Human Rights, Poland 2011

During winter break 2011, SMU students and professors and Dallas community members are traveling to Poland with SMU’s Embrey Human Rights Program. The group will visit Holocaust sites to pay tribute and bear witness to those who perished and survived.

Included in the group are six professors traveling on behalf of the Boone Family Foundation’s Texas Project for Human Rights Education grant. They are: SMU’s Perkins School of Theology Professor Sze-kar Wan, Dedman College Psychology Professor George W. Holden and Cox School of Business Assistant Professor Robert W. Rasberry, along with TCU Associate Professor of Social Work Harriet L. Cohen, South Texas College of Law Associate Professor Katerina Lewinbuk and University of North Texas Assistant Professor of Political Science Jacqueline H.R. DeMeritt. Also with the group is Alice Murray, president and CEO of the Dallas Holocaust Museum, so stay tuned in.

Verbal snapshots from Poland

An update from Dr. Vicki L. Hill, Assistant Dean for the University Curriculum, SMU:

I’ve been back from Poland almost a week, and I’m still struggling to answer people’s questions about what it was like, what I experienced. Grateful for their interest, I find myself offering disconnected, contradictory adjectives: profound, devastating, exhausting, inspiring, claustrophobic, terrifying, clarifying. It will be months before I refine these adjectives into something that makes sense, and by then people will have stopped asking. The best I can do now is to offer a few verbal snapshots engendered by some of these haunted and haunting places.

The Nazis were successful in destroying all of their installations at Treblinka, second largest of the extermination camps, where nearly 1 million perished. The memorial is highly stylized, almost beautiful, with boulders marking the edges of the camp and low rectangular blocks suggesting the tracks that brought so many to their death. In the seemingly endless snow-covered fields of Treblinka, most of the thousands of memorial stones are anonymous, though some bear the names of places, entire communities obliterated, populations decimated. One stone is engraved with the name of Janusz Korczak, who chose death so that the orphans of the Warsaw ghetto did not travel alone to their inevitable destination.

Jedwabne is a small town where, on July 10, 1941, most of the community’s 1,600 Jewish residents were massacred. In Jedwabne, the horrors of the past reverberate in the present. For more than 50 years, the residents of Jedwabne lived with a memorial that commemorated these murders and blamed the Nazi occupiers. But the 2000 publication of Jan Gross’s Neighbors revealed what really happened. The town’s 1,600 Jews weren’t murdered by Germans; they were murdered by their neighbors, who tortured them with pitchforks and clubs before forcing them into a barn and burning them alive. An unfathomable crime. Not the distant anonymity of the gas chamber but immediate, personal. How did they murder their neighbors? How did they live with this lie? These unanswerable questions in our minds, we learn that less than a year ago, the town’s new and more accurate monument was defaced with swastikas. In Jedwabne, I felt visceral anger and palpable fear. Our pilgrimage is about the present as much as it is about the past.

In Chelmno, the first of the extermination camps, the 6 million become individuals, real people with names, stories, families. This awareness begins in the site’s tiny museum where remnants of their meager possessions are displayed — combs, eyeglasses, shoes, identity papers, and, most poignantly, what appears to be some kind of good luck charm. This recognition of individuals intensifies at the memorial itself where the families of those who perished have inscribed plaques that hang on the monument. One, in particular, remains with me: a man —a son, a brother— placed a plaque inscribed with these words: In memory of my siblings Chana (9), Josef Avrun (6), Mendel (3), and Cudyk (9 mos) and their mother Beila Jakubowska-Strazynska who were murdered here by the German Fascists. In memory of my father Rachmil Strazynska who mourned them the rest of his life.

In Belzec, two voices stand out. One is that of Rudolf Reder, a sonderkommando, who escaped, survived, and lived to bear witness to the atrocities he experienced in this horrible place. The other is a voice Reder heard through the gas chamber walls, “Mommy, haven’t I been good? It’s dark. It’s dark.” This child’s voice echoes in my memory, as I try to imagine her terror and that of her mother.

We spend Christmas Day at Majdanek, most of its buildings intact, because the Nazis were unable to destroy it before it was “liberated” (an ironic word in this context) by the Russians. No need for the imagination in Majdanek: one can walk through the barracks, the showers, the gas chambers (with the windows through which the SS could watch the excruciating, extended asphyxiation process), the crematorium with its huge chimney, and the memorial with its oppressively huge pile of ash and bone. For me, the dead are more present in Majdanek than anywhere we visit. In the crematorium, I find myself unable to breathe and run outside only to confront the killing fields where more than 18,000 were shot in a single day, their bodies falling on top of each other into the massive open pit that the dead had been forced to dig during their final hours.

In Auschwitz, the Nazis perfected their efficient assembly line of murder, constructing the changing rooms, the gas chambers, and the massive crematoriums all under one roof. In Auschwitz, there are rooms and rooms and rooms of the possessions that more than 1 million Jews were forced to abandon during their inexorable march to the gas chambers: luggage, eyeglasses, shaving and tooth brushes, children’s clothing, and shoes, room after room of shoes. Here, I cannot take my eyes off one lone red sandal, with ankle straps and a jaunty little heel, the kind of shoe a woman buys when she is feeling really good about herself, her life, her future. I grieve for the woman who bought this shoe and wore it on the train that day.

