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.


An update from Jacqueline H.R. DeMeritt, assistant professor of political science at the University of North Texas:

22 December, 1 pm
On the bus, leaving Chelmno. My first visit to the Germans’ first extermination camp is complete. This is an awful place, but let me start at the start. A 3-hour drive takes us to a clearing. In it are three or four dirty huts, bars on the windows and an old compact car, its once-red paint too exhausted to shine. In one dirty hut is a single dirty room, and in that dirty room a series of old dirty things: teeth, broken glass, mugs and jars, jewelry and toys. This was the first camp for the Jews of Lodz, their final destination on leaving their ghetto. Here they were robbed of it all, stripped naked and loaded onto waiting trucks.

Fifty or seventy at once, they were driven a short distance down the road. As they went, these trucks filled with carbon monoxide, each vehicle’s circulatory system horribly distorted, spewing its filth into its own guts. In those guts, these people ceased. They gasped, vomited, voided, suffocated, collapsed. And they died. Meanwhile, the truck turned into a clearing too large to call large, an open expanse of brown grass and nothingness, a void in the Earth. The now-pink bodies dump into mass graves, and the truck returns for its next deadly sprint. If there is God, I do not think he lives here.

This place is huge, brown and open, flanked by trees and flat white sky. No sun, no definition to the clouds, no wind, no sound, no movement above, no movement below. This place, like its residents, is dead. On a nearby road, a truck rumbles by. I am transported back in time, and I see it as it was. The brown dead earth lies open and ended, the truck’s tires run ceaselessly back and forth, stopping only to pack the wound in the earth with pink human gauze, then returning, empty, to retrieve more “supplies.” This place was the first. Had it failed, there may have been no more. But it worked, this damned place of dead sky and dead grass, and they learned. And, they killed.

The dirty rooms with their dirty things are tended by one man, who comes to meet us as we arrive. Gray beard, gray hair, skin so shadowed by the lines and stories of life that I cannot tell if he is pale or tan. This man keeps this place, and he fascinates me. With his permission, I snap photo after photo. His piercing blue eyes do not smile, but permit; I want hours of time, a common language, a better camera, and black and white film. This man keeps this place, these things, these teeth and toys and bits of glass, so that once in a while someone might stop by to see them, to see him. Lodek is his name, the Cryptkeeper of Chelmno. I want to touch his face, brush his hair, hear his tales. Instead, I stand mid room, close my eyes, breath deep. I know he sees me, yearn again for common language.

There is communication between us, somehow. His clear blue eyes show a soul as strong, as fierce, as sharp as I’ve seen. I wonder what he sees in the brown of my own, and hope it is something that brings him joy, or strength, or whatever he seeks in humanity. This man is humanity. As we leave the dirty huts and car and man, I turn for a last look. He is watching me, too. He waves, hand moving side-to-side. I wave back, palm opening and closing, saying goodbye. I hope to see him again, but even should I not, I know I will remember him – every day, forever.

This place is hateful and dead. This man is old, and very much alive. As I walk back to the bus, I wrap my arms tightly around my body. My grandmother knit the scarf round my neck; I feel it there, and then my arms are hers, and I want to collapse, and to cry. Instead, I keep walking. I want nothing more than to leave this place, and nothing more than to stay for always.

This one was Real. Chelmno was Real.

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Why did people participate?

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

An enduring question about the Holocaust is why so many people became willing executioners for Hitler. Not just Nazis, but also professional soldiers and career officers who otherwise shared no ideological affinities with the Nazis, civilian police, even ordinary civilians all had a hand in the Holocaust. On 10 July 1941, in the small village of Jedwabne, under the full eyes of their German conquerors, ordinary Poles turned on their Jewish neighbors and killed 340 of them. They drove a group of men, women and children into a barn that they then set ablaze, burning alive those inside and bludgeoning and shooting those attempting to escape. What accounts for such unspeakable savagery?

