Jonathan in Poland

Jonathan, a junior in the Creative Writing program in Dedman College’s English Department, is participating in the SMU Human Rights Education Program’s December trip to Poland. There, program director Rick Halperin will lead visits to World War II Nazi death camps.

Gross Rosen: Our last stop

I’m not too sure what to expect from the final camp on this tour, Gross Rosen. Once again, we’re hours from the nearest major city, and I haven’t even heard of this place until now.

Professor Halperin informed us the other day that had the Nazis not blown up their furnaces at Auschwitz, they would’ve been shipped here. Primarily a work camp at the beginning of the war, Gross Rosen would’ve been turned into a cleanup site in the remaining days of the Final Solution.

The camp is built sort of terraced into the side of a hill. The museum has virtually no English in it, showing just how few international visitors it gets. Apparently we also were in luck, as we managed to come on the day when the only English-speaking employee happened to be there.

Despite not being able to read almost anything in the museum, the pictures spoke volumes. Brass statues and stained-glass windows depict emaciated men and women in various states of suffering. Photos of gaunt and dying prisoners are everywhere, in stark contrast to the snapshots of jovial SS officers, which are about as plentiful.

Upon leaving the museum and walking up a steep embankment, you’re led to a deep rock quarry. While being a forced labor camp, Gross Rosen was a sheer money-making venture for the SS. High-quality granite was excavated on the backs of prisoners, who were literally worked to the bone, driven by ruthless SS officers whose only goals were to collect a check and sip schnapps. It makes sense that there were so many brimming SS faces in those photographs; this place was a virtual paradise for them.

Walking through the ruins of the camp and exploring the terrible bathhouse and kitchen, I’m glad that this was the last camp that we visited. Completely different from anything that we’ve seen in its cruelty, Gross Rosen was a separate experience entirely. I can’t help but know that this was normal, though. It’s not hard to imagine how many camps and sub-camps existed like this one, completely under the radar and today almost unknown.

Walking back to the van with the knowledge that I’m officially done and coming down the home stretch, I’m somewhat relieved. Each day, visiting a graveyard for thousands, sometimes over a million people and only being able to leave a small stone in remembrance takes a toll on you. The long rides back to the hotel, thinking about the lump in your throat where that stone in your pocket used to be, seem a lot longer.

I keep telling myself that I won’t be back here, but I will be someday. This trip changes people in a way that no one can foresee, its effects unique to every person. Visiting sites that show both the depths and depravity of human nature as well as the shining hope of the few – powerful is a word that might fall short of trying to describe this trip.

You can read every book, see every movie, and listen to every interview and testimonial, but you’ll never truly understand until you’ve been to these places. To all you armchair historians out there, it takes a trip like this to really open your eyes to the atrocities that occurred and that still go one today around the world. Words like Darfur and Rwanda hold a new prominence in your eyes as you try to imagine the horrors of the past in the present.

Like I said, I’m glad to be headed home, but I couldn’t be happier that I came.

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Plaszow: A work camp

From the get-go, we’re told that this will be a short day of sights and a long day of driving. I had no idea.

We’re on the highway for maybe 10 minutes heading out of downtown Krakow when we begin to pull off onto the shoulder. Next to a gas station and a few stores, I immediately think that we must be having engine trouble or something. But we’re here.

The Plaszow camp was originally a work camp situated above a rock quarry. Famously featured in Schindler’s List, the hill where commandant Amon Goth had his plush mansion now features a huge stone relief with grave faces staring down and a few small plaques.

Despite the historical significance, though, it’s just on the shoulder of the highway with next to no parking space or accessibility. The world’s largest ball of twine is more accessible than this commemorative statue to a concentration camp.

More like a city park than a historical site, people walk through it as though it were a shortcut and let their dogs run around off their leashes. As we walk up to one of the small plaques written in Hebrew where the residue of an anti-Semitic remark in spray paint is still visible, a dog comes up and pees on it. It’s heartbreaking.

It’s one thing to have a site of remembrance integrated into a community where it is utilized and thus its memory lives on. It’s another when people have become so desensitized to a place’s meaning that they walk through it with utter disregard. It’s not as though the giant monument shaped like a headstone didn’t have the word “Hitlerowskich” the size of a truck carved into it or anything. Trying to take in the power of this site and its meaning when the stone monument is dwarved by the neighboring “Castorama” sign. It’s hard to imagine what this place would have been like had Schindler’s List not been made.

Leaving the camp somewhat disheartened and disillusioned, we pass the ceramics factory where Oskar Schindler employed his Jewish workers, a virtual oasis of safety in World War II Krakow. It’s closed for rennovation, but it’s at least nice to see that some things are moving up in the world.