But the trip also had moments of affirmation, even joy. In both Warsaw and Wroclaw, we meet with survivors, “Children of the Holocaust,” who share their incredible stories, each emphatically reminding us that they would not have survived without the assistance of Poles who risked their lives to save and shelter them. But each also testifies to what was lost: their families, their names, their histories, even their faith, raised as most were by Catholics. But mostly, I cherish their exuberance, their energy, and their pleasure in our presence. I also take comfort in one man whom I watched as he walked alone, head bowed in respect, up the hill to the memorial monument at Majdanek. He makes me feel that the dead live on in those who mourn them, tell their stories, and vow never again.

Finally, I find inspiration in my travelling companions, the others who chose to spend Christmas and Hanukkah away from friends and families, especially the students who were so young and yet so wise. There was never a time when I felt alone in my grief or uncomforted in my sorrow.

Speaking the unspeakable. Bearing witness to the unimaginable.

Leave a stone. Light a candle.

There is no such thing as a lesser person.

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A rally of the human spirit

An update from Heather Cordova, a graduate student in liberal studies with a concentration in arts and cultural traditions:

A group of students, professors and community leaders from the D/FW area came together in Poland for a common purpose. I came on this trip as a journey of the human spirit. Over a 12-day period, we have been concentrating on the Holocaust, but along the way, I have been inspired by speaking with Holocaust survivors and learning about other aspects of Polish culture. Instead of writing about the tragedy of what happened more than 60 years ago, I would like to focus on hope, resilience, strong will and endurance.

We had a chance to listen to survivors at the only remaining synagogues in Warsaw and Wroclaw. They were children during the war, but they still have vivid memories of life in the ghetto and told us of their escape. Their life after the tragedy is a source of inspiration for me because even after losing family members and homes they were able to rise above the misfortune. Being able to make meaning out of their lives by having families and successful careers shows true resilience.  Some of the survivors went on to become professors. Only a few of the survivors actually identify as Jewish because they were either saved by Polish Catholics or still live in fear of religion as a defining characteristic.

I’m sure that recovering from the 1940s was not easy for the survivors or for Poland. The culture as a whole suffered; the Holocaust stretches beyond the people to the cities. Poland witnessed buildings with unique architecture destroyed and business owners who never returned to their daily functions. Imagine all the recipes surrounding the culture of food and traditions that were lost.

In visiting these places (Holocaust sites, walking tours, hotels and restaurants) I feel that some hope has been restored. While we spoke with the survivors, both groups were surprised and impressed that we wanted to learn their stories and that we took the journey all the way from Texas during the holidays to continue their legacy.

The survivors also shared a strong will and a belief in fate. So, I look forward to the future and will try to live each moment to the fullest in honor of those who lived. A wish that I have out of respect for those lost is that as a human race we all strive to practice tolerance and peace.

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Keeping the memories alive

An update from Alice Murray, president and CEO of the Dallas Holocaust Museum/Center for Education and Tolerance: 

If you’ve been following any of the entries from the trip to Poland 2011 with Professor Halperin’s group, you’ve seen a lot of reactions to the many Death Camps and Pogrom sites and Concentration Camps that we’ve been visiting since December 18. Yes, we’ve gone straight through Christmas, and during the coldest part of the year. We’ve had the opportunity to feel intense emotions and intense physical sensations – and we’ve felt them all.

The awe-inspiring memorial at Belzec death camp, where 600,000 Jews perished.

Every night we take time to regroup and reflect on the experiences of the day, and each meeting unveils an almost chaotic mix of emotions and perceptions. I know mine have been. Each of us comes with a different set of biases, and mine happen to derive from my position at the Dallas Holocaust Museum/Center for Education and Tolerance. I have been blessed to interact with many survivors of the Holocaust, and I have their stories running through my head at almost every camp site and memorial. Their stories become vividly alive and real to me, which makes the horrific acts of torture, starvation, humiliation and loss even more frightening and devastatingly sad.

The beauty of this memorial at Treblinka defies the reality of 800,000 Jews being murdered there.

This experience also challenges me to consider the absolute best means to convey the story of the Holocaust in a museum venue so that visitors are inspired to keep these memories alive. When I saw the incredible memorials in Treblinka and at Belzec, I was awed by their beauty and touched by the effort to keep their memories vividly alive. The museum attached to the Belzec memorial touched me so deeply; I wept uncontrollably at the sight of the photographs of families that perished. A museum should touch, inspire and teach people. The experiences of this trip will be of immeasurable help during the upcoming design of a new Holocaust Museum for Dallas that does all of those things.

Tomorrow we head to Gross-Rosen Concentration Camp, the 11th site in 10 days. We’ve covered hundreds (perhaps thousands) of miles in those days. We haven’t really been focused on tracking miles, but we do track the lives lost – and it’s in the millions. Our miles don’t seem many when measured against the lives lost.

Thank you for showing an interest in our trip – every person touched by the Holocaust is another step in keeping the memory alive, so that it will never happen again. History that moves us forward.

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We vow to remember

An update from George Holden, professor of psychology in Dedman College:

It is now day 11, and we are nearing the end of our unforgettable trip.  Some days have been physically tiring, but every day is emotionally draining. Each of us has relived the horror, atrocities and seen the effects of evil on a scale that is unimaginable — 11 million people murdered, including 6 million Jews.


We have walked on the same cobblestones, climbed the very steps and stood on the same wooden floors as hundreds of thousands of innocent people did before they were starved, tortured, and slaughtered. We observed the same trees, churches (both near and far), and towns that the prisoners at some of the camps saw (and must have prayed for rescuers who never arrived).

