Jonathan in Poland

Jonathan, a junior in the Creative Writing program in Dedman College’s English Department, is participating in the SMU Human Rights Education Program’s December trip to Poland. There, program director Rick Halperin will lead visits to World War II Nazi death camps.

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Chelmno: A mass graveyard

The long road to Chelmno could not have been more different from the bustling city streets of Warsaw. Abandoned shacks and gnarled fruit trees are everywhere, and stray dogs replace the pedestrians.

Finally, after three long hours, we turn into what could’ve been a historical marker parking lot or scenic overview point. After yesterday, I know not to go into these places always expecting barbed wire and towers like Stutthoff, but this just looks like a small shack next to a flag pole.

As the weather picks up, we are welcomed into the plain white shack by the sole middle-aged employee with a sweater that could bring even Bill Cosby to his knees. Inside the modest walls is a museum, which we find out was not even supposed to be open that day. He opened it just for us, happy to see any visitors at all.

Hanging on the walls are pictures of Jewish ghetto life of east Poland and plaques written solely in Polish. Down at the far end, though, is a sole piece, written in broken English, that everyone is crowding around.

The reason there are no structures here is because, unlike Treblinka and so many other camps that were demolished, there simply never were any. Chelmno is a mass graveyard, just a clearing in the woods where bodies were dumped.

Jewish prisoners were led into a manor down the road, told they were to be given a work assignment and then invited to shower and have their clothes disinfected. Sometimes with a handshake and a smile, but more often with the barrel of a gun, they were led down a set of steps to the basement and onto a sealed metal truck. Once filled with around 75 to 100 prisoners, the back doors were shut, and the ignition was started.

The truck would sit in park for around 20 minutes with the exhaust flooding the sealed tomb attached to the back, and once asphyxiation was ensured, it would leave for Chelmno to prepare for the next load.

Once there, Jewish prisoners would haul the bodies off and arrange them in massive trench-like graves. The only people ever actually killed at Chelmno were those who were forced to unload the bodies, usually executed at the end of each shift to fall as the last body on top of their day’s work.

Over the course of three years, it’s estimated that as many as 350,000 people were brought and buried here with only two survivors. Both were simply lucky enough to belong to the last load to be dumped, overlooked in the haste of the Germans trying to finish and flee the encroaching Red Army.

Stepping outside, you get a sense for how big this place really is. Like Treblinka, it’s just a massive clearing in the woods, like a massive hole in the Earth. The forest is so dense here, it’s like a fence itself.

Long paths and stone plaques that I wish I could read are all that’s left of Chelmno. Monuments brought by family members now living around the world decorate a sole wall in the back of the clearing.

As we walk around, the rain stops and the clouds part. I haven’t seen the sun since we left Texas.

There was no glorious revolution here at Chelmno; you didn’t even have the chance. This place was only even found due to aerial recon photos.

On the way out, Professor Halperin tells me that I may live the entire rest of my life and never meet another person who’s been to Chelmno. Judging by the logbook and the fact that there were probably only enough monthly signatures to count on both hands, I can’t help but know that he’s right. If I hadn’t seen this now, I never would have. Even with its history, sites like this fall into disrepair and fade into the countryside all over the world.

The sole employee waves looks through the sole window in the museum and waves to us as we board the bus. We leave Chelmno and one man humming to a crank radio, cooking on a single burner in the back room of an underfunded museum, waiting for anyone else who might happen to stop and pay tribute.

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