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Auschwitz-Birkenau

First, I’m going to start this off by saying that seeing Auschwitz is something that I’ve always wanted to do. This camp is the symbol of the Holocaust to most people, and rightfully so. It was the central hub for hate and genocide as far as concentration camps are concerned.

Almost one and a half million people were killed here. That would be like if half the D/FW metroplex were sent here to die at one place. From the sadistic medical experiments to the gas chambers of Birkenau, it makes sense that this is the concentration camp that everyone thinks of.

Auschwitz is like a small city. Right inside the iron gates, adorned with the infamous “arbeit macht frei” (work makes (one) free), some of the greatest musicians in Europe were assembled to play regularly. The brick barracks line paved streets in neat rows, and there was even a petting zoo. No, really.

Auschwitz is really three camps, each different in function: Auschwitz I for tests and officers’ barracks, the extermination camp of Birkenau and the work camp Monowitz all make up what is collectively known as Auschwitz. In our visit only to the first two, we were there practically from dawn until twilight and barely even made it through. It would take an entire weekend just to see everything here.

The barracks have been transformed into museums, often having an entire brick building dedicated just to one nationality of the prisoner population. The wealth of information just seemed overwhelming at times. Couple that with tourists of every nationality chatting it up in the crematorium, screaming children, and the throngs of people moving in and out of every room, it could be hard to really get a sense for the power of this camp. I’m not trying to say that the meaning was lost or that it wasn’t a significant part of our trip by any account, only that it was a very different experience than I thought it would be. Birkenau, on the other hand, was like jumping into an ice bath.

Death camp
A few kilometers from Auschwitz I, Birkenau was where almost all of the mass killing was done. The only reason that so many barracks were even built was because there were too many prisoners and they just couldn’t all be killed fast enough. Train tracks were even built right through the main gate to the end of the camp toward the end of the war so that prisoners could literally be loaded right off the cars and into the gas chambers.

Largely preserved like Majdanek, Birkenau is a powerful sight. It’s freezing cold here, and the wind and snow are just relentless. Walking over to a small frozen puddle, I broke off a piece of ice just to see how thick it was. This is considered to be one of the more mild winters in Poland’s history, and the ice in this tiny puddle is over half an inch thick. 1941 to 1945 are remembered as some of the harshest winters in Europe’s history. It’s hard to imagine what this place would have been like in years that would have already caused famine and crop failure, let alone survive it in cotton pajamas doing back-breaking labor. Everything in this camp was meant to dehumanize or kill you, typically both. It’s pretty apparent even today.

Now just piles of rubble, the crematoriums at the back of the camp are situated on either side of the great memorial where we left a candle burning. All dynamited by the Nazis with the exceptions of one destroyed in a prisoner uprising, you’ll never see a more powerful pile of brick and steel. Or at least I won’t.

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Christmas Eve at the death camps

After a brief tour of Lublin, what was once the second-largest center of Jewish activity in Poland behind Warsaw, we take off toward Majdanek.

So complete was the Nazis’ eradication of the Jewish population in this area that even today people must be brought in from Krakow to have the mandatory 10 people required to pray in traditional ceremonies.

But, Christmas Eve here in Lublin, it’s hard to make out all the details with all the traffic and excitement around. And then all of a sudden, we’re there, and it’s huge. The second-largest camp in all of Europe, and one of – if not the most – complete and intact camps remaining, the sight is just unreal.

I’ve seen parks back home that aren’t as big as this place. From the road, looking over the tops of guard towers and barbed-wire fences, you can’t even see the other side of this place. Once the shock sets in, though, you realize that you haven’t even left the city. Unlike every other site that we’ve been to, secluded and situated deep in some forest, Majdanek is on a hill overlooking Lublin. Houses are just on the other sides of the fences, and apartment buildings and a large Christian cemetery are on the other visible sides.

Another huge stone monument is at the entrance, more massive than any other that we’ve seen so far. Leading up to it are massive torches, one for each year of the war and, of course, extinguished.

Cars are lining up on the street where we just were, but only to visit the cemetery for Christmas Eve. No one else will come to Majdanek today.

Our guide Magda takes us through the gates and down the long path once paved with broken headstones stolen from local Jewish cemeteries. Of course, the path dead-ends right near the entrance of the still-standing gas chambers.

It’s eerie walking in a building where you know that hundreds of thousands of people were killed. Even though you’re out of the ever persistent wind that seems to follow you everywhere in Majdanek, things still feel a little bit colder inside.

