Majdanek - a long path leads to a huge stone memorial that dominates the camp below. The supports of the memorial form a window to the camp. Visible through this a suspended capsule outlines the farthest edge of the camp. A cluster of people stands inside the window. Suddenly a large Israeli flag billows in the cold wind and hot tears prickle my eyes and my heart clutches in pained pride.
I joined that group of Israeli high school students and heard detailed explanations from their guide Edna. We stood inside barrack no. 45 and heard how the Jews were brought into the room, relieved of their valuables, forced to remove their clothes on one side of the room, hair shorn on the opposite side. A story surfaces to memory of a barber who suddenly sees his wife among those being prepared to be gassed. He does not tell her what horror awaits at the continuation of the room. He expresses his love by taking a forbidden extra 30 seconds to cut her hair. Finally we understand that here there really were hot showers. It opened the pores, allowing Cyklon B to be more efficiently absorbed. Only afterwards were they brutally squashed in airtight rooms, doors clanged shut and the cans of the deadly nerve gas thrown into the rooms while guards peered through glass windows to verify that all were dead. Men and women were sent separately to the gas chambers because women took longer to die!
We saw 80,000 pairs of shoes filling rows of cages in barrack no. 52. . These shoes were only a fraction of those sent to Germany, to be sold or the leather re-used. How flimsy many of the shoes appeared – like something you’d wear to meet a friend. How unprepared they were to meet their barbaric end
Edna maneuvers around a group of Polish schoolchildren. There is no contact between the two groups.
Next door we saw mugs and plates exhibited; precious containers for daily rations: ½ liter of herb tea was breakfast, ¾ liter of thin soup for lunch and 300 grams of potatoes or bread and chicory coffee for supper. We saw the bunks where the victims slept head to toe like sardines and wondered at their scanty clothes. We visited in March and although we were all warmly dressed, it was bitterly cold. How did they survive the freezing cold?
We gazed at the mass graves. The earth has collapsed, as if unable to bear the burden of its shameful secrets: three trenches where 18,040 Jews were shot in a single day. Later we learnt that mass graves were always in a pit as the earth sunk to replace the decaying bodies. I looked up and saw the road bordering the camp a few hundred meters away.
It had taken two and a half hours by train to reach Lublin from Warsaw. I took bus 28 to Majdanek. I kept looking in puzzlement at my 1 zloty bus ticket. In Warsaw I had paid over three zlotys for a 1-mile trip. How could it be so cheap? Was the ticket to Majdanek subsidized, a kind of Polish penance? How far would I have to walk until I reached that shameful place?
As I stepped out of the bus I gasped. The camp is by the road. No walls to enclose its secrets. Only electrified barbed wire enclosed the human misery. Houses and blocks of flats reach the barbed wire gates. So close to Lublin, even then. How could 300,000 people be shunted here in a one way process and people not know.
Dotted around the camp are still remains of sculptures made by the prisoners. A stone tortoise to remind the inmates to work slowly. A column with three soaring eagles, outwardly the symbol of the Germans, but secretly a message of hope and escape. Inside the hollowed column were stashed ashes of corpses.
We come to the crematoria. A single cold stone table bears mute witness that even in death the Nazis exploited the Jewish bodies, extracting silver and gold teeth from the corpses. In the next room there still stand the huge furnaces for the efficient disposal of Jewish bodies. Also here women were separated from men; they took longer to burn. The camp commander had a bathhouse in this crematorium, heated by the same fires. Today wreaths of flowers, Jewish and Polish, lie on the stretchers where once bodies were piled before being thrust into the greedy fire.
People from all parts of Europe conquered by the Nazis were brought to Majdanek. It was a camp for slave labor as well as a death camp for those to old or too ill to work. Over a quarter of a million people were murdered here, by starvation, by disease, by overwork, by exhaustion, by mass murder and by gas chamber. Jewish people formed the largest percentage of slave laborers and victims but there were also many political prisoners from Poland and other European countries, even from England. In the small crematorium there is a corner with low posts with the names of over 50 nationalities of the prisoners at Majdanek Some are unfamiliar: Maris, Kirgis and Karelians, others surprising – Englishmen, Chinese, Americans. In brutal contrast is the word “Yehudim.” It’s a stark reminder that Israel did not yet exist. What is shocking is the lumping together, the lack of national identity of the Jews. That even today there is no redress of attitude, no recognition here that Jewish people were part of all the countries mentioned.
Finally we approach the freestanding capsule. Curiously my first impression is one of distaste – people have eaten here and thrown the picked bones on this pile of dirt below the concrete container of ashes. Look again. These are the ashes, the remains of the crematoria. Ten grams of ash from each person; here are 13 tons of ash and fragments of human bones – a human chop, a marrow bone, a piece of jaw.
As a final tribute we stand in a circle in the full sunlight. The Israeli flag flutters in the biting cold wind; one boy is wrapped in another Israeli flag. The youths read prepared pieces, a teacher recites Kaddish and El Male Rahamim, a girl lays a wreath. And still we stand, unable to disperse, until someone begins to whisper Hatikvah and others quietly join in. I am angry. I want them to sing lustily, to show defiance and our presence to all. But my own throat is closed and I can only mouth a few words as tears stream down my face.
