Human Rights in Poland 2013

Sixteen SMU students, faculty and staffers, along with DFW community members, will be in Poland Dec. 18–30 to visit Holocaust sites. Led by SMU Embrey Human Rights Program Director Rick Halperin, the group will visit cities and death camps where, during World War II, some 4,375,000 people were murdered during the country’s Nazi, Germany, occupation.

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Brutality and horror at Gross Rosen

An update from Forrest, a sophomore human rights and journalism major:

The Gross Rosen concentration camp isn’t your typical concentration camp. Yes, many things that happened here happened at the other camps, but that’s not what made this camp particularly deadly.

The camp has a huge quarry; a cut in the side of a hill larger than anyone could possibly imagine. This is the camp’s unique feature. It stretches out in front of you, at least 100 feet deep, and not all of it even visible. Stone walls line the perimeter. The guide told my group that the water, which covered the bottom of the pit, hid another 20 meters (about 65 ft) of excavated quarry underneath it. The tall walls on all sides of the quarry didn’t just provide a spectacular view of the pit, they also provided a platform for emaciated prisoners to hasten their deaths. Back-breaking labor and suicides led to an average lifespan of 5 weeks for quarry workers.

Working in this quarry were two groups of people. The first group I have already mentioned: prisoners at the Gross Rosen camp. Who was the second group? The second group were salaried employees, people from the nearby town who got to leave at the end of their shifts, returning home to their families, and who were paid monthly for their work. Quite simply, you had average people doing their jobs while slaves worked next to them. How did these people do their jobs while oblivious to the human suffering happening next to them? Money; most humans have a pretty low price.

Working in a quarry is one of the hardest types of work on the planet, and the death toll at Gross Rosen tells us of the brutal disregard for human life that the Nazis had. It’s estimated that over 40,000 died at the camp; most of those dying in the quarry, but others dying of starvation, execution, suicide. Indeed, in several parts of the camp, monuments refer to Gross Rosen’s supervisors as “German Barbarians.”

The quarry itself wasn’t very profitable at all, even though its prisoners were working 12-hour shifts, sometimes even on Sundays. Gross Rosen had over 100 sub camps that diversified the camp’s death portfolio. Prisoners assembled missiles with warheads for German industrial giant Siemens. Other prisoners soldered electrical circuitry. Some even dug tunnels into the rock so that Germans could have an interconnected bunker system.

It never reached its potential, even though 120,000 were imprisoned in the camp while it was operational. Plans were in place to bring in more people from Auschwitz, but this never materialized.

Stunningly beautiful, the camp’s surroundings convince you it must have been quite pretty 70 years ago. Prisoners at the camp say no, it wasn’t. We can speculate all we want about what the camp looked like back then, but I severely doubt it was a beautiful place. Survivors won’t answer questions about the alleged cannibalism that happened there. They’ll take the answer with them when they die.

We’ll never know exactly how bad the camp was, but what we do know tells us it was among one of the worst Nazi-operated concentration camps, prisoners quite literally dying from the massive weight on their shoulders.

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