Blue residue, the calling card of Zyklon B, still hangs on the wall and ceilings like old paint. After carbon monoxide was determined to be too inefficient, with an estimated 20-40 minutes to kill a room, the Nazis began to experiment with other methods. Zyklon B, a crystal pellet that sublimates in warm air, only takes 10 minutes. There’s still an entire room filled with sealed containers that are still deadly after all these years. This is the same gas used by federal prisons for executions, deemed humane for use back in the United States.

Walking in and out of the barracks and buildings now turned into exhibits, Magda begins to tell us about other groups that she’s led through the camp. She points to the back of the camp, showing us where the former officer’s garden was where they utilized human ashes as fertilizer, now covered by residential houses. She informs us that those people still grow food there today in their own gardens.

Other groups have gotten into debates with her about whether the large area of the camp is even necessary. She tells us about one Austrian man who insisted that the city would be better off with only half of the area for camp museum, the other half turned into a supermarket and parking garage. A “real estate goldmine,” he called it.

Walking down further, you can’t help but try to imagine this place in operation, the sheer terror of it all. Walking between the preserved buildings, Magda tells us about the Harvest Festival, November 3, 1944. 18,400 were killed in one day and night here. All of the people of Lublin down the hill can recall hearing music long into the night, played by the Nazis over the loudspeakers to drown out the shots and screams.

It’s hard imagine people justifying their lack of action or resistance in the Holocaust on ignorance after going to a place like this. The killing was practically in these people’s backyards, purposely so that escapees would have nowhere to run, and so that all of the town was forced to look up at the camp.

Almost two hours later, finally reaching the back of the camp, we walk into the crematorium. Dissection tables for salvaging gold teeth lay right inside the front door. Just around the corner, a row of furnaces once operated by Jewish “sonderkommandos” sit still intact.

Magda directs our attention to the corner of the room where a bathtub sits, sorely out of place in this sweatshop. The director of the crematorium would demand a bath at the end of every day, and would use water boiled over the heat of the furnaces to do so. You know, to work the stress out.

Just before hopping on the bus, we visit the giant mausoleum, similar to the one at Sobibor. Walking around the massive pile of human ash mixed with dirt and earth, it can be very humbling.

As we walk back down the front steps, Magda turns and points to the Polish words carved above the front face. They mean “Let our fate be a warning to you.”

Belzec

As if Majdanek weren’t enough for one day, we’re back on the bus pulling a double and riding out into the countryside toward Belzec.

The first of the Operation Reinhard extermination camps, this was the precursor to Sobibor and Treblinka, where the Nazis cut their teeth at unmitigated terror and genocide. Just a stop on a multiple-day train ride with officers dressed as doctors and a large metal room with orders to disrobe and shower, these people were decieved to the very end.

Pulling up to Belzec, it could not be any more different from Majdanek. We had gone from looking at the sprawling intact camp of Majdanek to a modern monument and museum for a site that may be around the size of one and a half football fields.

The very new museum is unlike any that we’ve seen so far. The plaques and maps are detailed to a T, not only explaining the sociopolitical storm that surrounded the beginning of the camp, but also of its history. Detailed ideological underpinnings are traced back across pieces of frosted glass with black print. I probably took pictures of nearly every surface in there, honestly.

Walking outside to the frigid field of stone and figured metal, the snow is coming down in sheets. You walk down a narrow path, flanked by two bookends of the giant monument. As you walk further down the path, the sides begin to rise up like you’re walking into the side of a hill. For a long time, this was only a hill, though, an unknown site with only two survivors out of almost half a million.

Belzec was open for maybe little over a year and then closed and swept under the rug in 1943. Not because the Russians were coming or because it was within Allied bombing range, though. It was closed because it was too efficient and there simply was no one left to kill. The entire surrounding area was turned into ghettos to hold the Jewish population until they could be sent here, eventually completely being eliminated.

The only reason that we even know what this place accurately looked like was due to a painting by a local farmer. Just a boy when the camp was active, he painted a picture from memory years later, which accurately matched blueprints and documents found. Standing on the top of the monument, I can even pick out the hill where he must have lived looking at this hill.

Driving back to the hotel, it’s pitch black. It’s only 4:30 here, but from the looks of it, you’d think it was midnight.

Reflecting on the past few days, imagining the next few, it’s so much to take in. The premediated and methodical cruelty of some of these places is unreal. It’s hard to believe that some people even survived.

I suppose it’s another way to look at this trip, though, not only as a grim reminder of the horrors and loss of life that befell Europe. Rather, to pay tribute to those who managed to survive, to bear witness to places where people managed to hold onto some sliver of hope and persevere.