We have witnessed images that will forever haunt us: the three levels of bunks in the barracks, photographs of emaciated bodies, mountains of luggage from the victims, two tons of human hair, and a heap of children’s shoes.

Shoes at Auschwitz

With our visit yesterday to Auschwitz/Birkenau, we have now seen 10 different camps (with one to go tomorrow). By my calculations – although the numbers will never exactly be known – those camps accounted for some 5,240,000 deaths.

The 21 of us mourn the victims in our own ways. Some of us cry openly. We console each other. At each site, we light a candle, adding to the memorials of expired candles, withered flowers, and piles of pebbles. Yesterday, as a token symbol of our solidarity with the victims and survivors, several of us consumed only 250 calories (i.e., thin soup and some bread), the same amount of food allocated each day to many prisoners.

Our group at Birkenau

We probe our guides and listen to survivors for stories of goodness and humanity in the face of such evil. There are some: Polish citizens hiding Jews, prisoners sabotaging their work in German factories, and multiple acts of sacrifice and heroism.

Sculpture at Auschwitz

Finally, we vow to remember. Not just the Holocaust, but we remember that genocide has not ended. And we now know that we all must be vigilant about other manifestations of human rights abuses. It is then our responsibility to speak out about them and educate others.

We will not forget.

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Dear Irene

An update from Sze-kar Wan, professor of New Testament at Perkins School of Theology:


Dear Irene:

Irene, you are on my mind constantly, even as we move to Chełmno tomorrow and Sobibor, Lublin, Włodawa the next few days. I will especially remember Płaszów, where your mother and sister worked and were saved by Schindler.

I have been offering a quiet prayer at every site. I will say a prayer in particular for Toska and her family at Belzec.

I read your book The Choice. What I find most devastating is how plain and simple your words are. Trying to understand the Holocaust is like trying to fill a cup of water from underneath Niagara Falls. If I venture beyond the edges, I surely will be washed away. The only safe place is the fringes, where I hope to catch a few droplets from the secondary and tertiary streams. Your book guides me through your world with no embellishment and no fanfare, only the quiet realization that now I can begin to view these vast spaces, to touch the enormity they embody, through you. These are no longer just abstract and nameless places of evil; you inhabit them all. How I wish you were here to guide me and to tell me your stories all over again every step of the way!


Irene Eber, born Geminder, was nine when the Germans destroyed the Jewish quarters of her native Mielec in 1939. In early 1942 the Mielec Jewish community was among the first to be shipped to the newly constructed death camps at Bełzec; others were sent to Auschwitz. In her book The Choice she talks about her choice to run away from her family to save herself. Two Polish families saved her by hiding her under a chicken coop.

Irene is now the Louis Frieberg Professor of East Asian Studies Emerita at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She’s been a close friend of mine for more than 20 years. Together we organized an international conference in Jerusalem and jointly edited a book.

Irene’s letter of 8/8/11

Dear Sze-kar:

The itinerary sounds very good, and if you have my Choice you will recognize a few places I mention there.

1. You will go to Płaszów, the concentration camp near Krakow. My mother worked there as a typist in the murderer Goeth’s office. My sister came to Płaszów, and both got on Schindler’s list.

2. You will be shown Schindler’s “Emalie” factory and told that he was a great hero. I think he was rather a shrewd cookie, realizing by 1944 that the game was up and the only way he would be saved was if he saved Jews. Thus Brunlitz and the famous list. Still, he did save Jews this way.

3. Stutthof is on your list. This is the place where my aunt and two cousins were killed in 1945 by being driven into the ocean. Those who didn’t drown immediately were shot.

4. Lublin, Sobibór, Włodawa are all in the same area. We were deported from Mielec to the Lublin district and were force-marched to Sosnowice, a small village, a sort of waiting station for Sobibór to be ready for killing. Włodawa was larger than Sosnowice, and large numbers of Mielec Jews ended up there also waiting for Sobibór. That’s where they found their end.

5. I see Bełzec on your list. One of the earliest extermination camps. My most cherished childhood friend, Toska, was killed there with her family.

Wish I were on your tour. Be sure to dress warmly. Poland can get awfully cold.



Dear Irene:

We went to Bełzec today. A large memorial is now built into the burial mound. With my hand on the granite, I offered a tearful prayer for Toska. It is a cold, dark place, deep in the belly of this killing place.

Yesterday, we came by bus from Warsaw to Lublin via Sobibór. The train station is still there, with two original rusting signs to bear silent witness to horrors unimaginable. To my surprise, a small community still lives around the station, only yards from the entrance of the camp, as if nothing had happened. A small dog from one of these houses came running after us, barking ferociously. How eerily appropriate, I thought.

We go to Majdanek tomorrow, Christmas Day, on our way to Krakow. Then Auschwitz-Birkenau and Płaszów the day after Christmas.

As always, thinking of you, Irene, wishing you were by my side, but knowing you are more than you realize,


Irene’s letter of 12/24/11

Dear Sze-kar,

When you go to Auschwitz-Birkenau, please remember that for some reason the Schindler women ended up in Birkenau. That is where my sister and mother had their heads shaved and where my sister was dreadfully ill. But because illness meant certain death, my mother and friend Regina held her up during the long hours of “Appell,” when the prisoners were counted.

When I was in Birkenau in 1980, Polish peasants were cutting hay between the barracks.

Most interesting what you write about Sobibor. But then, why not? After all, it was only Jews who were killed there. Thank you for the Bełzec prayer.

