Highland Capital Management Tower Scholar Destiny Rose Murphy, class of 2019, spent her winter break in Poland traveling to World War II-era concentration camps and memorials as part of the Embrey Human Rights Program Poland Holocaust Education Trip.
Those who want to earn a Human Rights minor from SMU have the option of either traveling with the program on one of the various trips offered during the year, or participating in a service project. The trip to Poland to study Holocaust-affected areas is one that has been repeated every year for over a decade, and is generally regarded as the most impactful trip that a student can make. This year I was able to go thanks to a donor who provided scholarship funds that covered the costs of the flights, hotel stays and various museum and travel fees associated with the trip.
Our trip took us through almost the entire countryside of Poland, with stops along the way that ranged from small roadside memorials to massive Nazi created camps like Auschwitz-Birkenau. All of us have heard the statistics about the Holocaust: over six million killed, most of them Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and Polish political resistors. The purpose of this trip was to humanize that number. It is difficult to fathom six million, but it is much easier to understand when one looks at the picture of a child who did not survive the war. Each day we learned about new aspects of Polish history, and each day we were exposed to new facts about the atrocities committed during World War II. At most of the sites we left our own memorials; candles and quiet words of remembrance brought us closure in those places of despair. The tour guides who showed us around often peppered their retellings of the past with information about the current turbulent state of Polish politics and examples of how the country does not really see this “history” as history, but as a tragic episode that is still shaping the Polish national conscious today.
I do not regret my trip to Poland; in fact, I would recommend to every member of the student body, staff, and beyond that they make time to do something similar. However, I will never take a trip like that again. It was, bar none, the hardest thing that I have ever done. To be immersed in the ruins of death camps all day, every day, to be away from my family during a season that is synonymous with family time, to be in a country that does not speak my tongue nor serve my comfort food, and to fall asleep each night feeling guilty for being upset about such comparatively small troubles was more emotionally and physically taxing than I can possibly hope to describe. I pride myself on my knowledge of language and my ability to communicate, and yet to attempt to convey the feelings that I experienced in Poland would be folly.
What I can tell you is that it made me grateful. Christmas Eve in Poland made me grateful for the screaming cousins and arguing family that I am frustrated by all too often back in the States. The freezing rain and constant fog made me grateful for the 70-degree days. I wished I could be back in Texas, cursing the absence of snow on Christmas. Perhaps most impactful were the stories of Nazi soldiers rounding up members of Polish academia, which made me grateful for the freedom I have to triple major and double minor here at SMU without fear of being arrested for the crime of a knowledge of philosophy.
With the political season raging and the unity of the holiday season forgotten already it is easy to fall victim to day-to-day stress. Certainly new classes are frightening for students, and the roll over of the year brings changes in jobs, not to mention the challenges of tax season. For me, however, Poland has provided perspective. Times are hard for many of us, but at least for me, and for most people I know, they are relatively safe. My bed is soft and covered with pillow pets. I get to choose if I want to spend extra money on organic, avocado oil mayonnaise. I get to march in the streets or write a blog post if I feel that my government is heading the wrong direction. These things are all liberties that were taken away from those who came before us, and we would do well to remember that on the days that seem darkest. It is only by remembering that we will know when to stand up to those who threaten us, but so, too, it is through remembering the past that we can cherish the present.
Destiny Rose Murphy is from Denton, Texas and plans on triple majoring in Political Science, English, and Philosophy, as well as minoring in Human Rights and Public Policy and International Affairs. In addition to being an HCM Tower Scholar, she is a Dedman Scholar and a Second Century Scholar. In her free time, she writes and manages social media for the Honors Magazine Hilltopics, organizes events as the Vice President of the Medieval Club, works as the Social Science Chair of the Honors Research Association, and competes with SMU’s award winning competitive ballroom dancing team. She also started a Rotaract club at SMU to give back to the community through service. Her interests in policy focus mostly on the judicial branch, and how policy can be affected through nontraditional, non-legislative means.