Tonight Dr. Halperin told us that no matter where we are this time of the year down the road, he hopes that our minds will even for a moment come back to the places that we’ve been and the things that we’ve seen.

It’s Christmas Eve, we’re driving through rural southeast Poland, but we all know that he’s right and that we will. Wishing that I was home, about to go watch cheaply dubbed American television and raid the hotel mini-bar, I at least know that I will.

Merry Christmas, world.

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Sobibor: No trace of history

Six hours in the van, and we’ve covered about a quarter of Poland with our smiling driver listening to only Enya and what I’m pretty sure must have been the Night at the Roxbury soundtrack. It’s already been a long day by the time we reach Sobibor.

Like Treblinka, this place is completely isolated and meant to eliminate people in secret. One prong on the trident of Operation Reinhard, the only way to even access Sobibor would have been by train, and it was meant to be that way. The original white railway sign for the camp still hangs next to the tracks, now green from moss and age.

Even out here in the middle of nowhere, though, houses are still built right up to the outside boundaries of the camp, oddly enough. The same road that prisoners once marched down toward “disinfection and baths” is now paved and cuts back from the road to rest of the site. As you walk down, a small path shoots off to the left lined with young saplings and small stones with even smaller plaques with the names of victims. About a few hundred feet further, where the gas chambers painted with Stars of David once stood, is a large stone pillar and a statue of a man and child. These people were deceived to the very end.

From between the statues, the path known by the prisoners as the “road to heaven” leads down to a mausoleum where the crematorium once was. Honestly, it’s so huge that it takes me at least a minute or two to even walk around the perimeter of the closed mausoleum filled with ashes of victims.

Probably most famous for the prisoner uprising of around 600, or more likely the movie made about it, fewer than 50 of them actually survived. The camp was ordered to be shut down only a few days later, to be utterly erased. Like its counterpart, Treblinka, all structures were to be demolished and replaced with new trees, and here an unassuming Ukrainian farmer planted them.

By the time the Russians reached Sobibor, there was no trace of the history – the quarter of a million people who had been killed there. Looking at the desolate parking lot and the now only seasonally open museum, you’d think there was still nothing left here.

On the very same train tracks that once functioned to bring in Jewish and Polish prisoners, a crane loads freshly cut pine logs into an open topped car. The workers look at me like I’m crazy, standing in the snow taking pictures of signs and trees. They even point at me and comment to each other in Polish as our group walks past.

Is it just that these sites are so commonplace that they have accepted them as a part of everyday life? I mean, I know that I don’t go to the Alamo to pay my respects, but this is different. Poland doesn’t exactly thrive on its tourism industry, especially not at places like Sobibor, out in the middle of the woods practically. I suppose tourists just aren’t seen out here nearly as often as they should be.

Getting onto the bus to head toward Lublin, our home for the next few days, it’s hard not to think that maybe these people have become desensitized to the things around them. Driving toward the Ukraine border, it all gets a little fuzzy from there. It’s hard not to be overwhelmed.

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Chelmno: A mass graveyard

The long road to Chelmno could not have been more different from the bustling city streets of Warsaw. Abandoned shacks and gnarled fruit trees are everywhere, and stray dogs replace the pedestrians.

Finally, after three long hours, we turn into what could’ve been a historical marker parking lot or scenic overview point. After yesterday, I know not to go into these places always expecting barbed wire and towers like Stutthoff, but this just looks like a small shack next to a flag pole.

As the weather picks up, we are welcomed into the plain white shack by the sole middle-aged employee with a sweater that could bring even Bill Cosby to his knees. Inside the modest walls is a museum, which we find out was not even supposed to be open that day. He opened it just for us, happy to see any visitors at all.

Hanging on the walls are pictures of Jewish ghetto life of east Poland and plaques written solely in Polish. Down at the far end, though, is a sole piece, written in broken English, that everyone is crowding around.

The reason there are no structures here is because, unlike Treblinka and so many other camps that were demolished, there simply never were any. Chelmno is a mass graveyard, just a clearing in the woods where bodies were dumped.

Jewish prisoners were led into a manor down the road, told they were to be given a work assignment and then invited to shower and have their clothes disinfected. Sometimes with a handshake and a smile, but more often with the barrel of a gun, they were led down a set of steps to the basement and onto a sealed metal truck. Once filled with around 75 to 100 prisoners, the back doors were shut, and the ignition was started.

The truck would sit in park for around 20 minutes with the exhaust flooding the sealed tomb attached to the back, and once asphyxiation was ensured, it would leave for Chelmno to prepare for the next load.