Thinking very much of you in Poland and your very memorable Christmas,

Irene’s letter of 12/25/11

Dear Sze-kar:

Are you already on your way to Auschwitz? It’s not far from Mielec.

My father, Aunt Feige, and Esther were killed in Cyranka-Berdechow labor camp, which was in the vicinity of Mielec.

“I learned recently that in this camp were three brothers (or was it only one?) named Kaplan, who were Gestapo informers. They were free to come and go as they pleased, using their freedom not only to betray Jews sheltered by Poles in the vicinity of Mielec, but also to give away anyone who had come into the camp illegally. I don’t know if they did it to ingratiate themselves with the Germans, hoping thereby to save their own skins. Was it malice, or personal grudges against people from Mielec that they had known? Whatever the reason, it was a Kaplan who informed the Germans about the three tired fugitives in the barracks. Father, Aunt Feige, and Cousin Esther were apparently shot in the camp but not made to dig their graves. The bodies of the three were left to lie where they had fallen for all to see when they returned from their day of hard labor. Later they were buried in the forest surrounding the camp. To this day somewhere in a forest near Mielec in an unmarked grave are the remains, as are the bones of many other victims of the Kaplans and the Germans” (The Choice, 130).

Almost like I am on this trip with you and your group,


Dear Irene:

This morning we were in Majdanek. An enormous place. Modern buildings have grown up around the camp. I always wonder what those who live within earshot and sight of these camps are thinking. Do they remain willfully ignorant now as then?

The weather was foul: The wind and rain made for a grey, sorrowful Christmas morning. Nothing was open, of course, save a few barracks. And the crematorium and the gas chambers. Behind glass were neatly stacked, shinny canisters of Zyklon B.

It is an evil place.


Irene’s letter of 12/26/11

Dear Sze-kar,

Read your blog and was very much taken by the thoughtful and emotional responses of everyone. How could they participate? I keep asking myself this same question. Have you read Browning, “Ordinary Men”?

There is one other question that we never talked about and that has occupied me very much in recent years, and that is the immediate postwar period. How to find one’s way back without becoming a professional victim, and how to deal with this incomprehensible cruelty of other human beings.

Is that awful sculpture still standing at the entrance to Płaszów?



Dear Irene:

We went to Auschwitz-Birkenau today. We had been prepared by the other sites, of course, but the sheer size of the camps, especially Birkenau, and the systematic nature of the killing still took me by surprise. Standing on the train station in Birkenau, I imagined myself one of your Mielec neighbors being pushed along by others toward the doctor, desperate to read which way his thumb would point ….

The shoes, the children’s toys and clothing, the two tons of human hair, and other relics behind glass cases might overwhelm our senses, but it is the vast and windswept train station, with the acrid smell of burning coal hanging in the air and the countless shadows crowding its emptiness still, that haunts me the most.

With my hand on the cold wall of the gas chamber in Auschwitz, I offered a prayer for the Mielec inhabitants. Before the monument to the futile ruins of Birkenau, I prayed for all the women of Mielec who perished there.



Dear Irene:

We went to Płaszów this morning. Yes, the sculpture is still there, and there is a small memorial and some sweet-smelling lavender, but not much else. No traces of the camp. No traces of Göth. We were told that some skinheads had sprayed the tiresome anti-Jewish behind some bramble, but that’s been covered up.

Then we drove straight to Wrocław. The old synagogue has been beautifully restored, and the courtyard where the Jews were rounded up retains its generous grandness. A small plaque commemorating the event is visible on the wall with a citation from Psalm 130, “Out of the deep I cry to you, O Lord….” A number of the children of the Holocaust met us and told us very moving stories of their ordeals and survivals.

Thank you, Irene, for being with me throughout this trip. We have a few more sites remaining on our trip, but I have already accomplished my goal of traveling with you through places and memories that have shaped your childhood and made you who you are.

Todah rabbah.


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A Christmas like no other – Majdanek

An update from Gracyn, a senior theatre major and human rights minor:

Well, Christmas just ended in Poland, and I am sad to see it go. The most I felt of my typical holiday spirit was last night at midnight as we walked down the street singing and this afternoon at a gas station where Christmas songs played in English in the convenience store. I have missed my normal Christmas and constantly wonder what my family is doing: Caroline and Alex celebrating their very first Christmas together, Austin opening gifts and finding Santa’s stack all by himself, my parents perhaps relieved that Granny is hosting the meal this year. I miss it a lot, but I am honored to have left it for just one year for this experience.

Today we went to a camp called Majdanek, and we all experienced a Christmas and Hanukkah like we have never experienced before. This camp is enormous, and we spent about three hours in the ice, wind and precipitation wandering about the grounds and seeing places where thousands of people were brutally murdered.

When we first pulled up in the bus, the camp was empty, and for the first time we heard birds. It sounded like crows, and they made an eerie feel as we entered. The first thing we did was the same walk the victims would do as they entered the camp. We walked through the gate and walked into the bathhouse. Here there was an opening room and then a bathroom. Here the prisoners were asked to remove their clothes and bathe; meanwhile the Nazis next door disinfected their clothes with Zyklon B and stored them in a room. Today we peered into this room and saw, floor to ceiling, cans and cans of leftover Zyklon B, still full. If we were the prisoners, we would still think we were being sent to work.