Once a rabbi, speaking on how we might prevent another Holocaust from happening, said, “Beware of small beginning.” The “small beginning” that made the Holocaust possible, as my visit to the Topography of Terrors in Berlin makes abundantly clear, is the way in which people passively accept the way things are. The willingness to accept a loss of personal liberty in exchange for economic gains led to the election of Hitler, which led to an acceptance of the racist view that fellow-citizens were subhuman. From there it was but an inexorable slide to granting the state the right to kill and maim its “undesirable” citizens and to taking a personal part in killing and maiming. The memorial at Treblinka proclaims in six different languages, “Never again.” That message seems more urgent than ever today.

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

Yesterday was the first of our sad outings.  We went to the Stutthof death camp.  Most people know little to nothing about Stutthof. Germany attacked Poland on September 1, 1939, and opened Stutthof concentration camp on September 2.

We loaded into the bus at 8 am. It was an interesting air of anticipation on the bus. Everyone has been waiting for this for the past few months, and now it was happening. It felt wrong to say we were excited, but we all knew that where we were going would change us, and that is exciting.

Our tour guide Kate told us a lot about Gdansk as we traveled and about how the land is below sea level, making it a difficult but good place to farm. She told us that amber is all around but that it has a complicated history in the city. In medieval times, if anyone found amber, they had to give it to the royalty, who burned it to create incense. Later it was a law that a fistful of amber could buy you a slave. During communism the amber found was crushed and destroyed. Now it is a popular thing for jewelry and little boxes and carvings. It is quite pretty.

She later told us about the storks that live in this area and how one in four storks in the world are from Gdansk. They build incredible nests that weigh around 1 1/2 tons and are considered a symbol of hope. After the Germans evacuated the area, they burned all the dikes and the area flooded for years. When the water receded, the area was covered with rats. The storks were the first things to return and eat all the rats, allowing people to come back. Most homes in this area have a stork sculpture on their roof or in their yards because of this.

As we were getting closer to the camp, I noticed we were following along a railway line. It looked smaller, though, than the tracks used today, and I soon learned those were the tracks that brought the people to Stutthof. We were following the exact same route.

Soon we were pulling into the camp. Kate pointed out the commandant’s home, which is extremely well preserved. It is a lovely, large home at the top of the hill – able to look down and over what was going on. We drove in a bit more and came to a gate. It was there where most people would get off their train and enter. They were treated to a “Welcome Comedy,” where they were hit with batons and bitten by dogs. They then entered the “Death Gates.” One prisoner asked, “When can we leave?” and an officer replied, “Do you see that chimney? That is your only way out.”

Some of the prisoners' shoes

Their clothes and shoes were removed, and they were given the infamous striped outfits and wooden clogs. We entered into the room where this happened, and there is a collection of some of the shoes found.

Walking through the gates was indescribable.  The camp is perfectly preserved, and you see the barracks around you, the SS officers’ large brick home towering behind and, in plain sight, the gas chamber and crematorium.  All of these are original except for the crematorium structure.

Walking through the barracks, you can feel the people who had been there.  Up to 200 people were kept in one tiny room, three to a bunk on which I could barely fit.  Before the bunk beds were introduced, they would sleep on the floor and have to rotate every hour so one side didn’t freeze.  You couldn’t leave to use the restroom without permission.  Imagine as a woman not being able to get up to use the restroom at certain times in the year.  At one point I found myself leaning up against a wall, and it occurred to me that I was becoming a part of history by being there.

Inside the gas chamber

We walked through the barracks and then began walking to the gas chamber.  The gas chamber and crematorium were right next to each other.  It’s still hard for me to process that I saw the room where close to 85,000 people were murdered.  There is a hole at the top of the roof where the gas was pumped in, and all around the hole it is still black.  It is an experience that I couldn’t put together there, and honestly I am still having trouble comprehending. It’s just so huge.

We then went into the crematorium that held the original furnaces where the Nazis would burn the bodies.  There are flags from the countries of people who died there, and it is very reverent.  It is kept almost like a cemetery.

