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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Shoes in Stutthof

An update from Patricia, a graduate student at Perkins School of Theology:

“These artifacts you find at these camps once had a life of their own,” Dr. Halperin informed us today as we walked into the barrack filled with shoes at Stutthof concentration camp. A huge glass encasement of decayed shoes was the first artifact we encountered upon visiting the site. This was located in the building where those who entered the camp arrived and were robbed of their possesions. Anything that could be taken, such as hair, jewelry, clothing, money, and shoes, were robbed by the ones imprisoning them. These shoes belonged to people who had a favorite joke, danced, played with friends, kissed their significant other, and had dreams and goals for their lives. These shoes are more than just an article of clothing…they represent the humans who once wore them.

Visiting my first concentration camp was a very odd experience. I have seen documentaries and heard what was done to the people, but I have never been at a site. As I visited the barracks, walked the grounds, viewed articles of clothing prisoners were given, observed the unsanitary conditions of the “hospitals” and “bathrooms,” and came face-to-face with a gas chamber and crematorium, I felt as though I was invading the privacy of those who had once walked the grounds and were brutally beaten, tortured, and murdered. It felt as though every time my camera snapped, I was taking away from the individuality of each person who walked in that concentration camp.

As I walked the grounds in my scarf, earmuffs, down and lined jacket, gloves, thermals, jeans, shirt, and boots, I could only imagine how it must have been to only be allowed to wear a thin uniform, thin hat, and wooden clogs. I also felt very short and small compared to the buildings and barbed-wire fence around me. The camp is in an area below sea level, so any rain at all could cause significant flooding, and in this particular country, snow is very common. How the people who did survive managed to do so, I’m not sure.

Every person has a story. Every person matters. It is up to us to make sure that something like this does not happen again and that we realize that with every lost life, we lose a story and an important part of humanity. We can’t blame our problems on others, taking out misplaced anger on people who did nothing wrong. We must face our problems head on and deal with them. Things like the Holocaust can be prevented. I am humbled to be able to have stood where these precious and innocent Jews stood and to have the chance to learn more of their story, whether I know their names or not.

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