Blogging our way through Eastern Europe
The wind. The wind is the first thing you feel against your face when you approach the partially-preserved remnants of hell on earth: The Majdanek Concentration Camp. It is no ordinary cool breeze. By subtly whispering in your ears, the gushing force of cold air initiates its sole purpose of reminding you of the violent horrors and inhumane atrocities that have taken place at the former Nazi extermination site. I introduce to you Majdanek, the graveyard of more than 80,000 perished souls, 60,000 of them innocent Jewish civilians.
After adjusting our bodies to counteract the wind, we walked to the top of the hill where Majdanek is located. At the top, there is a memorial established by the Soviets who liberated the camp on July 23rd, 1944. The memorial was totally jaw-dropping, because when you step closer, you realize it is a partially closed pit of human ashes. The mere amount of it all was overwhelming.
At the top of the hill was also the camp’s crematorium. In fact, the camp was built in a way that had gas chambers at the bottom of the hill, and the crematorium at the top, so every prisoner would see the dead bodies being pushed up the hill from the gas chambers to the crematorium daily. We passed through the crematorium and noticed how everything was still intact because the Nazis had no time to burn everything down, due to the incoming threat of the Soviets. Sorrow and anger were the only emotions I could feel since these bodies couldn’t even have a proper burial. It is against the Jewish faith to be cremated. To show my respects for all the deceased victims of Majdanek, I recited the Jewish “Shema” prayer aloud, which holds itself as the centerpiece for all Jewish prayers. I’ve had many people tell me that hearing me recite the Shema was one of the most emotional experiences on the trip, and I’m glad I’m surrounded with peers who feel the same deep level of sympathy for the Holocaust victims as me.
Although Majdanek was far less grand in size compared to Auschwitz, I could still sense the amount of pain and suffering the poor prisoners had to face everyday until they reached their unjustly death. There was an exhibit inside of the Majdanek museum which had survivors explain their terrifying experiences. The most eye-opening testimony for me was from Piotr Kiriszczenko, who says, “poverty will teach you everything.” He reminisces on how “expensive” and “tasty” a piece of bread the size of a matchbox was.
Can you imagine living off such a small amount of food? Another survivor Marian Kolodziej, rightfully said that “you will never experience true hunger until you view another man as a piece of meat.” This quote stuck with me because it made me realize how fortunate our lives are compared to the vast array of people who struggle to get by everyday. We have never experienced true hunger. We have never experienced true suffering.
If there is one thing I learned yesterday it's that everyone needs to have an hours long conversation with someone while driving through the middle of Poland late at night. While most of the group slept, I spent several hours deep in conversation with someone who before this trip, I only knew as a classmate, never anything more than that. By happenstance, we ended up sitting next to each other on the bus, and started talking about just life in general. In only a few hours, we ended up talking about anything and everything. I'll spare you all from the countless details of our conversation, and instead say why this conversation meant so much to me.
As I mentioned, I didn't really know this person too well before last night. We've definitely had conversations, but never anything like the one we had last night. I'm not quite sure why, but for some reason I thought that the two of us were similar people (or at least had similar beliefs/opinions). But as I learned, we are much more different than I thought. I feel like this is a thing people often do. We assume that people we don't really know are just like us, because we believe that our opinions are more "correct". I myself am definitely guilty of doing this. That's the first thing I learned last night: we can't make assumptions about what people think and believe based on what we see them as.
We talk all the time in Facing about how crucial communication and conversation are in life. Too often in history we see examples of situations that possibly could have been so different if people had just taken the time to have a conversation about what was happening. One conversation is an incredibly powerful force. Now I'm not saying that my conversation on the bus ride last night will change the entire course of humanity, but I cannot deny the fact that it won't change some aspect of my life, no matter how small. That's the second thing I learned last night: listening to what other people have to say can allow us to improve our lives and futures.
Over the past few months and even years, it seems as if people have become even more and more divided based on their beliefs. While there is no one reason why this is happening, I believe that one of the main forces behind this occuance is that the line between opinion and fact is starting to become hazy. People believe their opinions are facts, and people take facts to be opinions. This has caused people to dismiss others' opinions because they believe that they are "wrong". The person I was talking to last night and I had some different beliefs. Put any two people on a bus next to each other and you're bound to discover eventually that they have different beliefs. Because no two people are the same! And that's the beauty of humankind. Since no two people are alike, every single conversation, if it goes on long enough, will, without fail, develop into one with more than one side/belief. And that is a good thing. It's what makes life exciting. That's the third thing I learned last night: a conversation with more than one opinion is so much more interesting than a conversation where everyone agrees with what everyone else is saying.
Not only did I learn so much about the person I was talking to, but I also learned things about myself. I learned that I am much less judgmental than I thought I was. Even though the beliefs of this person were, at times, strikingly different than mine, my opinion of this person in no way, shape, or form was lessened. In fact, it was elevated. One of the biggest problems of BLS is that it is an echo chamber. Even thought there are people with different opinions, you really only see certain opinions being expressed. Having a conversation with someone whose opinions were not the exact same as the "BLS beliefs" was honestly a refreshing experience. And the amount of respect I gained for this person after they had the confidence to share their opinions with me, despite knowing that their options were different than mine, is absolutely tremendous.
This experience was not at all about the Holocaust. It was not at all about the Cold War. Honestly, it had absolutely nothing to do with Eastern Europe at all. And yet, I think that this will be one of the most memorable parts of this trip. In those hours, I grew as a person. Maybe the lessons I learned tonight are something Facing has taught me, or maybe they're something going to Eastern Europe has taught me. Or maybe this was more of a self-discovery moment. Honestly I do not know. But I genuinely do believe that this class and this trip have allowed me to grow. They have given me the opportunity and the environment to step out of what I'm used to, and make personal improvements that I hope will better not only my life, but also the lives of those around me. So, to Ms Freeman and Mr Gavin, thank you for giving me that opportunity. And to the person I was talking to, thank you for showing me who I am, and who I have the ability to be. And to everyone reading this, do one thing for me. Have a conversation with someone about something you don't agree on. Preferably on a bus as night in the middle of Poland, but really any time and any place will do just fine. Trust me, it is more than worth it.
Reading the amazing and heart felts posts have added another layer for this experience. It can be difficult to share emotions in the moment.
Today we experienced Majdanek and for me, the “Shrine” art installation overpowered me. It was barbarically beautiful - light fixtures made from barbed wire that from the distance look like they could be hanging from any trendy lighting store. But upon closer inspection, so much more. Soft through toughness. Incredible.
The imagery will stay with me and forever apply as a symbol for many challenges of life, reminding me that light and hope can come from within.
—Catherine Foley ’05, Classics teacher and chaperone