Near the crematorium is the memorial in honor of everyone who was a victim.  This is something I still don’t know how I feel about.  One side of the memorial has a glass strip where you can see all the ashes that were found upon liberation.  There are chunks of bones all throughout.  It was hard to see and hard for me to deal with.  I don’t feel like the little that’s left of these people should be on display for the world to see.  The camp then became for me more of a monument to the evil of the Nazis and less of a place to grieve for those who were lost and remember so that it will never happen again.  I think this is ok, but I prefer the second message because we are never better because we feel hate.

It was a very powerful first day, and there is so much more to talk about involving Stutthof, but I must go to bed.  I’m looking forward to writing about what we did today.  It was extremely tough, but very rewarding.

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A long day in Berlin

An update from Jacqueline H.R. DeMeritt, assistant professor of political science at the University of North Texas:

December 18, 6:45 a.m.
Went “sightseeing” last night in Berlin; the Berlin Holocaust Memorial is eerie and breathtaking, row upon row of smooth concrete columnscoffins, neatly aligned, orderly. The cobblestone pathways rise and fall, simulating hills, valleys, countrysides, and each columncoffin represents a Jewish community wiped out by the terror. Though it was evening, I took pictures.

Saw, too, the Brandenburg Gate – party symbol of Nazi power. Took pictures there, too, including some of myself in front of the site. Screw you, buddy … I’m a Jew, and I’m still here. Also saw the memorial to the T4 aktion, Germany’s early eugenics/euthanasia program. Took pictures; we all stood in front and smiled for the camera; I’m not sure why. In hindsight, it seems odd.

Did not sleep well; vivid dreams of nothing, night sweats and stomach cramps.

On the bus now, heading to Ravensbruck. To the extent that one can, I’m looking forward to it.

1 p.m.
Underwhelming as it sounds, Ravensbruck was powerful. As many photos as I’ve seen of big open gated spaces, as many museum exhibits of cells and chimneys, it’s just unspeakably immense to put eyes on it. Walk down the road and walls. Inside, a huge open yard. Around the yard, barracks.

In the cells, in one building, different countries sent representatives to design their own memorials. The sculpture in the Polish cell, of hands reaching up and clawing at a stone edifice, and a photo running the length of the bottom of one wall – feet in a cattle car, perhaps. Women’s feet, to be sure. The Russian cell, one half spare and concise: a stool and the letters CCCP against one wall, radiator in the corner; photos of smiling Russian prisoners along the other walls – strong, tough, built to withstand, right to the end.

Survivors tend rose gardens outside the crematoriums. Right now, the roses are cut stems. Though I know they are merely hibernating until spring, they look dead.

There was a cat. He lives there. I sat on a bench on the porch of an SS officer house and looked at him. He saw my outstretched fingers and came over, climbed onto my lap and gave love and asked for love and snuggled and purred like an outboard motor. I wonder how long he has been there, who his parents were, and what his story is. Nobody lives there now; did his great great grandparents comfort the women or accompany the guards? Did they pretend to love the guards and their families in order to give comfort to the women? This cat was sturdy, thick with short ears and calm stoicism. A German cat, and I hope he is one of the good guys. I think he is; he was happy to be loved and held and nuzzled. He didn’t want me to leave, but he didn’t need to be protected.

He was there for me, not the other way around.

3 p.m.
Sachsenhausen, final home of ~35,000 German homosexuals, political opponents, and juvenile “delinquents” (defined: didn’t go to school, or listen to American music). There is a Soviet memorial, large and stark and strong and imposing. There are brick crematoriums (crematoria?), one after the next after the next. They crumble slowly, but remain. Cold metal stretchers, covered in dust, lay atop a few. One way in, and just across from it a guard’s canteen where the 3,000 camp perpetrators could drink, relax, unwind, feel good about themselves. Juxtaposition is truly a powerful thing.

4 p.m.
Berlin-Grunewald Track 17. A flag reads (in part) “Nizkor L’ad”: remember always. I have the identical phrase tattooed on my wrist.

