Human Rights in Baltics

During Spring Break 2010, students, faculty and staff are visiting World War II sites in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, including the Bikernieki Memorial, where 40,000 Jews were slain; the Jewish Museum in Riga; and the Jungfernhof concentration camp. Rick Halperin, director of the Human Rights Education Program in Dedman College, is leading the group.

A life-changing experience

An update from Adele, a senior sociology major with minors in history and human rights:

This trip has taught me so much, and I’d like to share just a few things:

As Dr. Halperin told us, it is not enough to simply say that Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. The reality of what happened there is so much more complicated and tragic.

I truly feel that my life has been changed by this experience, and I encourage everyone to visit some kind of Holocaust memorial during their lifetime. While you can read about sites and study concentration camps, the experience of visiting one cannot be explained or replicated.

We should always remember the victims of the Holocaust. Even though most are unidentified, and the exact number is not known, their suffering was real and completely unnecessary.

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One Holocaust survivor’s story

An update from Adele, a senior sociology major with minors in history and human rights:

I cannot believe that today is our last day in the Baltic region. We began the day with a tour of Vilnius, which is so gorgeous. We saw the big and small ghettos and a great deal of other sites around the city.

More importantly, we had the opportunity to meet with a Jewish Holocaust survivor named Tobijus, and he told us his story. The war began when he was about 10 years old and away at summer camp. When the Germans came, they immediately rounded up the Jews. He was kept with other Jewish children and women for several days before he ran away to meet his mother at home in Kaunas, Lithuania.

Eventually, he and his mother were forced to move to the ghetto along with all the other Jews, and they remained there for three years. When it became clear that the Nazis were getting ready to exterminate them, Tobijus’ mother ordered him to run away. He managed to slip through the barbed wire and meet up with some Lithuanian relatives.

His mother tried to get out too. She bribed the guards with all of her possessions. They accepted the bribe and allowed her to leave but shot her in the back as she was walking away. Tobijus was extremely fortunate to survive the Holocaust. Talking to Tobijus made the trip, and the history we’ve had to face, just that much more real.

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Sites of painful history

An update from Adele, a senior sociology major with minors in history and human rights:

Today we departed from Liepaja, Latvia, to go to Lithuania. Our first stop was Kaunas. This city used to be the capital of Lithuania when Vilnius was part of Poland.
Throughout our journey, I have learned that this part of the world has a long history of being taken over by other countries.

In Kaunas, we went to the Ninth Fort, a fort that has been used over the years for various purposes. During the time of German occupation in WWII, this was a site where thousands of Jews were murdered. Not only did we get to walk around inside the fort and see some of the cells where people were kept, but we also saw the wall where Jews were lined up and shot. This was extremely striking, especially since the wall is damaged with bullet holes.

In the winter of 1943, some Jews were brought to the fort to help burn bodies and dispose of the evidence. Some escaped from the cell and out of the fort, but only about one third of them actually made it to the partisan army.

In Kaunas, we had a delicious lunch, and from there we moved on our way to Vilnius. We stopped at the Ponary killing site just outside of the city. This is where around 100,000 people were shot by Germans and their collaborators, 70,000 of them being Jewish. This number is just so staggering when you really stop to think about it.

Being there was extremely difficult for me because you can still see the mass graves and the ditch where so many men, women and children were shot. Like at the Ninth Fort, Jews were brought in to Ponary to clean some of the remains. This is so disgusting and horrifying.

Our guide, Iga, said that 13 of them escaped through a tunnel and told stories of finding their friends and relatives among the slain.

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Memorable guides

An update from Adele, a senior sociology major with minors in history and human rights:

Unfortunately, as we make our way through Latvia, I have become sick. It might be just a bug or something, but I had to stay behind at the hotel in Liepaja for the day. The others went to visit Liepaja killing sites, including Skede, where several infamous pictures were taken. I hear that their local guide for the day is the daughter of the man who actually found the photos while working as a prisoner at a concentration camp.

Also, our guide Iga (I can’t believe I haven’t said much about her because she is so amazing) is the daughter of a man who saved Jews in Lithuania during the war. In fact, her grandmother began hiding people, and the rest of her family participated at great risk.

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Connections with the past

An update from Adele, a senior sociology major with minors in history and human rights:

143.JPG We began the day with a tour of interesting Jewish places in Riga, the capital of Latvia. We went to the Riga ghetto, where all Riga and Latvian Jews were concentrated until their liquidation. We also went to the building of the former Jewish Council, where many people were rounded up.

One of the most emotional parts of the trip so far was walking into the building and seeing the kindergarten class. Imagining these innocent children being exterminated because of their identity nearly made me burst into tears. We saw the remains of the old synagogue that was burned to the ground.

