Blogging our way through Eastern Europe
Today was another emotional day as we started off by visiting Majdanek, a concentration camp in Lublin, Poland. The camp lies along a hill and at the top is a giant memorial where the ashes of countless victims remain. There was something so powerful in seeing the colossal pile of ashes. It definitely puts things in perspective. Near the memorial are mounds covered in grass and a crematorium. The mounds are where victims were buried after being shot, while the crematorium still contained the ovens where bodies once burned. Being there, it’s extremely difficult to imagine that those were the kind of things that were happening less 80 years ago. We stood there looking at the greenery that has grown over the mass grave and all I could think about was how cruel humanity could be. But as we continued to stare out into the field, we saw a deer in the distance and it reminded me of something that Ms. Foley said to me the day before: as terrible as these acts were, there’s some light in the fact that nature has reclaimed it and turned it into something beautiful.
We moved down the hill to where the barracks were. We peaked inside to see the living conditions of the prisoners. So many people were packed inside one dark stable-like shelter. Then we continued into the buildings that were once used for storing the personal belongings of the prisoners. In one of the barracks, there was an enormous crate of shoes. There were thousands and thousands of them and each pair belonged to a person, who most likely did not survive.
After the storehouses, we visited the exhibition which put different artifacts and pictures on display. Then we went to a memorial inside a barrack that had light bulbs hanging from the ceiling. It was quite beautiful. Following the memorial we made our way to the gas chamber, a site that is always emotionally straining to go through. I took my time walking through the chamber because there is so much to process. When everyone had exited the gas chamber, we all stood outside in a big circle and took a moment to read and recite some poetry together. The poems were all written by Holocaust survivors. It was such a lovely way to end the visit to such a sorrowful place. We stood together. We processed together. We shared this experience together, and I’ll never forget it.
Hello family and friends! My name is Liz and I’m a junior in Ms. Freeman’s class. Today is day 8 of our trip and we are in Poland🇵🇱.
Unfortunately, this particular post is a hard one to write because our agenda is particularly difficult. There is no right reaction to the sites we experienced today, and I am unable to speak on behalf of how everyone was affected, so I will be describing what I personally saw and felt.
8:45 - 9:30 (energetic) bus ride
9:30 We have arrived at the Majdanek concentration camp; it is windy and chilly, but also sunny. The crowds there are limited, but it is close to the size of Birkenau - the camp we visited yesterday. My initial reaction to this camp was that it was less intimidating than Auschwitz 1 and 2. As we explored it further, it became the most horrifying for me out of the three. Although the barbed wire fences are not as big or infamous as the ones at the other two camps, the darkened wood of the buildings, barracks, and watch towers gave it a more ominous feeling; even if someone had been unaware of the origins of the place, they would have been able to detect that something grave had happened there. The entrance to Majdanek was on a main road. To the left was an extremely large Catholic cemetery. To the right was houses and an industrial town. The first thing we saw were monuments for a mass grave and ashes for the victims.
“Our loss your warning” is inscribed in Polish on the dome that covers the ashes. The crematorium smells like my grandmother's basement in the suburbs. Bodies were carried to the crematorium in wheel barrows and in large piles as if they were nothing more than waste. The prisoners of the camp were aware of which buildings meant death because of all of this cruel and dehumanizing exposure. People were killed, and bodies were thrown, inspected, and burnt in this building. Survivor accounts are on plaques hanging in most of the barracks and buildings. This is effective because it makes the experience much more personal.
Everyone was silent when we left and standing in solitary. We listened to two prayers, one led by Aaron and the other by Rachel and Ben which brought us back together. In the middle of a field in the camp is a statue with three eagles on top that the SS wanted built to honor themselves. Underneath the monument forcefully made by the prisoners of the camp are their stories which were placed there as an act of resistance. The barracks smell like barns which - technically - they were because their design was based on horse stables. There are gaps in the windows and doors meaning winter nights were deadly cold in there. We entered block 14. The smell was incredibly strong and the number of bunks was unbelievable. Over 100 people would have lived in this barrack, and there were 3-5 people in each bunk. We couldn’t go further into the barrack because of a barricade that was put up as a result of vandalism.