Once there, Jewish prisoners would haul the bodies off and arrange them in massive trench-like graves. The only people ever actually killed at Chelmno were those who were forced to unload the bodies, usually executed at the end of each shift to fall as the last body on top of their day’s work.

Over the course of three years, it’s estimated that as many as 350,000 people were brought and buried here with only two survivors. Both were simply lucky enough to belong to the last load to be dumped, overlooked in the haste of the Germans trying to finish and flee the encroaching Red Army.

Stepping outside, you get a sense for how big this place really is. Like Treblinka, it’s just a massive clearing in the woods, like a massive hole in the Earth. The forest is so dense here, it’s like a fence itself.

Long paths and stone plaques that I wish I could read are all that’s left of Chelmno. Monuments brought by family members now living around the world decorate a sole wall in the back of the clearing.

As we walk around, the rain stops and the clouds part. I haven’t seen the sun since we left Texas.

There was no glorious revolution here at Chelmno; you didn’t even have the chance. This place was only even found due to aerial recon photos.

On the way out, Professor Halperin tells me that I may live the entire rest of my life and never meet another person who’s been to Chelmno. Judging by the logbook and the fact that there were probably only enough monthly signatures to count on both hands, I can’t help but know that he’s right. If I hadn’t seen this now, I never would have. Even with its history, sites like this fall into disrepair and fade into the countryside all over the world.

The sole employee waves looks through the sole window in the museum and waves to us as we board the bus. We leave Chelmno and one man humming to a crank radio, cooking on a single burner in the back room of an underfunded museum, waiting for anyone else who might happen to stop and pay tribute.

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Treblinka: ‘There are a lot of stones here’

Once again in the middle of the dreary countryside, sparsely inhabited and subsistent on agriculture, Treblinka seems almost completely isolated save for the fact that it was on a railway. Everything here is flat and wet, and you’d swear that you could see all the way back to Warsaw if it weren’t for the dying, thick treeline.

Our guide is telling us how Treblinka is different from most other camps in that its sole function was extermination. People came up off the trains, led directly into rooms sealed off and hooked up to the exhaust of tanks, and then cleared out to make room for the next group.

There was one revolt, she informs us, and the fact that we have any information on this camp at all is from the 40 or so eyewitnesses who managed to survive and escape. But then in 1943, the camp vanished; gone, erased.

The Germans extended their goal for the Jews of Europe and translated it to the camp, to make it as though it had never existed. They planted new grass, new trees, and tore up the railroad ties, all in hopes of disguising the site where 985,000 people were killed.

As we get closer, seeing “cow crossing” signs and a small wooden house so covered in moss and mildew that you’d swear it were part of the trees if it weren’t for the windows, you wouldn’t guess that a place like Treblinka was ever even here.

As we pull in, we’re in a forested parking lot with a small green shack and a white posted map on wooden posts. This can’t be right, I’m thinking. Where are the towers, and the barbed wire? The camp second only to Auschwitz in deaths, and we could’ve mistaken this for a pierogi stand (think of the homely, Slavic cousin of ravioli). However, like Stutthoff, cats roam the parking lot and there’s not a single bird in sight.

As we walk down the cobbled path through rows of thick pine trees and patches of snow, our guide begins to tell us more about this patch of forest, more like a hole in the Earth. This camp, along with Belzec and Sobibor, were started solely to kill, assembly lines of execution where debased male and female prisoners were the machinery and gears that turned to make it work. Almost completely isolated, this was a mock railway stop, where people were unloaded from cars and led into one of two buildings. Possessions were taken and collected, clothes stripped, and even the hair was sheared off and collected for stuffing the cots of German soldiers on the front.

Now, huge stone pillars lie on their sides where the railroad ties once were, marking everything. There’s a piece of scripture from Job that goes something to the tune of, “Earth, conceal not my blood,” she explains.

This has led to the tradition of placing a small stone as a sign of remembrance in the Jewish faith, a tradition for visitors to these camps. As we begin to turn down the path where the entrance to the camp once was, she tell us in a thick Polish accent, “there are a lot of stones here.”

What you see is breathtaking. Stones everywhere, all surrounding a giant stone monument, like the one at Stutthoff but right in the middle of a clearing. As we walk through and between the stones, every footfall echoing, the guide explains that each of these stones represents not a person, but an entire community that was completely eliminated in Poland during the war.

So efficient in their killing, Nazis cleared the Polish countryside like wiping a chalkboard, erasing every trace and leaving only dust. Now, these communities live on only through stones, their names painted in black letters, crowded in a forest.

