Human Rights-Holocaust Germany 2017

Twenty-eight members of the SMU and DFW community are traveling throughout Germany March 9-18 to study the Holocaust. “In confronting historical sites of unmitigated, premeditated terror, we’ll come to grips with historical memory as it applies not only in Germany, but also in our own country,” says Rick Halperin, director of the trip’s sponsor, SMU’s Embrey Human Rights Program.

Forevermore an ‘Upstander’ & ‘World Changer’

An update from Misty I., pursuing a human rights & social justice M.L.S.:

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.

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‘Everything in space had its origins here, not in America or Russia’

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.


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‘Photography describes everything and explains nothing’

The Topography of Terror Museum in Berlin sits atop the bombed-out site of where the Gestapo headquarters once stood.

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.”

The Nazis’ Einsatzgruppen headed east to kill an estimated 2 million Jews and others deemed enemies of the Third Reich bullet by bullet.

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‘Silent Liquidation’ at Bernburg


Some 14,000 people judged as threats to German genetic superiority were secretly murdered at the Bernburg Euthanasia Center in eastern Germany. (Photo: Robert M. Peacock)

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.


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Remember Jacqueline – and ‘Be Not Silent’

SMU students Shivani Burra, left, and Narcey Negrete lead a tribute at the Bullenhuser Damm Memorial Garden in Hamburg, noting that 1.5 million children were killed during the Holocaust.

Jacqueline Morgenstern (1932-1945)

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.

Saying that their lives had been “spared,” Mengele was then heard to ask, “Who wants to see their mother?”—knowing full well that their mothers had been, or would soon be, gassed to death.

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.

“When you stand here, be silent. When you leave here, be not silent.”

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.

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