Another barrack had two metal containers that stretched all the way to the back full of shoes that were taken away from the prisoners (430,000 were found at the end of the war at this camp). In the museum of the camp there was artwork done by the prisoners, survivor testimonies, and other artifacts and documents that help us fully understand life in the camp. One man who had been to several camps over the course of 6 years said that Lublin affected him the most. One of the barracks was created into a shrine which was dimly lit and very grim; there was one note of music playing and a person chanting in Hebrew. At the end of the barrack was a wall of black dots and next to it was a book with a single nationality on each page of all the prisoners. One page was the Polish word and the other page was in English. When you flipped to the next page it was black.
We entered a gas chamber which also had plaques of survivor accounts. When we went all the way through and came out on the other side everything was silent. The wind died down and we were all sitting in the grass waiting to read poems written by survivors. It’s hard to describe the emotions felt and the tension in the group to people who have never been to these camps. Over the past 8 days I have gotten to know all 51 of my fellow travelers very well, but they did not seem like the ones I knew in this moment. I read 1945 by Bernard S. Mikofsky aloud which was about how the ghost of the Holocaust will always haunt us.
12:20 - 12:50 (Silent) bus ride
13:00 - 14:10 Lunch started off quiet, then we were back to our normal selves.
14:10-17:50 Bus ride (we watched Disney’s Frozen and had an emotional release)
17:50-19:30 We toured Warsaw. Before the war this city had one of the biggest Jewish populations. There are many cobbled streets and beautiful churches and buildings. The first church we saw was restored after it was destroyed during the war because Jews were allowed to hide in it, and there is a synagogue that survived the war. When we got off the bus on our second stop, there was a whole orchestra on stage practicing for the anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising tomorrow. It was truly a site to see and hear. We visited several monuments and memorials for the residents of the Warsaw ghetto, but the one that stood out to me the most was of a block in the middle of the sidewalk of broken stone that symbolizes Szmul Zygielbohm’s broken heart when he heard that the Warsaw ghetto uprising was going to fail and scratches on a stone wall that depict silhouettes of people. To me, the scratches represent the scars of the oppressed people and how that shaped them to who they are.
I’d like to thank all of the chaperones for making this possible and all of the parents for supporting us so we can experience this trip, especially my own.
A Beautiful Meadow
Windy, green grass
The souls above control earth’s beauty
Followers of the Torah
Are forced to create a treacherous long road
Windy, green grass
The sky is filled with unwanted smoke
As the day suddenly turns to night
Those who fall upon the skyline pretend to not have seen the change in nature
Only the rise in consumerism and Nazi pride will get their attention
There were only a few at night that couldn’t bat their eyes away
Block 21, 10, 20, 8, 19, 7, 18, 6, 7, 5, 4, 16, 15, 14, 3, 1, 13, 2
All across 5 fields
The sky once blue is now brown
Mud is all they remember here
It isn’t until their spirits are free that earth may be green instead of brown
Tears water the plants and their prayers move the clouds
Here the human language cannot describe the scenery
Nor can one set of emotions be affiliated with Majdanek.
left: The Shrine, a memorial exhibition to victims at Majdanek, located in one of the warehouse barracks (photo: Samantha)
right: a building filled with the ashes of thousands with the crematorium to the left, Majdanek (photo: Samantha)
I told her the flowers lie on the Northern side,
though I could not be less clueless as to where North was.
I use my compass as a turnstile--
shift away from the bleak
and shine light on the paradox,
those forced focal points,
my Northern flowers.
The sun may sing to me differently,
but only I can know the true directions of a constant spinning earth.
The purple flowers,
of the troughs
of the waves
of the mass graves
of the peak of Lublin.
That is my North,
at least for now.
After talking to some EE alum before we left, I knew that Majdanek was going to be a pretty rough day. As we got closer to the camp, my chest became tighter and tighter. I was very nervous but also knew that the information and experience I was about to have was going to be extremely important.