As you walk across the field to where the crematorium once was, the breath just goes out of you. The cold wind gets into every crease and fold of your clothes, biting and chilling down to the bone. Even through two coats and a sweater, I’m shaking, almost quivering; I couldn’t imagine this in pajamas. You just know that there’s nothing like this in the rest of the world. Staring out at the beautiful treeline, knowing that you’re looking at the last thing that almost 1 million Polish Jews saw before they were hurried into a chamber to be slowly lulled into that endless sleep by carbon monoxide, it leaves you feeling hollow.

As we walk back down the same cobbled path and out to the mini-bus, nearly frozen, just trying to place one foot in front of the other, it’s hard to imagine that a place like this would have gone almost virtually unknown had it not been for the few who actually made it out in the uprising.

This resolution, the will to live and survive, is something that I’m coming to realize is an important part of the Jewish experience in the Holocaust. Stepping up on to the bus and coming to grips with the fact that this trip just got a lot more real, I can’t help but ask myself, could I do it? Could you?

Driving back to Warsaw to type this up, I’m physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted. Somewhere behind me, out in those trees, lies a clearing with figured stones, like 17,000 arrows pointing up to heaven. I feel too frozen to even write.

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Warsaw

Waking up here is something else. 7 AM, the sun is barely coming up, and the streets are clean and empty. The only noise comes from the occasional passing car and jingling collar of some small terrier, out for a morning stroll with its bundled-up elderly little owner, shuffling in sync down the cold and wet sidewalk.

The changing of the guard across the street at the Tomb of the Unkown Soldier, the cold neo-classical churches around the corner, and the steaming cup of coffee in my hands each remind me, “you’re a long way from home, guy.”

An hour later, the city erupts and explodes with activity in its own frantic and somber way. Subcompacts barrel down narrow city streets like speeding bullets, booming techno and American pop songs transplanted 5 years too late, long since buried in the Billboard charts. Old and new, overcast and blue, this is Warsaw, Poland.

Almost completely destroyed by retaliation of the Nazi occupation in 1944, over 85 percent of the city was reduced to rubble below eye level. Most of the buildings were rebuilt to specifications of former tenants and those seen in paintings years later, meticulously crafted with the pride of survivors.

The Ghetto

No capital in the world has a history like Warsaw, so filled with tragedy and cruelty. Once the second-largest Jewish city in the world behind New York, with over 350,000 in residence, roughly a third of Warsaw’s total population, the city was an easy target.

Beginning in 1940, the Jewish residents were all relocated to a portioned, poor, allocated area known as the Warsaw Ghetto. Previous inhabitants were evicted, and Jewish masons were forced to build thick walls around the perimeter of the ghetto, like if death forced you to build your own casket. Now merely a series of cobblestoned parks and monuments intermingling with modern-apparent buildings, the once-sprawling ghetto was, like most of the city, completely laid to waste.

This was ancient warfare in the 20th century, from siege tactics to barbaric executions of children, 140,000 people alone died of starvation and disease.

Then in 1943, the area completely ceased to exist, with 300,000 residents deported immediately to Treblinka. An entire portion of Warsaw disappeared, like if the entire lower East side of Manhattan just suddenly blinked out of existence.

The Uprising

Prior to the destruction, residents of the ghetto recieved letters from loved ones who were being deported all over Europe from similar ghettos. Seeing that escape or survival was quickly turning into a fading dream, resistance began to coalesce and form. A bloody four-week battle ensued with the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, where Jews hid in makeshift bunkers, waging urban guerilla warfare on Nazi guards and troops.

As we walked past small green parks where former resistance bunkers were known to be, our guide informs us that it was often impossible to light a candle there for lack of air in the overcrowded bunkers. In the end, every resistance fighter was killed, starved to death, or deported.

Almost foreshadowing the coming events of the next year, the uprising remains one of the sparkling jewels in this reoccurring theme of hope and resistence throughout the Holocaust, in spite of the bleak hopelessness.

Destroyed

In 1944 however, the city began to be destroyed and dismantled by the Germans, no longer merely contained to the Jewish ghetto districts. Similar to its microcosmic forebear, the city tried to resist, urged onward by the approaching Red Army.

But, once again after long weeks of fighting, the city fell, crumbled and destroyed under the boots of German soldiers while the Red Army sat in wait, not wanting to waste the bullets or the effort. And as bombs were detonated, and beautiful facades and city blocks crumbled, the Russian army sat across the river and watched Warsaw burn.

Our tour guide informs us that even today, when a new building is scheduled to begin construction, or a large renovation is planned, special crews must come in and inspect and sweep for undetonated bombs. All these years later, they are still typically found. This isn’t Laos or Vietnam, or some third-world country, this is the capital of Poland, home of Frederic Chopin and the Saxon Palace.