It was the next part, however, that sent chills through me and is one of the most incomprehensible things I have seen. We walked into the next room and saw two doors and a little room. Through each of these big metal doors was a room with a little hole at the top and blue and green stains all over the walls. These stains can never wash off and bear the history of too many people. In the small room in between the two larger (but still surprisingly small) rooms is a small window where the Nazis would look through and witness every single person’s death. There is no denying that they saw every moment of what was happening because it was the only place to look in the room.

We then continued on outside and saw where bodies had been stacked and inmates would have had to run in their wooden clogs from the gas chamber to the crematorium way off in the distance. Starving, cold and terrified, such a job seems impossible. I felt like I would most certainly freeze and need to go to a hospital if I were to stand outside all day. It is amazing what the body can withstand. It is also impossible to understand the magnitude of the pain.

We continued walking through the barracks of the SS men.  They were on the outskirts of the camp, right before the barbed-wire entrance to the prisoners’ quarters.  There are guard towers as far as the eye can see.  We entered the camp and found ourselves on what seemed to be the set of a movie.  It looked exactly like pictures and films, and it was hard to believe this was actually it. I could picture roll call early in the morning when they counted the numbers still alive and removed those who had died during the night.  It was still hard to make it real, though, until we entered one of the barracks and saw the beds lined across the entire structure.  It became real.

We left these rooms and continued to the crematorium, where we saw the furnaces, an execution room and a small tomb of ashes.  I learned that the water the prisoners used for their occasional showers was heated by the furnaces burning their families’ bodies and that the ashes of many victims were used in the Nazi gardens as fertilizer.

Outside were trenches still bloated from the largest mass killing of Jews on a single day at one location.  The Nazis shot 18,000 Jews in one day, making them kneel, staring into the trench where they saw the bodies of those they would be joining soon.  It is obvious what had happened there, and it made me want to lie on each hill and cry, telling those people that they were not alone and that they are not forgotten.

Right beside these trenches is the most unusual mausoleum I will probably ever see.  When I walked up its stairs, I was greeted with a massive pile of ashes.  A mound better describes it, but it was maybe the size of the hill in my back yard.  It is covered above, but open for all to peer in and see the horrible consequences of the Holocaust and what tens of thousands of people can be reduced to.  In the ashes, bones lie scattered all around. I was overwhelmed by the reality of once living human beings who had no idea they would one day be peered at by my group of Americans because of these atrocities. It will be impossible for me to go another Christmas day without thinking of the people at Majdanek.  My life is changed.

It is very moving to spend a Christmas with such an amazing, inspiring and large group of individuals who have all sacrificed a holiday and a break to do something they deem equally as important and special.  Words cannot describe how honored I am to be here with all of them, to hear their thoughts and experience through them just as much as through myself.  They are some of the most beautiful people I have ever met, and I look forward to seeing how this trip impacts and changes our lives and what great things I know they will go on to do because of it.

And for everyone who will read this: I know I am publishing this later on your Christmas day, but if you do happen to sit down and read this on the 25th of December 2011, I am equally honored to know our thoughts have been in the same place and with the same people today.  Not many people think about the Holocaust on their Christmas.  We are doing so.  Although it is not a holiday that 6 million of the victims of the Holocaust celebrated, it speaks immeasurably that your thoughts have drifted to them.

I hope that whether or not you are religious, you will send a prayer or thoughts this way and to every single person – Jews, POWs, Poles and even beyond the Holocaust, to those whom this has happened before and since in places like Cambodia, Manchuria, Darfur, Rwanda.  The list can go on for ages.  Think about all the victims.  Think about all the crimes.  Question if you have had a part in them, directly or indirectly.  Question what you can do about it, directly or indirectly.  But mostly, question yourself and what you know and what you believe in.  Turn off the cellphone; perhaps take out a notebook, a sketchpad or go to a deserted room and give yourself the gift of time to reflect.  Not everyone has the opportunity to do such a thing, but I bet you do.  I will be doing the same.

No post for yesterday.  I will post the story of my visit to Belzec extermination camp soon, but tomorrow I head to Auschwitz-Birkenau so I am sure I will have thoughts and pictures to fill up 5 blogs.  Auschwitz is the symbol of the Holocaust certainly for Americans and for most of the world.  I am not excited, but I am ready.

Merry Christmas to all.  And, again, Happy Hanukkah.

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The shadows of Belzec

An update from Robert Rasberry, professor in Management and Organizational Behavior at the Cox School of Business, who focuses on communication, management and ethics:

Pathway to the memorial at Belzec, housed beneath a mountain of human ash and bone.

It is Christmas Eve, and the entire countryside of Poland seems to have retreated into their homes and the start of traditional Christmas celebrations. We have just returned from Belzec, and a very emotional day. This is a camp that 99 percent of the world’s people have never heard about, yet 600,000 people, mostly Jewish, were murdered here in just 8 months. This was the third largest Nazi death camp in Poland, and one of the smoothest run. I read where there were only 12 SS guards, and a few Ukranian staff, running the entire operation. When the trains arrived at Belzec, those inside the cattle cars only had three to four hours before their lives were extinguished.

There are no camp buildings left. All that is a part of the original scene is a mountain with rocks placed on it. The mountain is solid human ash and bone. The rocks were placed on top a few years ago because they found people digging for gold that they thought the Nazis had overlooked. As I take the long walk from the front of the memorial down to the center, I feel as if the walls are closing in, just like others must have felt on their way into the gas chamber.

