, I know it’s fantastic, but I was going to study one of the darkest moments in history. In a way, I was telling everyone I know that I was going to do this trip just to see if anyone would react with an understanding of the depth of our trip.

Then, it happened. I’ve been to France before, and for this trip I arrived a few days early to visit the woman, whom I refer to as my “French mom,” who hosted me during my previous trip to France. She asked me about details on my trip: “Where are you going? What will you be seeing?”, and I answered, “I’m studying the Holocaust in France.”

She stared at me blankly for a second and then gasped, “Why would you do such a thing? You’re too young to be worrying about these events,” I know that the woman I call my “French mom” has my best interests at heart, but 25-year-olds are allowed to worry about genocide (and preventing future genocides), too.

But the one thing that really made my head spin was that every native French person I spoke with (cab drivers, waiters, friends of friends) had no clue that France had a Nazi concentration camp. They seemed baffled by the concept that not only was I an American choosing to study the Holocaust, but also that a concentration camp existed in France.

I’m still coming to grips with what I saw in France. Oradour-sur-Glane was terrifying, however, Natzweiler-Struthof was just appalling. The juxtaposition of your postcard-worthy view and the barracks where people were starved and experimented upon is mentally exhausting and fills you with an unforgettable guilt. Because the camp is built into the mountains, the terrain is quite difficult. To walk the steep, icy slopes to the top of the camp would have been impossible during the winter. After reading in their documentation center, I learned that the incoming prisoners would have to pick up one leg with their hands, and plant their feet down. This was repeated for miles, until they ultimately reached the camp. I left the camp feeling somewhat ashamed, knowing that I could not survive in those conditions, yet here I am complaining about being tired after work, or being a little dehydrated.

This was at the memorial, which sits atop the steep hill above the camp.

The memorial that sits atop the steep hill above the camp Natzweiler-Struthof.

But what truly struck me was outside of the camp. On the way up to the camp, to your left is a restaurant and another white building across the street. This restaurant and hotel was built in the 19th century and was in operation during the Holocaust, and the building across the street is a gas chamber. While people were eating meals in a restaurant, people were casually murdered across the street. I’m still having trouble with the concept that life operated as normally as possible while minorities were systematically murdered a few dozen feet away.

We didn't get to go inside the gas chamber, but when I put my phone up to the keyhole, this is what I could see.

We didn’t get to go inside the gas chamber, but when I put my phone up to the keyhole, this is what I could see.

What I’m still processing is something that I won’t fully process for a long time. I get angry at the thought of Drancy, where Paris’ mass deportations of Jewish people took place. People still live in those apartments as if it never happened. I’m saddened by the thought that children died because ultimately, their parents couldn’t protect them anymore. And I’m inspired by the French people I met who have dedicated their lives to reminding people that the Holocaust was alive in France and can’t be forgotten.

"Thou shall not be a perpetrator, thou shall not be a victim, and thou shall never, but never, be a bystander." – Yehuda Bauer

“Thou shall not be a perpetrator, thou shall not be a victim, and thou shall never, but never, be a bystander.” – Yehuda Bauer

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France and the Holocaust

CandiceAn update from Candice Bledsoe, the founder and director of the Cutting Edge Youth Summit and a fellow for the Texas Project for Human Rights Education:

The pilgrimage to experience learning about France and the Holocaust has been profound and moving. Learning about the dark years in France confirms that history must be shared to avoid repeating the past.

As a mother, I found it extremely difficult to see the town of Oradour-sur-Glane. It was a beautiful city of 642 that stood on a beautiful landscape. The Nazis burned the entire town, while shooting men and women in their legs. Only five people escaped. To visit the town today and bear witness to these crimes is very emotional. The remains of the town prove that these were regular people who had no idea that they would be murdered. In fact, as one passes through the town and looks at the houses, you may see a rusted car, sewing machine, and the outline of a detailed fireplace. Although it is frightening to experience the wrath of those who collaborated with the Nazi party, I am convinced that one person can make a difference.

I wrote a poem to express the impact I received from this trip.

When the Bough Breaks

Like salty wounds that cry out in the deepness of the night,
Fear dries out into a crusty scab of denial.
Tick, Tock, Tick, Tock
In one day, a father is separated from his family,
and sent to a pathway of death.

Tick, Tock, Tick, Tock
In one hour, a baby cries herself to sleep.
She whispers, “Je Veux Ma MaMan!”
“I want my Mommie.”
Rocking and shaking uncontrollably,
She is consoled by other weeping toddlers in urine-drenched clothes.
They fall in and out of consciousness like the rhythm of a dripping faucet,
searching for relief.

In one second, a church struggles to stand as a little boy prays in a
confession booth that surrounds him with a cocoon of hope.
He just took his last breath, never knowing others
would stand on his last moments.
Pain, disbelief, and sadness break the bough of silence by
breathing through their memories.

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Bearing witness today

An update from Amber, a junior political science and human rights major:

When I decided to come to France with the Human Rights group, I didn’t really know what to expect. As a Human Rights major, I have been exposed to some of the worst examples of human rights violations. On this trip we visited multiple Holocaust memorial sites and I realized that no matter how much you are exposed to the violation of human beings, it never becomes any easier to accept or understand. It is just as hard to bear witness today as it was when I first began my Human Rights journey. I am reminded that humanity is capable of great good and great harm, and it is up to us to be sure that we do not veer down the path of harm. Part of that is never forgetting….

I have included two pictures. The first is a picture of children from the Izieu Orphanage and School. On April 6, 1944, a total of 44 children and 7 adult teachers were forcibly removed and thrown into cars by the Gestapo. They were sent to deportation camps and soon thereafter exterminated, some within days.


