“Go home and think about the future
as much as you do about the past.”
– Dr. Vicki Hill
SMU Asst. Provost for General Education
Human Rights-Holocaust Germany 2017
An update from Paul Lake of Dallas, who works as a volunteer at the Dallas Holocaust Museum/Center for Education & Tolerance:
The Mourner’s Kaddish, an ancient Hebrew “Prayer for the Dead,” is often read at Holocaust sites to remember the people of all faiths and backgrounds who were brutalized by the Nazis. Thus, it was an honor for my wife, Catherine, and I to share its powerful words at the end of our group’s visit to Ravensbrück, a former concentration camp for women that was constructed in a picturesque area north of Berlin.
The beauty of the lakeside villa is a jolting contrast to what took place here, primarily in the dining room, on Jan. 20, 1942. On that day, high-ranking Nazis and bureaucrats met to rubber-stamp “The Final Solution to the Jewish Question” — a systematic plan of annihilation that sealed the fate of millions of Jews and others deemed by Nazi Germany to be biological or political threats.
What continues to trouble me about the meeting is that half of its participants were doctors of something or other — intelligent men who were all-too-eager to agree to the creation of death camps, gas chambers, crematoria and other lethal “special actions.”
While I easily could have spent another half-day reviewing the related documents and propaganda materials on display, I did leave with one astounding statistic: Some 80 percent of all those condemned to die during the infamous meeting here would be dead by the year’s end.
An update from Merle T. of Dallas:
When Sachsenhausen opened 20 miles north of Berlin in 1936, it was meant to be both a model camp and training facility. That made it particularly well suited for “special” prisoners, including such political dissidents as Martin Niemöller, a popular Lutheran pastor in Germany.
Niemöller initially supported Hitler. When the men first met, the Nazi candidate assured the theologian that Jews would be “humanely” removed from Germany for their own safety – and that none of Niemöller’s flock would be harmed.
Later, when the Nazis decreed (via the “Aryan paragraph”) that German citizens with even one-quarter Jewish blood made them subject to concentration camp imprisonment, Niemöller became an outspoken critic of Hitler. That landed him in Sachsenhausen.
Niemöller, imprisoned for eight years, is best known for his circa-1947 poem (and versions like it) about the power of, and need for, resistance:
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out, because I wasn’t a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.
But the anti-Nazi theologian was quoted even earlier about the danger of complacency. Here is his response to why he ever supported the Nazi party. It was first reported by The National Jewish Monthly in 1941, in a piece written by his former Sachsenhausen cellmate, writer/art critic Leo Stein (an American Jew whose sister was renowned author Gertrude Stein):
I find myself wondering about that too. I wonder about it as much as I regret it. Still, it is true that Hitler betrayed me. … Hitler promised me on his word of honor, to protect the Church, and not to issue any anti-Church laws. He also agreed not to allow pogroms against the Jews, assuring me as follows: “There will be restrictions against the Jews, but there will be no ghettos, no pogroms, in Germany.”
I really believed, given the widespread anti-Semitism in Germany at that time, that Jews should avoid aspiring to Government positions or seats in the Reichstag. There were many Jews, especially among the Zionists, who took a similar stand. Hitler’s assurance satisfied me at the time. On the other hand, I hated the growing atheistic movement, which was fostered and promoted by the Social Democrats and the Communists. Their hostility toward the Church made me pin my hopes on Hitler for a while.
I am paying for that mistake now; and not me alone, but thousands of other persons like me.
An update from SMU junior Will J.:
Buchenwald is mostly remembered for its large number of political prisoners, but I’d like to highlight a smaller group of prisoners who too often are forgotten.
Buchenwald is one of the few camps that had a large population of homosexuals, whom the Nazis considered threats to the survival of the German people.
Here, as at other camps, gay men were were treated as the lowest of the low among camp prisoners, and subjected to unimaginably horrific torture that included having their testicles boiled off; being sodomized with 10-inch broken rulers; having their fingernails pulled out; being castrated; being forced, on freezing nights, to keep their hands above their blankets to “prevent masturbation”; or being beaten to death on a whim. Some were even forced to stand like human dart boards, at which SS officers threw syringes, aiming for the prisoners’ pink triangles.
Adding to their torture was the medical experimentation inflicted by Danish physician Carl Værnet. He attempted to “cure” homosexual inmates via “hormonal transplants” via incisions he made to the men’s groins before metal tubes filled with testosterone were inserted to serve as artificial “hormone glands.”
To this day, we don’t know the full extent of humiliation, torture and death that homosexuals faced during the Nazi era. Leading Holocaust scholars believe that as many as 60 percent of gay men detained by the Third Reich didn’t survive their imprisonment.
What we do know is that Dr. Vaernet escaped prosecution by the Danish government and Nuremberg tribunals. Following the war he fled to South America, where for two decades he lived a comfortable life – even continuing to research how to eradicate homosexuality – until his death in 1965.