One cannot grasp the inhumanity of the Nazis and their local collaborators. They say the Jewish kapos were terrible – acting harshly to their fellow Jews to justify their positions. Would I have had the courage to resist? I am appalled by a sentence in the official booklet; “Not all inmates could face up to camp reality. There were cases of suicide among the mentally weaker inmates, and this mostly applied to Jews.” Would I have been brave enough to claim my own life as some did, walking into the electrified wires? Would I have taken a stand?
I spent the day at Majdanek and heard much but learned nothing. After a day at Majdanek I understand even less than before.
It is so cold at Majdanek, so cold, so cold.
Post script to a trip to Poland:
Walk tall, don’t slouch.
Wear a Magen David.
Take yahrzeit candles to light at memorials.
Travel first class by train. Where our people were shunted in cattlecars never travel 2nd class.
Never say “I’m starving.”
The visit to Majdanek was only one of our experiences about the Holocaust during our trip in Eastern Europe. In Poland we learned a little about the terrors of the Holocaust, the sadism of the persecutors, the impossible hardships and the endless pain of the Jews. Again and again we heard survivors tell us that we cannot know what they went through. It is beyond our ability, truly impossible, to understand how rapacious the Nazis and their collaborators were, stripping people of their houses, their jobs, their clothes and even their names. We are unable to grasp the scale of the Nazi atrocities.
The Nazis not only wanted to divest the Jews of everything they owned, but also to strip them of their humanity and dignity before they died. In the Czech Republic we went to Therezin where we were awed by the resilience of the human spirit expressed through the art, poetry and literature created by the children and adult inmates of this fiendish transit camp. One picture continues to haunt me. It is a portrait of a man’s head on a foolscap-size of paper. Composed of small swatches of colour it is beautifully drawn. But it is the man’s eyes that are arresting. They do not look out at the person who painted this sensitive portrait but are directed to a far corner as if even at this very private moment the man was apprehensively looking to see what new terror would be brought upon him.
It was in Lithuania, where our ancestors used to live, that the extent of the Holocaust hit us. We know the numbers: six million killed, three million in Poland, one million in the Soviet Union, over 200,000 in Czechoslovakia, 135,000 in Lithuania, and the list continues; but the reality of the decimation of European Jewry only then hit us. Prior to the Holocaust Jews in Lithuania formed a sizable proportion of the population, in some villages up to half the residents. In village after village that we visited, where once there had been thriving Jewish communities, today there are no Jews, at best one or two old people. Genocide became a reality. Even in Vilna, where we attended a community second seder, held in Russian, it was heartbreaking to see that though there are Jews, there is not even a shadow of the the rich spiritual life and the vigorous intellectual circles. The pride of Yerushalayim de Lita is no more.
Regina was our guide in Vilna. Goodwill and smiles constantly flowed from her smiling face. In our honour she prepared a Seder at her house. It was a first for her as they had always attended the community Seder. As we leaving the hotel for Regina’s apartment our daughter phoned and our 3 1/2 year old granddaughter Danielle sang Ma Nishtana. I am unable to describe the exquisite joy of that moment. We had come to Vilna to honour the past (my father was born there) and were privileged to hear the future.
Haim was our guide in the Lithuanian countryside. Short and tubby he never changed his clothes and often irritated us. He is, however, knowledgeable and well connected and introduced us to fascinating people. He also did an excellent job in bringing the shetl to life before our eyes.
In Shovel we met Mr. Lipshitz, a Yiddishist who thinks Hebrew is a dirty word. If you can’t speak Yiddish he has nothing to say to you. I was amazed at just how much Yiddish I could understand. How sorry I am that I never learnt Yiddish as a child. Mr Lipshitz is the Jewish community’s unofficial researcher and he found the names of two of Anthony’s relatives in the Shavel Ghetto archives. He is an angry man who has seen his world swept away.
In Kelme we were deeply moved by the tragic figure of Liliya, a youngish beautiful woman. She is the last Jew in Kelme since her husband died a few months ago. His passion was the upkeep of the Jewish cemetery. She met us surrounded by pictures of her husband and the cemetery whose fate will now be neglect.
In Plunge we met Yosl Bunker, a sculptor in wood. Short and slight with
his beret placed at a rakish angle on his head he looks like Salvador Dali.
He escaped from Plunge and was a soldier in the Russian army during WWII.
He swore that if he survived he would memorialize the atrocities committed
in his home town. At Koyshan on the outskirts of Plunge, on a rise just
off the road, 74 Jewish girls, baptised by a priest to try and escape death,
were raped and murdered. Just next to their grave a further 1800 were shot
by the Nazis and their local helpers. Yosl carved nine logs, silent sentries
to the horror, hope and despair of that accursed place. His statue of Moses
crying “Why?” rings through the forest. His parting words to us were
that for him the present would be very bitter if it were not rooted in
the tradition of the past.