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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Terror at Belzec

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

On Christmas Eve, we went to Belzec extermination camp, where in the course of 9 months, a typical course of time for one child to form, grow, and be born from a mother’s womb, over 650,000 people were murdered in a gas chamber from carbon monoxide. There are only two survivors from the 9-month period. All of these innocent people were sent to death, simply because they were Jews.

At the museum portion of the site, there is a room about the size of a gas chamber. It is empty and only has three or four lights. We were told by Dr. Halperin to go in alone. As I walked into the room, I heard the door slam loudly behind me. It took all I had to walk just a few yards in. I tried twice to go all the way to the back of the room. I began to get very scared, though, and did not have the courage to go all the way in. I suddenly realized how alone I was, and how big this room was. I quickly walked back to the door. Due to the acoustics of the room, the faster I walked, the louder it became…it almost sounded as though I was running! I get to the door and pull on it. The door won’t open. I begin to panic. I pull the door again. I look out the window by the door and see no one around. I look back in the room to see if there’s a door I can go out. There is no extra door. The only way I can get out is the same way I came in. I begin to tear up and think that I will be stuck in there until someone else comes in to view the room. I want to scream, but I know if I do the whole room will echo and I will, quite literally, go crazy. I look out the window again and see Dr. Halperin and a few others. I try to motion to them that I can’t get out. One of them motions for me to push the door open. I push it open, and I’m free.

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I quickly get out of the museum…I practically run outside. I had to get fresh air. I suddenly understood how it felt to be a victim of a gas chamber. You feel trapped. You feel betrayed. Alone. Scared. You miss your friends and family. You wish you had said a proper goodbye. You wish you had one more night in your own bed. You long for the day when you could spend time with the ones you love. You wonder why you have to die this way. You wonder if you will ever breathe fresh air again. You want to cry, but it doesn’t help. You want to scream, but help won’t come. Honestly, once the door of that room is shut, there is no more hope. It’s over. The gas will come on, you will breathe it in, and you will die a slow, painful, suffocating death.

Over 650,000 people died this way in this one camp. There were many camps with similar ways of death. The gas chambers were a fast way to die. So fast, it was hard to get rid of the bodies. On a slope of grass at Belzec there are stones to commemorate the mass graves that are under the ground. As I walked around the edge of the stones after my gas chamber experience, I began to look at each rock differently. I saw each small pebble as a baby in a pregnant woman’s body. I saw the small rocks as children, the medium-sized rocks as women, and the larger boulders as men. Each person who died had a story that will never be told. All of their personal documents and pictures were destroyed. We will never know them. We will never understand what happened to them. We have lost human life in a tragic way and for an unnecessary reason.

As I looked back through my pictures I took that day, I realized that the sun had hit just right with the rocks and I ended up taking a picture of a rainbow over a few of the rocks. This gives me hope. This shows that life goes on and it is possible to learn from the mistakes of the past. Although we don’t know the names and stories of those who died, their spirit lives on and pushes us all to never forget the tragedy that occurred. The stones have hope. I have hope. It’s easy to go through this trip and be angry…that’s natural. It’s hard to go through this trip and see any positive. You have to force yourself to see the positive. This rainbow is a positive sign, a gift from God even, to me and those who see this picture, that there is hope for humanity, hope for human life and rights, and hope for change.

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