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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Christmas Eve at the death camps

After a brief tour of Lublin, what was once the second-largest center of Jewish activity in Poland behind Warsaw, we take off toward Majdanek.

So complete was the Nazis’ eradication of the Jewish population in this area that even today people must be brought in from Krakow to have the mandatory 10 people required to pray in traditional ceremonies.

But, Christmas Eve here in Lublin, it’s hard to make out all the details with all the traffic and excitement around. And then all of a sudden, we’re there, and it’s huge. The second-largest camp in all of Europe, and one of – if not the most – complete and intact camps remaining, the sight is just unreal.

I’ve seen parks back home that aren’t as big as this place. From the road, looking over the tops of guard towers and barbed-wire fences, you can’t even see the other side of this place. Once the shock sets in, though, you realize that you haven’t even left the city. Unlike every other site that we’ve been to, secluded and situated deep in some forest, Majdanek is on a hill overlooking Lublin. Houses are just on the other sides of the fences, and apartment buildings and a large Christian cemetery are on the other visible sides.

Another huge stone monument is at the entrance, more massive than any other that we’ve seen so far. Leading up to it are massive torches, one for each year of the war and, of course, extinguished.

Cars are lining up on the street where we just were, but only to visit the cemetery for Christmas Eve. No one else will come to Majdanek today.

Our guide Magda takes us through the gates and down the long path once paved with broken headstones stolen from local Jewish cemeteries. Of course, the path dead-ends right near the entrance of the still-standing gas chambers.

It’s eerie walking in a building where you know that hundreds of thousands of people were killed. Even though you’re out of the ever persistent wind that seems to follow you everywhere in Majdanek, things still feel a little bit colder inside.

Blue residue, the calling card of Zyklon B, still hangs on the wall and ceilings like old paint. After carbon monoxide was determined to be too inefficient, with an estimated 20-40 minutes to kill a room, the Nazis began to experiment with other methods. Zyklon B, a crystal pellet that sublimates in warm air, only takes 10 minutes. There’s still an entire room filled with sealed containers that are still deadly after all these years. This is the same gas used by federal prisons for executions, deemed humane for use back in the United States.

Walking in and out of the barracks and buildings now turned into exhibits, Magda begins to tell us about other groups that she’s led through the camp. She points to the back of the camp, showing us where the former officer’s garden was where they utilized human ashes as fertilizer, now covered by residential houses. She informs us that those people still grow food there today in their own gardens.

Other groups have gotten into debates with her about whether the large area of the camp is even necessary. She tells us about one Austrian man who insisted that the city would be better off with only half of the area for camp museum, the other half turned into a supermarket and parking garage. A “real estate goldmine,” he called it.

Walking down further, you can’t help but try to imagine this place in operation, the sheer terror of it all. Walking between the preserved buildings, Magda tells us about the Harvest Festival, November 3, 1944. 18,400 were killed in one day and night here. All of the people of Lublin down the hill can recall hearing music long into the night, played by the Nazis over the loudspeakers to drown out the shots and screams.

It’s hard imagine people justifying their lack of action or resistance in the Holocaust on ignorance after going to a place like this. The killing was practically in these people’s backyards, purposely so that escapees would have nowhere to run, and so that all of the town was forced to look up at the camp.

Almost two hours later, finally reaching the back of the camp, we walk into the crematorium. Dissection tables for salvaging gold teeth lay right inside the front door. Just around the corner, a row of furnaces once operated by Jewish “sonderkommandos” sit still intact.

Magda directs our attention to the corner of the room where a bathtub sits, sorely out of place in this sweatshop. The director of the crematorium would demand a bath at the end of every day, and would use water boiled over the heat of the furnaces to do so. You know, to work the stress out.

Just before hopping on the bus, we visit the giant mausoleum, similar to the one at Sobibor. Walking around the massive pile of human ash mixed with dirt and earth, it can be very humbling.

As we walk back down the front steps, Magda turns and points to the Polish words carved above the front face. They mean “Let our fate be a warning to you.”

Belzec

As if Majdanek weren’t enough for one day, we’re back on the bus pulling a double and riding out into the countryside toward Belzec.

The first of the Operation Reinhard extermination camps, this was the precursor to Sobibor and Treblinka, where the Nazis cut their teeth at unmitigated terror and genocide. Just a stop on a multiple-day train ride with officers dressed as doctors and a large metal room with orders to disrobe and shower, these people were decieved to the very end.

Pulling up to Belzec, it could not be any more different from Majdanek. We had gone from looking at the sprawling intact camp of Majdanek to a modern monument and museum for a site that may be around the size of one and a half football fields.

The very new museum is unlike any that we’ve seen so far. The plaques and maps are detailed to a T, not only explaining the sociopolitical storm that surrounded the beginning of the camp, but also of its history. Detailed ideological underpinnings are traced back across pieces of frosted glass with black print. I probably took pictures of nearly every surface in there, honestly.

Walking outside to the frigid field of stone and figured metal, the snow is coming down in sheets. You walk down a narrow path, flanked by two bookends of the giant monument. As you walk further down the path, the sides begin to rise up like you’re walking into the side of a hill. For a long time, this was only a hill, though, an unknown site with only two survivors out of almost half a million.

Belzec was open for maybe little over a year and then closed and swept under the rug in 1943. Not because the Russians were coming or because it was within Allied bombing range, though. It was closed because it was too efficient and there simply was no one left to kill. The entire surrounding area was turned into ghettos to hold the Jewish population until they could be sent here, eventually completely being eliminated.

The only reason that we even know what this place accurately looked like was due to a painting by a local farmer. Just a boy when the camp was active, he painted a picture from memory years later, which accurately matched blueprints and documents found. Standing on the top of the monument, I can even pick out the hill where he must have lived looking at this hill.

Driving back to the hotel, it’s pitch black. It’s only 4:30 here, but from the looks of it, you’d think it was midnight.

Reflecting on the past few days, imagining the next few, it’s so much to take in. The premediated and methodical cruelty of some of these places is unreal. It’s hard to believe that some people even survived.

I suppose it’s another way to look at this trip, though, not only as a grim reminder of the horrors and loss of life that befell Europe. Rather, to pay tribute to those who managed to survive, to bear witness to places where people managed to hold onto some sliver of hope and persevere.

Tonight Dr. Halperin told us that no matter where we are this time of the year down the road, he hopes that our minds will even for a moment come back to the places that we’ve been and the things that we’ve seen.

It’s Christmas Eve, we’re driving through rural southeast Poland, but we all know that he’s right and that we will. Wishing that I was home, about to go watch cheaply dubbed American television and raid the hotel mini-bar, I at least know that I will.

Merry Christmas, world.

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