What we also know is that most prisoners classified as homosexuals refused to speak out after the war. Rightfully so: Because of Paragraph 175, which made homosexuality between males a crime, gay Holocaust victims weren’t liberated along with their fellow inmates. The majority of them were actually re-arrested and re-imprisoned before being classified as sexual offenders.
Homosexuality didn’t become part of Holocaust discourse until the 1980s, by which time most relevant information had been lost. Additionally, the German government didn’t remove Paragraph 175 from their criminal codes until 1994 — or officially apologize until 2002.
(Note: Shortly after our return from Germany, the country announced it would pardon and compensate 50,000 men criminally convicted of homosexuality under Paragraph 175. “We shall never be able to completely atone for the crimes of the judicial system, but we want to rehabilitate the victims,” said German justice minister Heiko Maas. “Prosecuted gay men should no longer have to live with the stigma of their conviction.” )
Information about homosexual Holocaust victims is appallingly slim: Sachsenhausen’s Wikipedia page doesn’t address the camp’s large number of homosexual prisoners – a fact I was surprised to learn from Dr. Halperin during our trip. Why do homosexuals deserve to not only be subjected to the same torture and death of every other persecuted community in Nazi Germany, but also be forgotten, imprisoned, and attacked by the world after the end of the war? Why did Nazi homophobic sentiments trickle down throughout Europe and America? Why were/are homosexuals still considered a lesser person, a sub-human? These are things to think about, and things to change.
In the meantime, I’d like to share the story of Pierre Seel, the only French Holocaust survivor to publicly discuss his imprisonment for being gay. Pierre was 18 when he was arrested, raped with a section of wood, and sentenced to the Schirmeck-Vorbrück camp. He didn’t speak out about his experience under the Nazi regime until the 1980s for fear of persecution – which wasn’t unfounded: He was refused a handshake by the mayor of Strasbourg, France, during a Holocaust commemoration ceremony.
To understand what he experienced, here’s an excerpt from his 1995 book, I, Pierre Seel, Deported Homosexual: A Memoir of Nazi Terror:
It happened during my earliest weeks in the camp and contributed more than anything else to making me a silent, obedient shadow among the others.
One day the loudspeakers ordered us to report immediately to the roll call … The commandant appeared with his entire general staff. I assumed he was going to bludgeon us once again with his blind faith in the Reich … but the actual ordeal was worse: an execution … .
Two SS men brought a young man to the center of our square. Horrified, I recognized Jo, my [lover], who was 18. I hadn’t previously spotted him in the camp. Had he arrived before or after me? We hadn’t seen each other during the days before I was summoned by the Gestapo.
Now I froze in terror. I had prayed that he would escape their lists, their roundups, their humiliations. And there he was before my powerless eyes, which filled with tears. Unlike me, he had not carried dangerous letters, torn down posters or signed any statements. And yet he had been caught and was about to die … .
The loudspeakers broadcast some noisy classical music while the SS stripped him naked and shoved a tin pail over his head. Next they sicced their ferocious German Shepherds on him: The guard dogs first bit into his groin and thighs, then devoured him right in front of us. His shrieks of pain were distorted and amplified by the pail in which his head was trapped. My rigid body reeled, my eyes gaped at so much horror, tears poured down my cheeks, I fervently prayed that he would black out quickly.
Since then I sometimes wake up howling in the middle of the night. For 50 years now that scene has kept ceaselessly passing and re-passing though my mind. I will never forget the barbaric murder of my love – before my very eyes, before our eyes, for there were hundreds of witnesses. Why are they still silent today?”
While taking Dr. Rick Halperin’s course “America’s Dilemma: The Struggle for Human Rights” in the fall of 2016, each Monday evening I found myself sickened, angry and heartbroken to learn intricate details of past and present-day atrocities. I convinced myself that taking the “Holocaust Germany Trip” would be just a mere extension of that class. Unbeknownst to me, it was far from “mere” in any respect.
The opportunity to walk the grounds, touch the buildings and comprehend the horror Holocaust victims experienced was well beyond anything I could have imagined.
Traversing each concentration camp was surreal. With each step, I became spiritually connected to the tortured individuals whose feet had taken the same path. I found myself being silent, just in case the towering trees or singing birds might offer some explanation of what happened here. And with each passing day, and each visit to another sacred place, my soul became more taxed.
Once you’ve stood in a gas chamber disguised to look like a shower – where hundreds of thousands of innocent people took their last, gasping breaths – you can never be the same again.
The victims’ cries of anguish that I could hear in my mind will last a lifetime. So will the question they prompted: “What kind of person does this to another living being?” I vowed to never again be silent about human rights violations.
The trip was life-changing, to say the least. That may sound cliché, but I have no other way to describe its magnitude. Getting to experience each place with others dedicated to learning from the past to improve our future was phenomenal.
