An update from Gracyn, a senior theatre major and human rights minor:

Well, Christmas just ended in Poland, and I am sad to see it go. The most I felt of my typical holiday spirit was last night at midnight as we walked down the street singing and this afternoon at a gas station where Christmas songs played in English in the convenience store. I have missed my normal Christmas and constantly wonder what my family is doing: Caroline and Alex celebrating their very first Christmas together, Austin opening gifts and finding Santa’s stack all by himself, my parents perhaps relieved that Granny is hosting the meal this year. I miss it a lot, but I am honored to have left it for just one year for this experience.

Today we went to a camp called Majdanek, and we all experienced a Christmas and Hanukkah like we have never experienced before. This camp is enormous, and we spent about three hours in the ice, wind and precipitation wandering about the grounds and seeing places where thousands of people were brutally murdered.

When we first pulled up in the bus, the camp was empty, and for the first time we heard birds. It sounded like crows, and they made an eerie feel as we entered. The first thing we did was the same walk the victims would do as they entered the camp. We walked through the gate and walked into the bathhouse. Here there was an opening room and then a bathroom. Here the prisoners were asked to remove their clothes and bathe; meanwhile the Nazis next door disinfected their clothes with Zyklon B and stored them in a room. Today we peered into this room and saw, floor to ceiling, cans and cans of leftover Zyklon B, still full. If we were the prisoners, we would still think we were being sent to work.

It was the next part, however, that sent chills through me and is one of the most incomprehensible things I have seen. We walked into the next room and saw two doors and a little room. Through each of these big metal doors was a room with a little hole at the top and blue and green stains all over the walls. These stains can never wash off and bear the history of too many people. In the small room in between the two larger (but still surprisingly small) rooms is a small window where the Nazis would look through and witness every single person’s death. There is no denying that they saw every moment of what was happening because it was the only place to look in the room.

We then continued on outside and saw where bodies had been stacked and inmates would have had to run in their wooden clogs from the gas chamber to the crematorium way off in the distance. Starving, cold and terrified, such a job seems impossible. I felt like I would most certainly freeze and need to go to a hospital if I were to stand outside all day. It is amazing what the body can withstand. It is also impossible to understand the magnitude of the pain.

We continued walking through the barracks of the SS men.  They were on the outskirts of the camp, right before the barbed-wire entrance to the prisoners’ quarters.  There are guard towers as far as the eye can see.  We entered the camp and found ourselves on what seemed to be the set of a movie.  It looked exactly like pictures and films, and it was hard to believe this was actually it. I could picture roll call early in the morning when they counted the numbers still alive and removed those who had died during the night.  It was still hard to make it real, though, until we entered one of the barracks and saw the beds lined across the entire structure.  It became real.

We left these rooms and continued to the crematorium, where we saw the furnaces, an execution room and a small tomb of ashes.  I learned that the water the prisoners used for their occasional showers was heated by the furnaces burning their families’ bodies and that the ashes of many victims were used in the Nazi gardens as fertilizer.

Outside were trenches still bloated from the largest mass killing of Jews on a single day at one location.  The Nazis shot 18,000 Jews in one day, making them kneel, staring into the trench where they saw the bodies of those they would be joining soon.  It is obvious what had happened there, and it made me want to lie on each hill and cry, telling those people that they were not alone and that they are not forgotten.

Right beside these trenches is the most unusual mausoleum I will probably ever see.  When I walked up its stairs, I was greeted with a massive pile of ashes.  A mound better describes it, but it was maybe the size of the hill in my back yard.  It is covered above, but open for all to peer in and see the horrible consequences of the Holocaust and what tens of thousands of people can be reduced to.  In the ashes, bones lie scattered all around. I was overwhelmed by the reality of once living human beings who had no idea they would one day be peered at by my group of Americans because of these atrocities. It will be impossible for me to go another Christmas day without thinking of the people at Majdanek.  My life is changed.

It is very moving to spend a Christmas with such an amazing, inspiring and large group of individuals who have all sacrificed a holiday and a break to do something they deem equally as important and special.  Words cannot describe how honored I am to be here with all of them, to hear their thoughts and experience through them just as much as through myself.  They are some of the most beautiful people I have ever met, and I look forward to seeing how this trip impacts and changes our lives and what great things I know they will go on to do because of it.

And for everyone who will read this: I know I am publishing this later on your Christmas day, but if you do happen to sit down and read this on the 25th of December 2011, I am equally honored to know our thoughts have been in the same place and with the same people today.  Not many people think about the Holocaust on their Christmas.  We are doing so.  Although it is not a holiday that 6 million of the victims of the Holocaust celebrated, it speaks immeasurably that your thoughts have drifted to them.

I hope that whether or not you are religious, you will send a prayer or thoughts this way and to every single person – Jews, POWs, Poles and even beyond the Holocaust, to those whom this has happened before and since in places like Cambodia, Manchuria, Darfur, Rwanda.  The list can go on for ages.  Think about all the victims.  Think about all the crimes.  Question if you have had a part in them, directly or indirectly.  Question what you can do about it, directly or indirectly.  But mostly, question yourself and what you know and what you believe in.  Turn off the cellphone; perhaps take out a notebook, a sketchpad or go to a deserted room and give yourself the gift of time to reflect.  Not everyone has the opportunity to do such a thing, but I bet you do.  I will be doing the same.

No post for yesterday.  I will post the story of my visit to Belzec extermination camp soon, but tomorrow I head to Auschwitz-Birkenau so I am sure I will have thoughts and pictures to fill up 5 blogs.  Auschwitz is the symbol of the Holocaust certainly for Americans and for most of the world.  I am not excited, but I am ready.

Merry Christmas to all.  And, again, Happy Hanukkah.