We also went to the Jewish Museum, which held many powerful pictures and stories of Latvian Jews in the Holocaust. One artifact, a chest, was marked by a Jewish girl named Adele. The connection that was made by having the same name and similar handwriting as this girl completely shocked me. For a good minute I just stood there. At least this girl is remembered by a name. Most of the Holocaust victims remain nameless.

175.JPG We then went to the Rumbula forest, another killing site. Here 25,000 Jews were shot. These people, including many women and children, were lined up, forced to stand on top of dead bodies and then shot. I can’t even imagine what it was like having to wait your turn.

I believe that everyone should visit one of the sites to understand the magnitude of what happened at them. Isn’t one murder chilling enough? Now imagine that times 25,000 – or about the number of seats in the SMU football stadium.

186.JPG We went to the Salaspils concentration camp, which has been transformed into a memorial. The Soviets, who were unwilling to admit the ethnicity of most Holocaust victims, dedicated monuments to “Soviet citizens who were innocent victims of Fascism.” Because it was a camp for political prisoners, the Soviet government built an enormous monument in place of the old Salaspils camp. Several thousand children perished here, as well as men and women.

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The frozen ocean and somber forest

069.JPG An update from Adele, a senior sociology major with minors in history and human rights:

Most of today involved driving from Estonia to Latvia, but we did stop in Parnu for lunch. This town, known as a resort town, offered us a delicious three-course lunch at the side of an old butcher shop. We walked out on the beach and saw how the ocean had frozen over. With the snow on top, you couldn’t even tell the difference between land and ocean. How often does one get to walk out onto the sea like we did? All we could see was white for miles and miles.

094.JPG After leaving Parnu, we drove further into Latvia to the Bikernieki Memorial. At this remote site in the Bikernieki forest, during November and December of 1941, around 40,000 Jews and other victims were shot into mass graves.

090.JPG Walking the same path that the victims took, seeing the mass graves and imagining the noises that must have been there at that time, was an extremely moving experience. Iga, our guide, told us most of the victims were brought to the forest under the impression that they were simply being relocated. However, when they got there, they were shot into mass graves.

The site is somber and heavy, even in the middle of such a beautiful and peaceful forest.

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Monuments in Estonia

An update from Adele, a senior sociology major with minors in history and human rights:

023.jpg Today we began visiting Holocaust sites. We first met up with our local guide and went to see the old prison. At one point, this prison had been used to temporarily hold Jewish men waiting to be executed.

030.jpg We then took the van outside of Tallinn to the Kalevi-Litva memorial, where we were informed that about 6,000 Jews and other persecuted groups were killed. While we stood in the snow and looked around at the quiet forest, the enormity of the place struck me.

This site, which most Estonians don’t even know about, also had the only Estonian monument to Romas killed in the Holocaust. The killers, mostly Estonian Nazi collaborators, set up machine guns along the hills and simply shot down the victims in this isolated location.

There are simply no words to describe the experience of standing in that spot.

034.jpg We then went to the monument built to remember those killed at Klooga. This was a work camp until the end of the war. When the Nazis knew the Soviet army was on its way, they began killing the inmates indiscriminately.

Visiting both of these monuments was a little hard to take in.

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Stepping back in time

An update from Adele, a senior sociology major with minors in history and human rights:

h-015.jpg The past day (two days?) has been so long. It feels like we’ve been traveling forever. We finally made it to Tallinn, Estonia, though, and the trip was totally worth it. We met our guide, Iga, who is an amazing woman who knows pretty much everything about this part of the world. Our driver, Vidas, is really awesome too.

053.jpg Iga showed us around the old part of town, and despite the cold, I was fascinated by the architecture and culture of the city. Many of the buildings date back to the 13th and 14th century. As I walked through the streets, I felt like I had fallen back in time to a medieval city.

After walking around for a while, we stopped at a brewery to get some local drinks. The atmosphere was so welcoming and authentic; there were even dancers performing traditional folk dances. I can’t wait for tomorrow.

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Why the Baltics?

An update from Adele, a senior sociology major with minors in history and human rights:

Tomorrow’s the day I’ve been anticipating for the past few months: Tomorrow we depart from D/FW airport on our way to the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

I’ve been preparing by reading a number of articles dealing with the issues of the Holocaust in these countries. I’ve learned quite a bit on the subject, especially considering I had never in my life thought much about the three small countries before hearing about the trip. It’s amazing how little most Americans, including myself, know about these nations. After all, why would any of us devote time to thinking about them? What are they known for? The fact is, they’re not really known for anything throughout most of the Western world.

In reality, however, these countries are rich in history, a history that should be studied and understood worldwide. Particularly in the matter of the Holocaust, the Baltics should not be overlooked in their historical significance. While I’ve tried to arm myself with information, I know this trip will both shock and inspire me in ways I cannot prepare for. It will certainly put my problems and daily worries into perspective.

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