The Heart of Darkness

Shin don hyuk holocaust survivor fritzie fritzshall

Shin Dong-hyuk—the only North Korean escapee to have been born and raised in a political prison camp—with Museum President Fritzie Fritzshall, the first Holocaust survivor he has ever met.



“The Holocaust happened in our recent past.
Humankind said ‘never again,’yet the North Korean prison camps
have been in existence for almost 60 years.”


These words spoken by North Korean prison camp survivor and escapee Shin Dong-hyuk at a recent forum co-sponsored by the Illinois Holocaust Museum and the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, remind us that atrocities to humankind continue to occur in today’s world and present an ongoing challenge to societies, nations and individuals.

Our consciousness was awoken last week by a recent United Nations report that found that “systematic, widespread, and gross human rights violations” have been committed in North Korea. In many instances, the violations found entailed crimes against humanity. A sustained culture of fear and capacity for evil is characterized by violations of the freedom of thought, expression, religion, movement, and right to life. A carefully concealed gulag was set up decades ago, and forcibly holds 150,000 to 200,000 political prisoners on starvation rations while subjecting them to forced labor, beatings, and other severe punishments. Three generations of the same family, including children and grandparents, can be found in the camps. Mass starvation, torture, executions, and disappearances represent a true totalitarian state that “seeks to dominate every aspect of its citizens’ lives and terrorize them from within.”

The knowledge of these prison camps and North Korea’s mass human rights violations is not new, but perhaps such evidence will force more serious and sustained attention. Horrifying glimpses have now come to light from those who have broken free; and satellite photos are helping to expose a system that the North Korean government continues to deny. When you reflect on crimes against humanity and atrocities throughout history, the so-called civilized world knew yet preferred to look away. Once again, people know. Let it not be said that though we knew enough, we did not care enough to condemn and lend our efforts to end this brutal system.

At the Illinois Holocaust Museum, we recognize that one way we honor the memory that we seek to preserve is by trying to have an effect on the world that we live in. We understand that recognizing the inherent dignity of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world. Years from now, we will be asked what we did in the face of these crimes against humanity. And while there are no easy solutions, we must try to break the walls of apathy—the right side of history deserves humanity’s solidarity.


Posted by Kelley H. Szany | Director of Educational Outreach and Genocide Initiatives, Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center


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