As we pull away from the Jewish Cemetery, which holds the remains of 250,000 Jewish men and women, the tragic history of Warsaw becomes more and more clear to me, both surreal and somber.

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Stuffhoff: Where 85,000 died

Waking up from the first sleep I’ve had in days and still ravaged by jet-lag and hunger, the complimentary breakfast is a god-send. Poland, a country where hearty cheese and bread, fresh fruit, and coffee that could wake Cthulhu, may be one after my own heart.

Road to Stutthoff
As we all climb into the van to begin to head toward our first stop at Stutthoff, Kate tells us more about Gdansk, pointing out landmarks along the way. The Solidarity workers’ movement started here, bringing hope to disillusioned workers and beginning the road that would eventually bring down the Berlin wall, headed by Nobel prize-winning and former Polish president Lech Walesa.

But, as the van gets farther from the city, so does the information. Apparently the German soldiers tried their own version of scorched earth as they fled the city, breaking the levees and waterways in the surrounding countryside and flooding the land with meters (we are in Europe) of water everywhere. After the water was eventually drained, though, in came the wave of mice and other vermin, thriving on the damp, molding land.

Life was still hard after the war, where farmers could barely grow in this land due to the difficult soil, let alone the footprint of the Germans’ mouse SS.

Then, in some weird twist of fate, Gdansk became home to a quarter of the world’s stork population, almost eradicating the problem. Like I said, Gdansk is all about progress.

There’s no real way of knowing how close the camp is besides listening to Kate. Off a highway, onto a paved road, onto a rocky road, and finally to a dirt road, Stutthoff isn’t exactly advertised. Weaving our way through those poorly kept roads and small villages, it begins to make sense that the camp would be out here, so secluded.

From the tree-lined roads, the swampy ground and constant drizzle look dismal from a van window holding 11 people, let alone a camp holding 110,000. If the work or the gas chambers didn’t kill you, the land would, and even locals today with modern medicine and shelter talk about how they suffer from arthritis and kidney problems due to the climate. This place was meant to breed death, evident from the terrible infestations of Typhoid that ran rampant through the camp. Kate later informs us that Arthur Shopenhauer was born here; that explains a lot.

The death camp
Turning down the entrance road to the camp, we pass the former commandant’s house, now a private villa, and roll down past the former dog kennels. I shouldn’t say kennels; they were brick.

As we walk in through the front gates and down past the red-bricked, copper-roofed headquarters, an unmistakable smoke stack can be seen at the end of the walkway. As we walk closer to the looming chimney and black gate lined with barbed wire, Kate goes on.

Originally built as a camp for Polish intellectuals and clergy, the camp started for almost purely political reasons in 1939, being the first camp outside of Germany and a training ground for the early SS soldiers. The death gate approaches, and we look at the same black wood and steel that the 85,000 thousand who died here saw, never seeing the other side of that gate again. A wolf starts howling, and it’s 10 AM – how’s that for ambiance?

We walk through the wooden plank barracks, still largely intact and preserved, and now converted to museums detailing not only the history of Gdansk’s role in the war, but also the history of the camp.

Starting in ’39, any Jew or political opponent need merely be labeled a “bandit” and was immediately declared an enemy of the state, subject to immediate expulsion to the camp along with the rest of his or her family. Professors, doctors, intellegentsia, all swept out.

The signs talk about how for years, the smell of a constant burning from the crematorium could be detected even in Gdansk. There are no birds in the sky here, none of the proud storks of the region, all having learned over half a century ago to stay clear of the air here. Fat cats waltz between the buildings, tending to the mice, happily picking up the slack where their winged counterparts left off.

Walking further, we enter one barrack with the fatigues and pajamas worn by the prisoners, and for the first time, I notice that they aren’t given normal shoes. Anything that was possibly valuable or reusable was kept and confiscated by the German army; thus the huge pile of shoe soles in the former political barracks the size of a semi-trailer, still untouched. Prisoners here wore rough wooden clogs, forced to work and push in the soft ground with splinters grinding against your skin. The chances of you cutting your feet and contracting a disease and dying were just as likely as any other dim fate here.

Moving further down, through rooms of bunk beds that chill you to the bone and medical equipment that looks more analagous to early farming supplies, you suddenly come to a room unlike the rest. Instead of the ghastly pictures of gaunt men and women, there are paintings and drawings hanging. Not of the dead and dying or decrepit and sickly, but smiling faces, Christmas cards, pictures of makeshift arts and crafts. Somehow, in spite of it all, this notion of hope manifested itself through these tiny drawings and pictures, some even politically satirical caricatures of those in charge. Accounts of how babies were born here in the camp in absolute silence so as to not alert the guards, even squeezed 3 people to a bunk the size of a cot. It’s just … unreal. Surreal, really.