The second picture is from Oradour-sur-glane. This village was attacked on June 10, 1944 by a German SS-Waffen troop. The men were forced into barns, shot and the barns set on fire. The women and children were forced into the church and burned alive. A total of 642 people were killed and the village was razed; this is all that is left. The site now serves as a memorial to those who lost their lives that day.


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Remembering the innocent

An update from Jennifer, who earned a Master of Liberal Studies in 2010 and is pursuing a Certificate of Advanced Graduate Study focused on human rights and social justice:

Close your eyes for a moment and imagine the house, the town where you grew up – what it looked and sounded like during springtime, who your neighbors were, what you did on a regular Saturday afternoon. Could you ever conceive of your memories being shattered by the encirclement of your town by an invading army bent on killing everyone who lived there?

The 642 people in Oradour-sur-Glane near Limoges, France, probably never imagined that could happen to them, but it did – on June 10, 1944. German soldiers from a Waffen SS unit separated the men from the women and children. They put the men in barns, shot them in the legs so they couldn’t run, and set them on fire. The women and children were locked in the village church and burned alive – including one 8-day-old baby. Two young boys were found clinging together in the sacristy, and one was found alone, hiding in the confessional – all three burned beyond recognition.

Think about your church, synagogue, temple or other place of worship, and think about that place of sanctuary being so completely desecrated by violence. It’s inconceivable – but it happened. You can see the ruins of the town, which have been preserved as a memorial to those who died there so brutally. It’s eerie to walk through the silent streets of destroyed houses and shops, but see signs of life in the trees about to bloom against the sky framed by the roofless buildings, in the birdsong floating through the air.

Now pretend that the U.S. is at war, and your family is in danger because of its ethnicity, religion or race. You choose to send your children away to a safe zone where they can live freely and have as normal a life as possible during the conflict. You send sweet letters back and forth, and your little ones tell you about the food they eat, the walks they take, their lessons, and their love for you. One day, though, the letters stop – because a sadistic member of the invading force comes with his henchmen and seizes all the children at the safe house – 44 of them, including those who had been orphaned – while they are drinking their breakfast of hot chocolate. They get thrown into trucks like sacks of potatoes, despite their cries. They are deported out of the country, packed into train cars with hundreds of people they have never met. Most of them are dead from poison gas within 10 days. This happened at Izieu, near Lyon, on April 6, 1944.

You might be thinking, “These things happened so long ago, and so far away. Why are we still talking about it?” We are talking about it because we must bear witness, so that those who suffered and died are not forgotten. If they are forgotten, then the torturers and murderers win, after all.

We must also remember because there are people in towns and villages right now in the Ukraine, the Central African Republic and Syria who are being tortured, starved and killed. There are mothers and fathers right now in those places and so many others around our world, worrying ceaselessly about how to keep their precious children safe. The least we can do is remember, and think of them.

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Still close to tragedy

photo1An update from Katie, a graduate student in Liberal Studies:

March 11. Oradour-sur-Glane. The quiet, sunny tranquility of the day sharpened the contrast between today and the day everyone in this town of 642 was brutally murdered by Nazis. After visiting the roofless church where all the women and children were killed, I felt so weighted by sorrow and grief that I was unable to lift my head.

Among the spartan remains of what was only recently a life-filled town, a rusted car rests. It is so recognizably modern; it is a chilling reminder of how close we still are to this tragedy, and how easily it could happen again.

March 12. Izieu. At this place, Klaus Barbie, the “butcher of Lyon,” deported 44 Jewish orphans to Auschwitz. A small fraction of the lives lost, but focusing on a few makes it possible to understand tragedy of whole. A Mother’s Day letter from one of the victims brought tears to my eyes. So many loving families destroyed.

March 13. Strasbourg. In the punishment cells in the concentration camp of Natzweiler, I think of medieval oubliettes. I touched the wall of the gas chamber, which is right next to a restaurant that is still operational and was functioning at the same time human beings were being internally roasted alive. This tragedy and torment is right here. It’s tangible. We have to see these places to keep ourselves strong enough to prevent their recurrence.

March 14. Today in Compiegne, at the deportation museum, I forced myself to watch the video of the liberation of Mauthausen. It was the most graphically disturbing scenes of human carnage, a seemingly endless chain of fly-covered skeletons whose last link to humanity was their facial expressions of fear and anguish. Death seemed to bring them no relief. I’ve seen many terribly shocking pictures and some video clips before, but nothing that lasted this long or had so many relentless images of despair. It has broadened my understanding of the loss in the “final solution.” All those bodies were beloved.

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Exploring France’s dark past

An update from Merle, a graduate student in Liberal Studies:

Have been experiencing a tour of sites in France associated with the WWII Holocaust. We have concentrated on French atrocities. Not only has the trip been an eye-opener and sometimes a tearjerker; it has also taught someone who felt she knew that era’s history so much more.

I heard “Vichy” in the past and thought mineral water or thick vegetable soup. In fact, it was the capital of what remained, in theory, of independent France after 1940 when the Germans marched into the northern part of the country.

Now we have learned how un-independent that Vichy government was when it came to protecting the nation’s Jewish population. We are seeing for ourselves the savagery which Adolf Hitler could encourage his followers to perpetrate on others. We have also seen how the French nation, again restored, is addressing its horrid memories.

The week’s weather has been great as we motor around the countryside. Our group of 18 plus our bus driver has begun to interact like a family. If sometimes strenuous, the adventure filling Spring Break week has been almost incredible.

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