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.