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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Christmas Day at Majdanek

An update from Kelly:

So we are leaving in less than two days and I haven’t managed to write a single blog yet. My goal was to do one every day, but this trip is all so overwhelming that I am having a difficult time turning thoughts into words. Instead of writing about a specific site, I have decided to reflect on a few of the best (or worst) experiences on this trip.

The first few days in Poland were emotionally “light,” but as each day passed, it became increasingly difficult to take everything in. As Dr. Halperin has said, “This isn’t if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.” Each camp is associated with some of the worst crimes against humanity, but they each have a different story dealing with different human beings.

The first thing we saw when we arrived at Stutthof on day one was a room full of shoes. Most people seem to understand the significance of the shoes during the Holocaust, or have at least seen photos of them when learning about the Holocaust. You think “wow, how sad, that looks like a lot of shoes”…and then you visit another camp, and there are even more shoes…and another, with more shoes. You begin to realize that you are looking at hundreds and thousands of pairs of shoes in different places, and the numbers become overwhelming. Like the shoes, the weight of what we have been dealing with each day has built up, and it’s almost beyond comprehension.

Shoes at Stutthof

Shoes at Stutthof

Image 2

800,000 pairs of shoes at Majdanek

Because the enormity of the Holocaust can be difficult to grasp, putting a face to it seems to help. For me, the face has been my 5-year-old nephew, Isiah. While the actual concentration camps have been difficult to walk through, it is the memorials for children that really hurt my heart. In Lodz, we visited a memorial dedicated to all the children who had been deported to and killed at various camps. It’s a large, almost heart-shaped statue with an emaciated Holocaust victim carved out of the middle. Next to the human shape is a hole.

During our visit to the memorial a couple of young children were running around the statue playing hide-and-go-seek through the hole in the middle. This is where my first real connection to this trip happened. The children playing were laughing and having a good time, so innocent and unaware of what exactly it was they were peeking through. It reminded me of my baby nephew and I had to stop and try to put myself in the shoes of all of the people who loved and cared for the children who were murdered. I can’t imagine what the pain of everyone attached to Isiah, and the fear he would experience, would be like. It hurts me to think of it that way, but it’s the only way to “put myself in their shoes.”

 Lodz Children’s Memorial

Lodz Children’s Memorial

In the Warsaw Jewish Cemetery there is another, smaller memorial for children. This one was created in commemoration of all of the children who died in the ghetto. It is not as “in your face” as the Lodz memorial, but just standing in front of it gave me chills. Again, I thought about my nephew and was instantly moved by what I saw. I stood at this memorial for a long time, trying to understand how anyone could deliberately hurt a child with no remorse. I think of all of the lives lost, destroyed by loss, and try to imagine the fear these children experienced in the last moments of their lives.

Warsaw Jewish Cemetery Memorial for Children of the Ghetto

Warsaw Jewish Cemetery Memorial for Children of the Ghetto

Although there is so much more to say, I will finish this entry with Christmas day at Majdanek. As we loaded up the bus to leave that morning, it seemed like most of the group had a heavy heart. By this point in time we had covered the territory of more than 1 million deaths and were missing a special day normally spent with family and friends. At Majdanek, we walked through a gas chamber with walls painted blue from the use of Zyklon B, were able to touch the rotting shoes of 800,000 people, and witness what 18,000 people can be reduced to in ashes and bones. This was the heaviest of all sites, and I am not sure how to express my thoughts yet. All I know is that I could have stared at the mound of ashes all day. The ashes are held in a large pit, but still exposed to wind. Instead of opening presents with my family on Christmas day, I stood over the destroyed bodies of thousands of people, breathing in their ashes as the wind blew. An experience I will never be able to forget.

Gas Chamber at Majdanek

Gas Chamber at Majdanek

Ash and bone fragments of Holocaust victims at Majdanek

Ash and bone fragments of Holocaust victims at Majdanek

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    One Response to Christmas Day at Majdanek

    1. Josephine says:

      Thanks for sharing these reflections.

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