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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More than ‘a place in a forest’

s1An update from Sarah, a sophomore Dedman College Scholar majoring in human rights, nonprofit organizational studies and music, with minors in religious studies, arts management and communication studies:

Today, December 23, we took a four-hour bus ride from Warsaw to the site of Sobibor. I volunteered to blog about today’s experience prior to visiting the site itself as I had heard Philip Bialowitz speak at SMU about his escape from Sobibor. However, after visiting the site, I found myself at a loss of how to accurately describe what we saw while there.

The site felt raw. It seemed as if the Polish government commemorated the camp out of necessity rather than a desire to remember the victims. The memorial was simply a statue, a mausoleum, a poorly marked symbolic chimney and a path of pine trees. After seeing Chelmno and Treblinka, this camp did not seem to connect to the victims in the same manner.

s2I was hoping to see a greater acknowledgement of those who led the revolt at Sobibor. The prisoners’ revolt effectively ended the camp operations. Led by Leon Feldhendler from Żólkiewka, the revolt began on October 14, 1943 and ended with a mass escape of prisoners. Many SS men and guards were killed, and after the revolt, Germans closed the camp and tore down all of the buildings. After this, there were only two more transports of prisoners to Sobibor.

Even knowing the history behind Sobibor, I had trouble connecting to today’s site. I had trouble acknowledging that each step I took marked a spot where someone had been brutally killed. I had trouble recognizing the incredible loss that took place there, within that beautiful forest, so few years ago. I had trouble connecting the poorly marked memorial site to the 250,000 lives that were taken there.

I had trouble with Sobibor.

The memorial neither marked the heroism of those who revolted, nor the struggle of those who died. It simply marked a place in a forest where a camp once existed.

Throughout this journey, Dr. Halperin has been emphasizing the need to connect faces to the statistics. The memorial failed to do that. Sobibor as it is now commemorates an event in history instead of the thousands of lives that were lost there; the lives that loved, that cried, that felt, which experienced: the lives that were.

Sobibor commemorated a time and place in history rather than the lives that lived that history.

So, as much as I appreciate the time today that I was able to spend remembering the lives that were lost, I deeply wish that I had been able to connect more to each victim of Sobibor.

s3

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