Texas Tech University

Remembering the Murdered Jews of Europe

Heidi Toth

May 5, 2016

Jewish cemetery in Warsaw

English professor Jill Patterson walked Nazi concentration camps used during World War II to imprison and kill Jews, then returned to Lubbock to work with death row inmates.

Gate at Auschwitz
Gate at Auschwitz

Today (May 5) is the 27th day of Nisan on the Hebrew calendar. In Hebrew, it is known as Yom Hashoah.

In English, it is Holocaust Remembrance Day.

In one of the worst acts of genocide in the 20th century, six million Jews were murdered between 1933 and 1945, as were hundreds of thousands of Roma (gypsies), gay people, people with disabilities and other groups the Nazis, the party that took power in Germany in 1933, considered inferior.

For many Americans, experience with the Holocaust is limited to movies, documentaries and history books. For one Texas Tech University professor, that was not enough. In December 2012 and again a year later, English professor Jill Patterson went to Europe to “tour intolerance” – half a dozen Nazi camps. She has since interviewed a number of survivors. Patterson has spoken and written about the experience, created a course on human rights at Texas Tech and uses it in her work with prisoners on death row in Texas.

Why did you tour the concentration camps?

Plaszow memorial

I received a fellowship from the Embrey Human Rights Program at Southern Methodist University for the work I do advocating for indigent defendants charged with capital murder in the state of Texas. Part of the fellowship included, among other educational opportunities, a two-week tour of Germany and Poland, visiting numerous Holocaust sites. It was the most powerful experience of my life.

The labor camps we visited included Ravensbruck (women's camp), Sachsenhausen (men's camp), Stutthof, Majdanek, Plaszow and Gross-Rosen. The death camps we visited included Treblinka, Sobibor, Chelmno, Belzec and Auschwitz.

What other Holocaust-related places did you visit?

Train car at Radegast near Wodz
Train car at Radegast near Wodz

Besides the various camps we visited the Wannsee House in Berlin where the Final Solution was planned and put into action; the Grunewald Train Station in Berlin, from where all the Jews of Berlin were shipped out – there's a plaque for each train that left and the number of Jews on it; the Warsaw Ghetto, or what remains of it; the Lodz Ghetto, or the memorial there – because there's not much left of it either; the Radegast Train Station in Lodz, from where the majority of Jews were shipped out of Poland; Cmentarz Zydowski the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw; the Warsaw Uprising Museum, one of the most wonderful interactive museums I've ever been to; and Oskar Schindler's Enamel Factory in Krakow. The only place I didn't get a chance to visit in Poland that I really wanted to visit was the Warsaw Zoo, where the zookeepers hid many Jews.

What was the experience like?

Jewish cemetery near Warsaw
Jewish cemetery near Warsaw

As you can imagine, it was eye-opening. It's difficult for Americans to fathom what happened during World War II because our terrain was so removed from it. We lost many, many brave soldiers during the war. Our total number of casualties was more than 400,000, approximately .32 percent of our population. Poland, though, lost nearly 6 million people – more 17 percent of its total population. In the city of Warsaw today, fewer than 100 Jews still live there. Russia lost nearly 27 million people. And, most tragically, 78 percent of the Jews in Europe were murdered by the Nazis.

It's not just the staggering numbers. When you're there, visiting all the camps, you learn just how complicit people were. It was a machine of businesses working together – who made the ovens? Who made the nozzles for the gas chambers? Who built the bunk beds? Who provided the insurance? Then you also must face the fact that America knew and didn't do much stop it; in fact, we turned away refugees on the MS St. Louis (a timely reminder for today). It was an overwhelming emotional experience that haunts me every year at Christmas, since that's when we were there. The cities had beautiful Christmas markets in the center of town – so festive and colorful and lively – and the local Christian cemeteries were lit up with memorial candles, the hillsides flickering as if blanketed in starlight. Meanwhile, except for Auschwitz, which is a popular tourist attraction, all of the other camps were empty. We were the only ones there, remembering. It was horribly sad, a profound experience I struggle to explain to people who have not been there.

What are you hoping to accomplish with your research?

Guard tower at Auschwitz
Guard tower at Auschwitz

I've created a couple of small documentary films about the experience, about 15 minutes each. I continue to write personal essays on the subject, and I've started making human rights a large component in my writing workshops at Texas Tech. I'm hoping to put together a class at Texas Tech in which we take our students on a similar two-week tour, though I'd really like to open it up to the public the way SMU does because I believe there are people in the Lubbock community who would pay to go on such an educational tour.

Did anything stand out from the interviews you did with survivors?

What stands out most is the wide range of responses – all of them resilient, amazing survivors. But there's a gulf between them: some of them have maintained deep religious faith and some of them have had to let it go because they could not hang on to it in the face of their experiences. The questions their experiences raised are not questions they've been able to answer.

How can you apply what you've learned from this time in history to today?

Shoes collected at Majdanek
Shoes collected at Majdanek

When you're there and you see the piles of shoes – little children's shoes, women's high heels, men's work boots and loafers, all of them having lost their color after so much time – it's still hard to grasp. But you can't ignore how those empty camps reverberate with questions about blame: How did we allow this to happen? Why don't we recognize the duty to remember except on an official Remembrance Day? When we consider the refugees from Syria today, why are we so willing to make the same mistake, insisting we have no room for these civilians – women and children among them – if we wish to keep our own country safe? I do find it horrifying that so many politicians claiming to be our country's best leaders are encouraging us to repeat these same mistakes by lighting our biases and hate on fire, especially in order to get elected to even high positions of power. It's such a cliche, but if we don't learn from the lessons our past behaviors have taught us, we are destined to repeat them.

What does your human rights course discuss?

Students study powerful memoirs and books of nonfiction, books that focus on historical events and personal experiences with major human rights issues. They learn how to study such topics and translate facts and personal experiences into compelling narratives that don't preach but rather educate, engage and encourage people to act to make the world a better place.

I'm still working on getting that class together where we take a group of about 20 students on the same tour. They will never forget it. I believe our students should have that same opportunity.