Through the crematorium, looking at the brick stoves, past the preserved container of Zyklon B pellets, and then down the final walkway where you pass a huge stone monument filled with ashes, teeth, and bone, you never really feel alone. I’m not a spiritual person by any means, and I’m not going to use this as a forum for such discussion, but when you go to a place that was roughly 300 square acres where 85,000 people died, you feel pretty ghost-like yourself.

As we load back into the van, en route to a warm hotel, to drink beer that we can’t pronounce, sleep in a real bed, and listen to our roommates talk about how they’re convinced they actually took a picture of a ghost in the crematorium, it’s hard not to feel moved.

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Arrival in Gdansk, Poland

As the wheels to the tiny jet hit a small runway south of the Baltic Sea, I never thought I’d be so happy to be in a country that I know almost nothing about.

We had left Dallas/Fort Worth yesterday, and one sleepless trans-Atlantic flight, two horrible in-flight Christmas movies, and one brief encounter with the EU German bomb squad and an ambiguous-looking electric razor later, we finally made it.

For those of you who don’t know, this trip, the SMU Human Rights tour of Polish Holocaust sites, is a 12-day tour-de-force, where our group travels by bus, train and finally by foot across most of the Polish countryside viewing the remains of some of the most heinous places ever conceived by man.

Treblinka, Sobibor, Auschwitz/Birkenau – at this point, these are just names and numbers to me with as much meaning attached to them that I could derive from my professor and guide, Prof. Rick Halperin’s Human Rights class this last semester. Hopefully, when this is all said and done, I’ll be able to say a lot more about them.

For those of you who also don’t know, Poland has a history that is unparalleled in the modern world with the grief and suffering of millions still weighing on its shoulders today. In an attempt to buffer something awful, World War II was kind of like a long road trip for Poland, except instead of older brothers, Poland was stuck in the back seat between two of the worst and most bloodthirsty dictatorships in history, and is still recovering. And you thought those annual road trips cross-country to Grandma’s looked hopeless.

Gdansk, Poland: square one in our zig-zagged checkerboard tour across Poland. Our tour guide Kate meets us at the airport, where we waltz out the front door, devoid of customs searches and passport stamps and straight into a van. As we make our way through hills covered with thick forests of pine and white birch and down along the Vistula River, Kate begins to divulge some of the colorful history of Gdansk to us.

Formerly known as the free city of Danzig, so appointed by the League of Nations during the war with Bolshevik Russia, this was once one of the richest and most prosperous cities in Poland and Europe. For the sake of the reader and in an attempt to reduce any confusion or mental images with a certain goth-rock, bodybuilding bozo, though, we shall be referring to this city solely as Gdansk.

The city has a strong connection with its pastoral and sylvan surroundings, fiercely proud of both its organic farming industry and the rich amber deposits, courtesy of the heavily wooded forests and a long-standing source of pride for the city. Everywhere you go, signs for “burszytn,” the Polish word for amber, pop out from stone stoops and storefronts along the old streets.

Merchants line the foot-travelled roads, selling it set in figured silver rings and necklaces from boutique windows, and the older generations revere it for its healing qualities and medicinal importance. It’s even put into alcohol, which brings to mind a much cooler, less cinnamony cousin of Goldschlager.

Lush green fields and humble farm houses made of stone and wooden beams back up right to the outskirts of the city, still using dirt roads, mud roads I should say, for everyday transportation. These back up to plain geometric, faceless apartment buildings, where the old plaster is cracking, revealing the steel girders and huge cement bricks in the walls. The Soviet thumbprint still lingers everywhere in eastern Poland and eastern Europe, Gdansk is no exception.

But, despite its history and longstanding tradition and heritage, Kate assures us that Gdansk is a very young city. After its almost utter destruction at the hands of the Soviet Army in 1945, Gdansk is like a phoenix of civilization, rising from the ashes to new life, a symbol of the traditional trying to reinvent itself, embracing and pushing for advancement. Home to some of the region’s finest universities and institutes, the area draws in young fresh minds from all around Poland, particularly the eastern portion, and breathes new life down old streets and through the train stations.

Don’t let the Napoleonic-era fortress and Dutch architecture fool you, Gdansk is a progressive beacon in a country that so honors its heritage and clings strongly to it. Exhibit A: the Holiday Inn that we’re checking into, smack in the middle of a city square just down the street from the Solidarity movement museum. Need I say more?

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