Though all of us represented a diverse mix of backgrounds, together we formed a bond as a family, one that will be everlasting. We learned from each other and strengthened our levels of empathy as we listened and wiped away each other’s tears.
Because of my African American heritage, I viewed much of what I saw through an additional lens. Reading about the Nazi policies, I found the public policy taking shape in our country right now strikingly familiar. Each time I read the bio of a political prisoner, I couldn’t help but identify with that oppressed person. And with the possibility of protesting becoming a crime in the U.S., an outspoken person such as myself can’t help but wonder what the future holds.
I took to social media to share my daily experiences, and was astonished when friends would comment, “Enjoy!” or “Have a great time!” What they don’t know is that this trip was unlike any vacation. (During past trips, for example, I don’t recall crying, or dealing with a huge lump in my throat, on a daily basis.)
This experience will remain with me forever. And for that I can thank SMU’s commitment to shaping “World Changers.”
From this point forward, everywhere I go, I’ll use what I’ve learned during this trip to ensure I’m always an “upstander,” and never a bystander, as so many Germans were during Hitler’s regime. I’ll also spread the message that there is no such thing as a lesser person.
An update from Denise Gee of SMU News & Communications:
On March 14, 2017, SMU “Holocaust Germany” student travelers Alexis S., and Kaitlyn M., offered the memorial for the victims, survivors and liberators of the deadly Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp near Nordhausen in central Germany.
The Nazi-run camp, which operated mostly underground, was created in late summer 1943 as a subcamp of Buchenwald concentration camp, and most notably served as a hidden facility for building the V-2 rocket and the V-1 flying bomb. In the summer of 1944, Mittelbau became an independent concentration camp with its own numerous sub-camps.
In 1945, most of the surviving inmates of Mittelbau-Dora were evacuated by the SS. On April 11, 1945, U.S. troops freed the remaining prisoners, but one in three of the roughly 60,000 slave laborers would not survive the camp’s perilous and punishing conditions.
An update from Denise Gee with SMU News & Communications.
At Berlin’s Topography of Terror Museum we gather to look at one of the Holocaust’s most iconic photographs. Given the name “The Last Jew in Vinnitsa” (from what was written on the back of the picture), it was found in an album belonging to an unknown German soldier.
The picture shows a member of Einsatzgruppe D just about to shoot a Jewish man kneeling before a filled mass grave in Vinnitsa, Ukraine, circa 1942. All 28,000 Jews from Vinnitsa and its surrounding areas were massacred at the time.
To view the image, which some may find unsettling, click here.
The picture is compelling for a number of reasons. It’s among the rare examples of Holocaust-related photos that weren’t taken by Allied forces during or after the liberation of Nazi-run concentration camps throughout German-occupied countries.
“Most people only think about the content of a picture, not the making of it,” our guide says.
This one, he adds, shows the Holocaust from a different perspective – most likely that of a killer.
Or was he? Our guide says, “I’d like you to critical examine this photograph. And ask yourself some questions.”
Was the photographer a willing participant or disapproving spectator? And are all those watching accessories to this crime?
Why do the soldiers at the perimeter of the mass grave appear completely at ease with having their faces shown? And with what’s happening?
Was the photographer officially documenting the spectacle? Or was he secretly capturing the moment?
Was the soldier who owned the image the man behind the camera? Was he one of the spectators? Or friends of one of the spectators?
Is the man about to be executed going willingly to his death? Or does his defiant stance—ramrod-straight posture, dark glare—reflect more dignity than that of the “super men” who held his life in their hands?
Considering the messy work of shooting at close range, why is the supposed executioner wearing polished boots and a relatively clean uniform? (“Notice there are no dirty murderers, only dirty victims,” our guide says.) Was this a staged photo?
Why is his jacket open – and he’s not wearing an under-shirt? Was he drunk (as the Einstazgruppen often were while committing their atrocities)?
Who is his intended target looking at so intently?
The haunting picture lingers in our minds long after the compelling discussion.
It prompts my husband, a professional photographer traveling with us, to recall an apt quote by Honoré Daumier: “Photography describes everything and explains nothing.”
An update from Christie Pearson ’11, faculty-led program specialist for SMU Abroad:
The Bernburg Euthanasia Centre – one of six psychiatric hospitals used to covertly kill 70,273 people during the Holocaust – operated from Nov. 21, 1940 through July 30, 1943 in support of the Third Reich’s T4 euthanasia program.
The Nazis’ 1933 Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring mandated the compulsory sterilization of anyone of child-bearing age whose mental or physical conditions – from depression to deafness, alcoholism to “congenital imbecility” – might potentially weaken the German gene pool.
The killings at Bernburg, via gas chamber or lethal injection, were considered a “dress rehearsal” for the “Final Solution.”
