Remembering Poland in 1941

Winter in Majdanek

Rick Halperin will spend Christmas Day in an unlikely place ― a World War II Nazi death camp.

“We have an obligation to remember what happened in those places, as well as the reasons why it happened and was allowed to happen, because we who are alive today have the responsibility at least to try to prevent it from happening again,” says Halperin, director of the new Human Rights education program at Southern Methodist University.

Halperin has been making the trek to Polish concentration camps at Christmas every year since 1984 and has led SMU trips there every year since 1996. He is serving his third term as chair of Amnesty International USA and teaches a human rights course to undergraduates and adults in the Master of Liberal Studies program.

This year, Halperin’s group will spend Christmas Day at the Majdanek death camp in Lublin, Poland. Unlike many of the other death camps, whose activities were shielded by walls or natural terrain, Majdanek was in an open area in a large city and anyone passing by could see what was happening. The camp was in operation for 35 months, until it was liberated by the Russian Army in summer 1944. Estimates widely vary on how many died there, but recent research puts the number at about 78,000.

Oven at Majdanek in Lublin, Poland
Ovens at Majdanek in Lublin, Poland

Last year, Lauren Embrey and her two teenage sons traveled with Halperin on his annual 10-day tour of Holocaust sites. She had taken his class through SMU’s Master of Liberal Studies program and she said the class and trip “made me realize how sheltered and ignorant I was about human rights –– it’s not something we are taught about in school. I felt it was important my sons start learning now.”

A few months after the trip Lauren and her sister, Gayle Embrey, donated $1 million from the Embrey Family Foundation to create the SMU History Department’s new Human Rights Education Program, which begins in spring 2007. SMU is one of 12 universities nationwide and the only university in the South to develop such a program, said Halperin. In addition, scholarships will be created to enable students to travel to sites of human rights violations.

“When students come to SMU, it is their job to start to be prepared to run this world,” Halperin says. “They need a global sense of awareness of what is happening to their peers around the world. It is time for them to realize that life is not a spectator sport.”

Photos are courtesy of Sherry Aikman of SMU. She and others who traveled with Halperin to Poland in 2002 recorded their reflections in Journey of Remembrance: A Christmas in the Death Camps of Poland, which is available by contacting Halperin at 214-768-3284 or SMU Chaplain Will Finnin at 214-768-4507.

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