The prayer room

Inside the museum the last exhibit is a prayer room. It is huge, probably 40 yards long. The walls are solid concrete, with the ceiling about 25 feet. There is a dim light on a quote as I enter.  The rest of the room is solid dark, with a dim projected light on the far wall. I am alone when I enter. My immediate thought is “This is how you feel when you are dying.” My immediate impulse is to walk forward toward the light, and not to retreat. The light grows larger as I advance a quarter, and then halfway toward the wall. It is like the out-of-body experiences I have read about.

Dan Pagis, a Romanian, survived the Holocaust and became a teacher and poet in Israel. He died in 1986.

I stop along the way and spend time in reflection and pray. I never make it to the end, but retreat and make my way to the tall, heavy steel exit door. My instinct is to pull it open. I pull but it does not budge. Thinking it is a trick, I pull again with no success. Finally I push and am able to leave.

Walking to the bus I pass a poignant quote. “Here in this carload I, Eve, with my son Abel. If you see my older boy, Cain, the son of man, tell him that I …” – Dan Pagis ‘Written in pencil in a sealed freight car.’

The memorial wall in part reads, “No place for my outcry.”

Tomorrow we go to Majdanek, a huge camp outside of Lublin. Everything is in place, just as it was when the Nazis quickly ran from it. I realize that my future Christmases will never be the same as those of the past. Next year Christmas Eve will be remembered through the shadows of Belzec, Christmas Day through the lens of a cold, damp, shower that was in reality a Nazi gas chamber.

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Chelmno, the children of the Holocaust and Sobibor

An update from Gracyn, a senior theatre major and human rights minor:

Yesterday we went to a camp called Chelmno.  This place only JUST had its first book published about it in the last couple months, and Dr. Halperin said he has never met a person in the United States – other than people who have intensely studied the Holocaust  – who have even heard of it, and most know little to nothing about it.

About 150,000 Jews, Poles and others died at Chelmno.  They were brought to a historical old palace and told that they were about to be transported to somewhere better for them.  They went to the living room, which had huge windows overlooking the river, a beautiful view.  They were told to undress so that they could wash their clothes and then were taken into the basement.  There they were forced into the back of a large truck that had backed into the cellar.  The Germans had rigged the truck so that all of the exhaust fumes were sent into the back, and on the drive to burial pits, everyone in the back of the van suffocated.

With the book Chelmno and the Holocaust

Our bus took the exact route these buses would take.  It didn’t take us as long, but at the rate of their automobiles it took about 20 minutes.  It was quite a long time.  If after arrival there were some who were not dead, the SS would shoot them.  They had Jews at the burial site who dug mass graves and carried the bodies from the trucks, knowing at the end of the day that they would be shot and new Jews would be there to take their place in the morning.  In 1942 the graves were opened and the bodies were burned.  At another point the officers wanted to experiment with more efficient ways, so they had a trench dug and put Quicklime into the trench, ordered people to get in and then poured water all over them, causing a slow and very painful death.  The camp shut down in ’43 because it wasn’t efficient enough but was again reopened in ’44.

There are two parts of the Chelmno memorial.  The first site is where the palace stood before the Germans blew it up.  There are some ruins of the palace and a small museum.  The state does not fund it; it is all kept up by one Polish man who speaks no English.  He expected us to come, and Dr. Halperin brought a picture of him from last year.  Our presence must have spoken to him just as his spoke to us because he invited us into his own little museum, in what may have been his home, and showed us a copy of the brand-new book that just came out that I mentioned.  He showed us where he was thanked multiple times and what great reviews the book had from major scholars of the Holocaust.  We took a picture of him and the book, and then he asked for a picture of us.

Down the road was the second memorial.  There is a lot here; it is still in a bit of an identity crisis.  There are tombstones, sculptures and the markings of the burial trenches.  It is a huge space that was cut out of the forest so to be out of sight and is so obviously for mass deaths.  Only a couple of people were ever able to escape this; they were thought to be dead and had to crawl from the grave at night, and after that they were in the middle of nowhere with no idea where they could go.

This camp held so much power for our little group.  Here our little group of bundled Americans were, traveling overseas and then on a bus traveling along the same path and walking along the graves where so many naked, murdered bodies were thrown, and we were here to remember them.  It was awful, but also hopeful.  It is hopeful to see that people will still come from so far away to be there and remember all of these people.  It feels right to be here during the Hanukkah and Christmas season and show our love at a time when these people are normally forgotten.  I will never celebrate Christmas again without thinking of the 11 million people who were lost.

The Children of the Holocaust

Four of the five survivors we met

We returned to Warsaw and went directly to meet with a group called The Children of the Holocaust.  What an honor it was to meet with five survivors of the Holocaust who are still living in Poland!  They are amazingly hopeful and joyful and say it was only after they found one another and could share their stories that they could stop crying because they are not alone.  Their stories are amazing.  I will mention only a few for now, though.

One lady was put into a car of strangers by her mother, who said she would be back in five minutes; she never returned.  The girl was raised by these people with a new name and was told every day she was a “terrible Jew.”  She grew up knowing she was Jewish but knowing nothing about her true identity.  It wasn’t until she was 55 that she learned who her mother was and what her own name was.  Her birth name is Clara Gross.  She still does not go by that because she felt she was not actually Clara.

A gentleman was 11 when he escaped the Warsaw Ghetto.  He and his family needed a place to stay that would be safe, and a Pole helped him find a home in the German section of the city.  He said it was safer to live among the Germans because they had an ignorant idea of what Jews looked like and could not recognize them well.  The Poles were more aware and could recognize Jews also by the way they spoke Polish (not many Jews could even speak Polish because they spoke solely Yiddish).