5 p.m.
Checkpoint Charlie and the Berlin Wall. For a political scientist, especially, this was an unexpected gift.

5:30 p.m.
Topography of Terror. Equally unexpected, and a very different kind of gift. A largely photographic chronology of the process and institutions of Nazi terror, built at the site of the headquarters of the Secret State Police (Gestapo), the SS and the Reich Security Main Office. I don’t remember the last time a photo made me catch my breath. Tonight, it happened a dozen or more times.

SMU Human Rights director Rick Halperin says violation of the right to life is not so severe as violation of the right to life with dignity. I believe Rick is right. It has been a very long day.

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Preparing to seek clarity

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

On the eve of setting off for the Nazi death camps of German-occupied Poland, I feel rather apprehensive. Not about what I might see: Given the massive literature and media saturation of the Holocaust, we in the West have all “seen” these sites in one form or another, through one medium or another. Of course, nothing can replace being physically present in these sites, to personally touch the very structures that encased the broken humanity those savage months and years, to listen with my own ears to the earth that entombed the silenced voices of the gassed, to breathe in the very air that took the souls of so many. All this I anticipate, perhaps even eagerly. I finally will have a chance to experience in person what I have only read or watched from the comfort of my armchair.

No, what I feel most apprehensive about is how I could become so maudlin that I lose all my critical and analytical faculties, that I would allow myself to revel in a kind of false catharsis that absolves no one and teaches no one. Genocides happened before the Holocaust and continue to take place today. We can’t afford to live in the past. The Holocaust warns us of how deadly it is to incorporate deep-seated hatred of the other into a delusional ideology of purity. This is hardly unique to the Holocaust; waves upon waves of genocidal madness that plagued the last century and that still plague us today make that abundantly clear. For me, the Holocaust remains a garish warning beacon, and I don’t want its clarity obscured by my teary eyes.

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To begin

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

Yesterday was the 65th anniversary of the recognition of genocide as a human rights crime punishable by international law. It seems hard to believe this could only be 65 years ago.  This is younger than my grandparents. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is just as young and still quite abused.  Obviously many steps forward have been taken in regard to nations looking out for human rights abuses, with many NGOs and Amnesty International working constantly to protect our rights, but there is still much that we do not see – and a lot we simply choose not to look at because it is scary or inconvenient.

Next week I leave for Poland.  I will be spending Christmas break going daily to German Nazi death camps across the country.  On Christmas Eve I will be in Lublin. On Christmas Day we head to another camp.

When I tell people about my Christmas break, I get various responses. Some people make jokes, others seem confused.  Many people have asked, “Why Christmas?” and I understand the question.  Being at a place where millions of people were exterminated is sobering and humbling enough without spending precious holiday time away from family and loved ones.  But I think there is something special about the time.

Christmas and Hanukkah, or whatever holiday you may celebrate around this time, have always been a chance for reflecting on the year, on life and appreciating what you have been given.  I have been given a lot.  I have an amazing family, have attended amazing schools, and am blessed with an abundance of amazing friends.  This is one year where I can experience something different.  What’s going on in the world doesn’t stop just because it is Christmas, no matter how much we wish it could.

Our little group of frozen Americans traveling by bus around the country will experience that along with the unity and common humanity that can be discovered by our awareness.  I think the people on this trip, only one of whom I know, will become another family.  Every Christmas after this I will think of my little Poland family and of all we witnessed.  Everyone knows about the Holocaust, but can they really feel the magnitude of it?  I know I do not and probably never will, but this trip will give me a glance.

I suspect I will be changed by this trip.  I’m not sure how, but I already feel different just in preparing for it. Christmas will never again be the same as it has for the last 21 years.  While this scares me, I also feel liberated by more consciousness of the world.  What happened in Europe during World World II is over, but the consequences are still alive.  I plan to prepare a solo performance piece based on my experiences to be performed in March or April 2012.

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