Arriving at Majdanek was, to say the least, sobering. I put a picture of the memorial at the top of the camp at the bottom of my post, which translates to ‘Our loss your warming.’ This simple but powerful statement in itself made me want to burst into tears. Everyone was quiet while Ms. Freeman was talking about the memorial; when the war ended and the prisoners were liberated from the camp by the soviets, they found massive mounds of human ashes. The memorial sculpture itself is massive, the pile of ashes inside, even bigger. The fact that the SS did not have the decency to properly dispose of and spread the ashes absolutely baffled me. The murdered people and the prisoners suffered from start to finish and did not even receive a proper burial. As we walked around the grassy area, we took care to avoid the large ditches, which were mass graves. We walked in silence around the mass grave to pay respects and contemplate what was around us. On November 3rd 1942 18,000 people, mostly Jews, were shot dead and buried in the mass graves that they had dug for themselves. This walk was slow and difficult but it was important. Every step I took I knew that a person, a human being had perished unknown underneath my feet.
I was nervous before walking around at Majdanek that I was becoming numb to the countless tragedies that happened during the Holocaust, but this short walk, which seemed to last forever, helped me reconnect with the chilling intimacy of the destruction and devastation of the genocide. Just as a little side note to this thought, at Auschwitz I and II, (which were both difficult)I felt that since Auschwitz I was better restored and had very detailed/informational displays there was a slight disconnect between linking the struggle of the prisoners of the camp to the actual surroundings. Auschwitz II /Birkenau was baffling to me. The sheer size of this camp made me think about how many people could possibly have fit in it, the proximity of the camp to surrounding communities created a queasy feeling in my stomach.
Back to our Majdanek visit; The community surrounding the camp at Majdanek had lived there when it was in operation during WW2, there was also a catholic cemetery next tothe camp which means that many polish Catholics visited the cemetery to pay respects to their loved ones. Automatically I was thinking, wait if these people were here .... listening to the screams of the dying, smelling the burning of bodies, and seeing the barbed wire fence of the camp with an ever billowing chimney, why didn’t they do anything? How did they fail their fellow humans?
We began to walk through the crematorium which was placed at the top of the camp (Majdanek is on a hill and is extremely windy). It was silent in there, no one was talking and everyone was kind of doing their own thing reading the signs and examining the different rooms. I remember thinking to myself that in actuality, the holocaust was a very human even that happened. The tools of genocide that the Nazis instituted, like mass deportation, forced labor, and mass killings were made more efficient and effective by us, people. It is human nature to make something better, to use technology to our benefit and create a better outcome. In the case of the Holocaust, the Nazis, as human beings, perfected the art of dehumanizing others and completely eliminating and othering a specific group of people. The realization that I am not too different from the Nazis was very troubling. Humans inherently try to solve problems and make difficult situations easier to handle; the efficiency of the gas chambers and the effectiveness of murdering so many people was human.
This thought was in the back of my head as we walked through the rest of the camp; going down the road to the Main buildings of the camp was odd because everyone was walking separately but also together. It was dead silent, the only noise coming from the powerful gusts of wind sweeping through the camp.
There have been moments on this trip where I have wanted to be hugged and shown empathy by my peers but there have also been moments where I feel like human touch will cause more damage than it will help. I felt so disappointed and sickened when waking down that hill; questioning humanity, questioning a God, but also questioning myself. Would I be different then the people who stood by and watched on the outskirts of the fence at Majdanek? Would I too be an onlooker and allow the mass murder of other people?
We finally made our way to the gas chamber at the bottom of the camp, which was very disturbing because it meant that in order to burn the bodies of the dead, the Nazis forced prisoners to bring the bodies from the bottom of the camp, past all the buildings where people lived, slept and were forced into slave labor, all the way to the crematoria at the top. Going through the gas chamber was a strange experience. There were wooden planks on the floor that creaked with every step. After leaving the gas chamber, we stood in a circle outside and Ms Freeman passed out poems for some students to read. Savita read an incredibly moving poem that discussed God and how faith failed those hurt by the Holocaust and this really upset me. A phrase I was told at Auschwitz by our tour guide was ‘Hope is the last to die’ and I found the piece that Savita read to directly relate to that. It is staggering to even begin to think of the number of people murdered in the Holocaust, but it is almost impossible to think of how we let it happen.