Another woman who is usually in attendance but could not be there this time, watched her father jump in front of a train and commit suicide.  Her mother took her to jump off a bridge into the ice cold water to do the same but was fished out still alive by a Polish dock worker.  He hid them and took care of them.

All of the survivors stressed that it was because of other people, especially non-Jewish Poles, that they were still alive today. They also stressed it was because of other people, including non-Jewish Poles, that they had lost almost all their family members.
I find it interesting that there are so very few Jews in the country today.  In 1939 at least 10 percent of the country was Jewish, but today there are fewer than 25,000 in the whole country.  And most of them are not practicing Jews.  One woman did not know she was Jewish until her mother told her in 1980.  Her mother did not tell her in order to protect her.

Jews have left Poland due to many waves of anti-Semitism. Some because they hid from the Germans in Russia, and when they came back did not want to be under communist rule.  A handful have stayed though, “because this is our country too.”

It’s almost ironic that they call themselves “The Children of the Holocaust” because they were robbed of experiencing a childhood.  One and a half million children died in the Holocaust, and there are now 700 of those now elderly Jewish children left in Poland.  How lucky I was to talk with them.

December 23: Sobibor

  Today was the most difficult day so far, so I am going to skip the history lesson for today because I am not yet ready to totally relive what I saw.  Here is what I wrote in my journal after I got back on the bus.  This was the only place we went to today.  I urge you to watch the movie “Escape from Sobibor” when you can.  It tells the story of an amazing rebellion, during which many Jews escaped but only 50 survived.

From my journal:
“Just got back on the bus from Sobibor, where I had perhaps the biggest breakthrough of feeling.  Looking at the mausoleum that contained the ashes of all who died there, I began to yearn for God.  I became so upset that this can happen in the world and is happening as I type this.  As I was walking around the tomb, I began to sob.  I wanted the top to be made of glass so that God could witness it every day.  Great scholars of all faiths are asked how such a thing as the Holocaust could happen, and I have heard some very insightful answers, but I am just a bit frightened that religion can justify something like this occurring and God being a part of it.  Today I yearned for a God to reach down and give me answers.

The mausoleum

I cannot stop crying.  All the plaques on the stones with the names of whole families who were killed together will not go from my mind.  I miss my mom and my family so much.  I think of them all the time.  My brother just got his license, and I can only imagine how beautiful my house looks for Christmas.  I want to curl up in my parents’ bed and watch an E Hollywood story with my mom – a thing we rarely do but I miss so much, while my dad is grilling steak.  I want to see my boyfriend.  I want to be warm under the covers, sleeping in late into the morning.  I am so grateful to be here, but it is so sad every day.  But I do think it is the only way to do it.  It is still only starting to sink in and mean something to me personally.  One trip to one camp is good, but acts more as a history lesson.  To really learn, you must experience; the best teachers of any subject know this.”

It was an emotional experience, but an amazing one.  I really do miss everyone a lot, and I am so thankful to my family for letting me come on this trip.  It is changing my life.

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How to comprehend evil

An update from George Holden, professor of psychology in Dedman College:

It’s now Thursday, day seven for some of us (others arrived on day three). I am now sitting toward the back of a 45-seat Mercedes-Benz bus, returning to Warsaw after witnessing our fifth killing site, Chelmno. This location, about a 3-hour ride west of Warsaw, was the first exterminating “camp.”  There actually wasn’t a camp, because Jews and others were loaded into large vans that transported them 3 kilometers to a burial site. Naked and terrified men, women and children were ushered into the vans, and then the van’s exhaust was used to kill them over the next 20 minutes or so. This technique was used to murder some 360,000 people, but then abandoned in favor of a more efficient killing method – the gas chamber.

Victims of Ravensbruck concentration camp

You get the idea of what we have been experiencing on this extraordinary trip. This tour is the 15th edition of Rick Halperin’s annual group pilgrimage to the German Nazi death camps in occupied Poland. He has been coming since 1983 but started taking groups in 1996. As a historian he has encyclopedic knowledge of World War II and the Holocaust. The current trip, with a cohort of 21 SMU undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, and people from the community, is the second largest group he has taken.

Although the death camps and the Holocaust are the central focus of our trip, this is but one of his international trips to important human rights sites. One cannot help but absorb information about human rights issues – another of the many fascinating subtexts to the trip. There are many others.

Our group at the Ravensbruck museum

We are learning some about the rich and troubled Polish history that included the visit for two of us (while the others were having lunch) to a massive medieval castle in Malbork, dating from the 13th century, that boasts the use of more than 35 million bricks in its construction.

We are learning about the Cold War and hear stories from our translators about the imprisonment and in some cases murder of their relatives. (Our translator in Gdansk provides the same service to former trade union leader and Polish President Lech Walesa.)

Memorial at Sachsenhausen concentration camp

But most of all we are trying to comprehend the largest planned mass genocide in world history committed about 70 years ago. We are trying to understand why the Nazis devoted so much human and material resources to trying to eliminate the Jewish “parasites” and other undesirables in the face of their deteriorating military situation. We are trying to understand the psychology of their collaborators … and the terror and plight of the victims. We search for signs of goodness and hope for humankind in the face of such evil.  We are also troubled by the lack of justice after the war.  Very few perpetrators ever went to court, and fewer still received any form of punishment for their crimes.

It is time to sign off because we have just arrived back in Warsaw, in time to meet five Jewish survivors of the war.

