Saturday, July 17, 2010
I am writing to you from Zamosc, Poland. We're about 90 minutes away from Lublin. Besides the hotel not having any air conditioning during an unseasonably warm weather spell throughout Europe, everything is great. We spent the majority of the day at Majdanek concentration camp; at least it feels that way even though we were there just over 3 hours. Majdanek is located about 10 minutes outside of Lublin. It's very easy to visit once you get to Lublin
. Majdanek is especially noteworthy for a few reasons. First, the camp served multiple purposes in its existence. The camp started out as a concentration camp for .It thPOW’s then became a labor camp, ultimately morphing into a death camp. Many of the camps, such as Belzec, Birkenau and Chelmno were only built to murder Jews.
Majdanek was liberated by the Russians in 1944. Majdanek is such a unique concentration camp because it is almost entirely preserved as the Germans abandoned it. For most of the concentration camps the Germans were able to sabotage the main traces of their mass murders; not so with Majdanek. Two gas chambers still remain today, along with the crematoriums.
We visited Bergen Belsen a few days ago. Visiting Majdanek was an entirely different experience because nothing remains at Bergen Belsen. If you didn't know any better, visiting Bergen Belsen is very similar to walking through the woods, admiring the lush vegetation. Majdanek has been preserved throughout the years. Barracks, the gas chambers, the crematorium, guards' towers and so forth still stand today. The first things we noticed when we arrived at the front of Majdanek were the barbed wire and the posts. Many of these posts are the original ones that were installed by the Germans. Barbed wire surrounds the camp's perimeter in different levels. The wire was intended to keep inmates confined and to keep the Polish people away from the camp. Polish people who approached the wire or attempted to smuggle food to the camp inmates risked their lives. Many of the original wooden buildings still stand today. It's important to note that these buildings were built for utility, not for permanence. In other words, the Germans did not intend for them to still be standing today.
If you've ever visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum you have seen the picture of the large pile of hair. At Majdanek there is a collection of human hair preserved in one of the storage barracks. I was shocked when we came upon this display. When inmates were first taken to the camp part of selection involved having their heads shaved. During the camp's existence they collected 730 kg of hair. Hair was collected for mattresses and for slippers to be worn on submarines. Slippers made of human hair would be undetectable to sonar radar. This presentation is controversial for a few reasons. The USHMM presented this as a picture, because Jewish burial customs mandate that hair is a natural part of a person and thus, should be buried with the corpse. However, Poland is predominantly Catholic, and it's unsure whether the collected hair belonged to Jews, Polish people or political prisoners.
One of the most powerful exhibits at the USHMM is the overwhelming pile of shoes. Majdanek has an entire storage barrack literally full of shoes. To give you an idea about Maydanek's destruction, 140,000 Jews were brought to the camp. 78,000 were murdered. When you walk into the storage building shoes are gathered on all sides of the building, along with two large bins in the middle of the building. The reason so many shoes survive at Majdanek today is because Majdanek was a gathering point for luggage and other confiscated materials collected from prisoners at Majdanek and other camps around the area.
Majdanek is unique because it still houses gas chambers as they stood when the Russians liberated the camp. Seeing the gas chambers up close was a very solemn experience. Up to 300 people could be gassed at once. The actual chambers are very compact; I can't even begin to fathom so many people in the chamber struggling to hold on for one last breath.
The heavy steel door closing off the chamber is still attached. If guards wanted to look in and observe the deaths, there was a peep hole for them to watch. Gas chambers were of course used to kill people, but they were also used to disinfect clothes, too.
After leaving the gas chambers and walking throughout the prisoner's barracks, we visited the crematorium. When you walk through this building you first see a room that houses a concrete slab. Before bodies were cremated someone would search the body to make sure there weren't any valuables left on the corpse, such as gold fillings, hidden jewelry and so forth. The German motto during this time was "nothing to be wasted." After a corpse was thoroughly inspected it was put in a storage room. This room also doubled as a place of execution for Polish people suspected of aiding prisoners. After this room we came to the crematorium. Multiple crematoriums still exist today. You can walk around the entire room and view each crematorium from the front and the back. I spent a few minutes walking around this room. For years I've read descriptions of these killing centers, but to see them firsthand was a difficult experience.
On November 3rd, 1943 Nazis murdered 18,000 people in one day. As these murders were taking place, loudspeakers were set up around the area to play music in an attempt to distract people from the sounds of shooting and screaming. This massacre is referred to as ERNTEFEST, or the Harvest Festival. The reason for this morbid play on words is because the massacre fell around the time of year that Germans traditionally celebrated a harvest festival. Erntefest was the most devastating day in terms of how many people were murdered in one day.
The memorial today includes the area where the murders took place, and a large circular monument that contains the remains and ashes of the 18,000 murdered Jews. I found this part of the camp the most difficult to observe because the remains were there in front of us. Outside this memorial are words that translate into “ Let our fate be a warning to you” I was asked to say a few words and to light a candle in memorial. I was touched being asked to do this and felt very connected to all my fellow travelers as I made a point about being a witness and the responsibility of passing this on.
The photos I have posted are graphic, they are real, they are authentic. The shower heads are real and were used to gas innocent Jews, the ovens are real, the barricks are real. When looking at the shoes: rows upon rows I noticed one red shoe - it reminded me of the symbolic red coat of the little girl in “Schindler’s List” but this one was not symbolic - it had belonged to someone .