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Dec. 5, 2002

FINDING THE CHRISTMAS SPIRIT AT A DEATH CAMP IN POLAND

DALLAS (SMU) -- Sometimes you need to go to the worst of places to remember the best in people. For SMU History Professor Rick Halperin, that means traveling to Nazi concentration camps during the holiday season. In places like Madjanek, Birkenau and Auschwitz, where millions of people lost their lives, Halperin says he has discovered the true meaning of Christmas: the endurance of the human spirit.

"Most people react negatively to the news of my trips, but these are trips of hope. I am going to commemorate the human spirit rather than the savagery of it all," Halperin said.

Since 1996, Halperin has been traveling to Europe to visit Holocaust sites in part to collect research for his class. Many of his undergraduate students have never fully comprehended the scope of the Holocaust. By videotaping scenes of concentration camps and villages where Nazi atrocities occurred, Halperin has a powerful visual aid to use in his class, "The Struggle for Human Rights," which he teaches four times a year.

This year Halperin will not be alone on his annual pilgrimage. He will be bringing a group of 10 to Poland. The group, mostly SMU staff and faculty, leave Dec. 21 for a tour of six death camps and other sites, including the Warsaw Ghetto and the Polish cities of Krakow and Warsaw.

On Christmas Day, they are planning to be at the Majdanek camp, in Lublin, Poland, where 360,000 people died during the Holocaust. Judging from past years, Halperin says they will likely be the only visitors that day, which suits him fine. He prefers the quiet and the cold of the isolated camps than the crowds of tourists to be found in the green of summer. He picked Majdanek (pronounced "my-danek") because it has the most to see -- intact barracks and gas chambers, a display of the prisoner's belongings and a mausoleum with boulder-size ashes -- and therefore will leave a lasting impression on the group.

"I need to go to these places and pay my respects to those who perished and those who triumphed," Halperin said. "Christmas is a good time to do this because even if you do it just once, you will always think back to that time of year, and you will always remember."

Halperin says most of the Nazi death camps began as slave labor camps before the war, but quickly became death camps as the war progressed. Not even Christmas Day stopped the killing, however. Accounts from survivors report that guards would often make a special point of informing prisoners that they were marked for execution on Christmas Day. Despite these horrors, Halperin says at some camps, prisoners did manage to note the holidays with prayers.

Note to Editor: In addition to videotapes, the group will be taking photographs and recording their experiences in journals. A full travel itinerary with hotel phones numbers also is available.


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