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Jedwabne and Treblinka

An update from Gracyn, a senior theatre major and human rights minor:

Hello!  We are in Warsaw now, and I am in love with it.  It is beautiful and large and a city I definitely hope to visit again.  I am working hard on my Polish and converse only a little, but I hope to come back when I know more.  Perhaps I will try to live in the Polish section in Brooklyn … or at least visit it often.

When we arrived in Warsaw, by train, it began to snow.  This was Warsaw’s first snow of the year that stuck.  That night we toured around and then had a reflection group about the places we had visited.

Where the barn once stood

The first place we went was Jedwabne.  This is a place that is very controversial in Poland and barely known in the United States.  I think it would be hard to find someone who would recognize the name, but it was here that a horrible event, called a pogrom, took place.

The Poles of Jedwabne gathered up all the Jews in their town (over 300) who had been their neighbors, business partners and friends, and put them in a barn and set the barn on fire.  If anyone tried to escape they would cut off their limbs to make sure they couldn’t get out.  The memorial is the outline of the barn and a charred door in the middle.  Soon after this they destroyed the Jewish cemetery just a few feet across the street.  Now all that remains is the wall around the cemetery and the trees that grow in place of the graves.

Church overlooking the barn

All of this happened in sight of two Catholic churches. While we were there, I kept thinking about the scene in The Patriot.  This is perhaps the hardest scene to watch in any movie, and to be standing on a similar ground where so much hate and violence occurred is heartbreaking.

As I said, this place is not well known. It has no real road leading up to it, and it wasn’t until 2000 that this event was even brought up in the country, much less the world. Jan Gross published the book Neighbors that told the story and asked how neighbors could turn so violently upon each other. Poland was in an uproar. Some people mourned, but most were extremely angry – the Poles were victims and wanted to remain so. The evil was in Germany, not Poland. However, looking back at the history of the Holocaust, it was often that people turned in their neighbors and helped to capture Jews.

The remainders of a swastika

In September of this year the memorial was graffitied with swastikas and the phrases “They were flammable,” and “Don’t apologize for Jedwabne.” The vestiges can be made out on the back of the monument. Anti-Semitism is very present in Poland, something I was surprised to hear. Our Warsaw tour guide, Olga, said it is the uneducated who believe the Jews killed and persecuted the Jesuits and who want revenge. I do not say this as a fact, but just as the belief of one.

There are many Poles who mourn the event, too. While we were there, a man from the town saw us get off the bus and followed a ways behind us as we walked to the site. I thought he was making sure we didn’t leave behind any graffiti, but he eventually came up and asked in Polish for us to take his picture. We did so, and then he began taking pictures using his timer of himself and the site. While we were at the cemetery, I looked over and saw him lying on the snow cradling his head and rocking while sobbing. This was incredibly moving.

Never again

Treblinka has perhaps had the biggest impact on me so far. About 800,000 people died there. Treblinka was different than the other permanent camps because it was more like an assembly line. People were put on trains from the Warsaw ghetto and told they were on their way to a better city just for them. When they arrived, they walked into what looked like a train station and were told they were going to take a shower before entering. They took off their clothes and then were forced down an outdoor corridor to the gas chamber and were gassed within 20 minutes of arriving. No documents were taken; they were just gotten rid of. Instead of Zyklon B, carbon monoxide was used – a much slower death. Some Jews from Eastern Europe heard of Treblinka and thought it was a better place for them to go and bought expensive tickets. They brought their furs and jewelry, which were taken by the camp officers and sent home to Germany. After they had been gassed, the Jews who had been spared because they had professions that would benefit the troops (like tailors) would gather the bodies and put them on an enormous grill and burn them. This often wasn’t efficient enough, and they would dig mass graves.

Extends until you cannot see

It is important to note that there was also a labor camp that was part of Treblinka. This is where the Poles and POWs went. Although many died from the conditions at the work camp, it was only Jews who were sent to the gas chambers.

When I walked to the main part of the memorial, my breath was taken away. It is beautiful. This bothered some people in my group, but I actually greatly appreciated it. The memorial is treated as a cemetery to those who passed. I found it almost more of a place of hope and a reminder of life. When you enter, you see large coffin-sized stones that represent the railroad. They travel into the distance, and you are greeted with a stone platform. This is where the people would get off the trains. You turn the corner and the space from the camp appears. In the middle lies a large stone monument that says in many languages “Never Again,” and around it are many stones.

17,000 stones

Different communities have donated engraved stones, and they have been placed where the burial pits were. They total about 17,000 stones. This is an overwhelming amount to see, and to imagine 800,000 is impossible. It is to me a place of peace and honor and beauty built specifically for the people who passed and whose names are not even known. I like this idea.

At Stutthof I felt ashamed to be looking at the ashes in the memorial. I feel those people deserve their rest and peace and something beautiful just for them. If they couldn’t have it at the end of their lives, it seems important to have after they are dead. I think the feeling of anger and disgust that I felt looking at them is important to feel at these places, but at the expense of the people lost, it seems a bit wrong.

As you can see, the site was covered with snow. Our tour guide at Stutthof said, “These camps speak in this weather,” and she is absolutely right. It was so quiet and still, and I could almost hear the stones speaking. Some were crying, some were screaming, some were humming. This place spoke to me, and I was glad to hear them. Very few people visit any sites except Auschwitz, and an incredible number have been forgotten by most of the people in the world. I wanted to lie down and just be there for a while. Someday I hope to come back in the summer and do so.

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