By August 1941, 9,300 people had been killed by doctors and other medical personnel here. And by March 1943, an additional 5,000 inmates from concentration camps in Germany and Poland also would be murdered.
On Jan. 31, 1941, Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels wrote in his diary: “Discussed with [Philipp] Bouhler the question of silent liquidation of the mentally ill. 40,000 are gone, 60,000 must still go. This is difficult, but necessary work. And it must be done now.”
During our visit, we recognize a few of the “lives unworthy of life,” whose deaths were registered 75 years ago on this very day (March 14) – but whose actual deaths would have been within 24 hours of their arrival. “No one ever stayed the night here,” our guide tells us.
~ Jakob de Vries, arrested by the Gestapo Feb. 13, 1937. He was sent to Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps before being transferred here.
~ Nusyn Dawid Apelbaum, born in Poland on this day in 1892 and supposedly murdered here the day before his 50th birthday.
~ Heinz Eidlmann, who, with Jakob de Vries, was transferred from Buchenwald before his death in Bernburg’s gas change. Heinz was 28 – the same age as me.
~ Simon Jakob Urbach, who was originally from Poland, but lived in Hamburg prior to the war, and was imprisoned at Buchenwald before he was sent here. Hamburg is also where our Embrey Human Rights Program travel group began our “Holocaust Germany” journey.
An update from Denise Gee,
SMU News & Communications:
As a leader in the far-right party Alternative for Germany calls for the country’s Holocaust-related “cult of guilt to be over,” I can think of at least 11 million reasons why the most meticulously documented genocide in history shouldn’t be downplayed.
One of them is 12-year-old Jacqueline Morgenstern. On April 20, 1945, she and 19 other children, some as young as 5, were murdered at the request of SS doctors aiming to remove all evidence of their medical cruelty when the Third Reich’s defeat became clear.
On the day of Jacqueline’s death, the 12-year-old Parisian with a gentle demeanor and sweet smile would succumb to the last round of torture overseen by those whom she and other youths were taught to trust: medical doctors. Her murder had followed her family’s harrowing quest to escape the Nazis, only to be captured, suffer innumerable indignities and face certain death at Auschwitz in Poland. There, Dr. Josef Mengele chose her to be among 10 girls and 10 boys for SS physician Kurt Heissmeyer’s tuberculosis research at Neuengamme Concentration Camp near Hamburg.
Jacqueline and the other Jewish children would be “treated” by Heissmeyer who aimed to prove tuberculosis was a racial disease. Following the removal of their lymph glands, he injected living tuberculosis bacteria into their veins and lungs to find out if the youth were immune to TB. But as the disease ravaged their small bodies, and Germany’s defeat in World War II was all but certain, the doctor decided to eliminate all incriminating evidence of his medical research involving Jews.
Heissmeyer and his superiors opted to kill the children, along with their four Jewish caretakers (and, for the sake of convenience, six Russian POWs).
The murders would be committed the evening of April 20 in the basement of the Bullenhuser Damm school, one of Neuengamme’s satellite facilities. And the date, they thought, would be fitting for such an occasion. It was Hitler’s birthday—then a national holiday in Germany.
Though their health was in decline, the children perked up when told they would be taking a trip. All that was needed was for them to be vaccinated against typhoid fever, they were told. But their syringes held large doses of morphine.
What happened next is difficult to share, but in our world’s changing political climate—with anti-Semitism and hate crimes on the rise—it’s important to confront.
Jacqueline and the 19 other children were hanged from large hooks on the wall of the basement, “just like pictures on the wall,” recalled SS guard Johann Framm, one of the Bullhuser Damm guards tasked with their killing. (He also would note with a hint of pride that none of the children had cried during the process.)
Because the victims were so small, however, the ropes used by the guards weren’t able to properly strangle them. That’s when SS guard Johann Frahm had the idea to use his weight, bear hug-style, to pull down on each child to speed up the suffocation of each child. The gruesome work took hours to complete.
After the war Heissmeyer almost escaped detection—ironically he had become a successful lung and tuberculosis specialist—but he was eventually tracked down, convicted and sentenced to life in prison for his crimes in 1966.
“I did not think that inmates of a camp had full value as human beings,” he said during his trial. When asked why he didn’t use guinea pigs, he replied, “For me there was no basic difference between human beings and guinea pigs.” He then corrected himself: “Jews and guinea pigs.”
As our group gathers at the first site we visit during our Holocaust Germany trip, we walk quietly through the memorial flower garden behind the Bullenhuser Damm building, reading each of the 20 granite memorials and studying each child’s photo.
Upon leaving I see buds on the garden’s rose bushes and other plants, and they remind me how much each child’s life was budding with promise and beauty—before being cut too soon.
One can only hope the buds here will forever bloom in a climate that fully appreciates the diversity that enriches both our surroundings and our lives.