The visit to Majdanek was necessary, as difficult as it was to walk through and process all the information in front of us. Never in my life have I had such an experience and I feel really lucky that I was able to have to with the other students and teachers on this trip.
left: At the mass graves, Majdanek
right: surveying the fields at Majdanek, with the city of Lublin in the distance
Today I woke up at 7 in Lublin with Mindy. We packed up, got ready for the day, and headed to breakfast. We had a really good breakfast with these delicious croissants and fried banana pastries. Everyone was in pretty good moods because the hotel was really nice and we got a good nights sleep. The same nervous feeling that we had before we went to Auschwitz was not really there, we all knew Majdanek was going to be really hard and we would need to process it, but after Auschwitz we were not as worried. As breakfast came to an end we loaded our bags onto the bus and headed off. Our amazing bus driver, Alek, made a very impressive turn on the way. Although I had felt like we wouldn’t be all that emotional I immediately knew I was wrong. We walked up to this big memorial that had ashes inside. The ashes had been found by the SU when the camp was liberated and at first they didn’t really know what to do with them. Now they are in a big ceramic bowl (this is an awful description I can provide a reference photo) and we do not know how many remains of unknown human beings lie in it. We walked around these mounds in the ground where 18,000 people were buried in mass graves. We were standing above the remains of men, women, children, and there was this view. You could see the houses and buildings of Lublin all around us. Even though some of these would have been built after the war, it forces you so realize people would have had to see what was happening or at least seen the smoke. Also, when we were standing here there was this deer. The deer was just living its life. It felt so strange to be standing in this place of death surrounded by life and beauty. Then we headed to the crematorium. As we walked into the crematorium it felt very different than it had at Auschwitz. This was almost exactly as it had been during the Holocaust and the darkness and pain that the building held hit us like a brick wall. I became very emotional in this building, much more than I had expected or prepared for, but I was not alone. After we finished walking through the building we stood outside and Aaron, Rachel, Jake, and a few other recited prayers and there was a very similar moment to the one that we had had at Auschwitz. I felt very close to some of the people around me in the moment, and it was so nice to have some friends around for comfort. We continued through the camp down the big hill to the area where there was the section of barracks in tack. We went into a few that had beds (straw mattresses with blankets). And in these barracks they seemed so real, although there were some learning aides it didn’t feel like a museum. There was this column with three eagles on top that the guards at Majdanek had forced the prisoners to make. The amazing thing about this statue was that the prisoners had written their life stories on little slips of paper and cast the cement around the stories. They had done this because they were convinced none of them would survive and the Majdanek would wipe out their lives forever if they didn’t do something. We walked through the part of the camp that was still standing and there were two buildings that stood out to me particularly. There was this small house building where the guard dogs were kept. I have read some survivor testimony in the past and Ms.Freeman has told us that survivors always remember the dogs and the mud and to imagine this now peaceful, lush land to be filled with sticky mud, barking dogs, and screaming guards.
The second building was the building with the shoes. I have already talked about shoes from Auschwitz, but here they were different. We walked into a dusty, dimly lit barrack and there were thousands of shoes held in metal storage containers. To imagine the victims that these shoes had been ripped away from, to imagine how part of their humanity and identify had been ripped away was a lot. There were more building we walked through, some more like a museum and one that was an exhibition. These helped me process, but it was very difficult and many of us needed a moment to just sit outside and try to understand what was around us. Finally, we went to the gas chamber. This experience is almost indescribable. This building held so much pain and suffering. As we walked through I couldn’t stop thinking about how this dirty cramped building was where thousands of people took their last breath, how the last thing they saw was othering dying people, possible their family or friends. I had a very hard time going through this building, and after some of us read poems that survivors had written. Listening to these poems makes you feel something. It makes you not only sad, but kind of angry. To hear how someone’s entire life was destroyed (or at least severely altered) because of senseless hate makes you feel so small, and almost helpless. After this I spent a lot of time thinking about how wrong it was to feel helpless because we aren’t helpless, the thousands of people in that were affected by the Holocaust fought against their surrounding and if they can do that we should be able to do almost anything.
Best wishes from Poland!