~Matthew Rozell, a history teacher whose project reunited hundreds of Holocaust survivors with the American soldiers who liberated them, takes a backwards journey to the authentic sites of the Holocaust, retracing the path of the survivors who are now his friends.~
A year ago I took one of the most transformative journeys of my life, with 24 fellow educators, to study the Holocaust and the Jewish resistance to it, in Washington, DC, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Poland. I kept an extensive diary and took tons of photographs. And contrary to many assumptions, it was a journey that led to profound understandings about life, not death. For the next several days, I have decided to go back and retrace my steps and try to process what unfolded for me.
Belzec has changed me, somehow. Maybe the personal connection. At each new authentic site, where these unspeakable horrors were perpetrated, some kind of invisible hand pushes me just a little bit harder. It’s tough to explain. But this evening as I write into the early hours in my bed in the splendid Grand Hotel, perhaps Lublin’s most celebrated and storied, I am troubled a bit. I fall asleep fitfully, imagining the sounds of Nazi jackboots on the staircases outside the room where they once strode.
Grand Hotel, Lublin.
Grand Hotel, Lublin.
Grand Hotel, Lublin.
The month after the invasion of the Soviet Union, Himmler ordered the construction of a new concentration camp on the outskirts of Lublin, for centuries an important center of Jewish life and culture in Europe. The original purpose of the camp, to be known as Majdanek (pronounced “My-don-ek”), was to provide forced labor for the construction of SS and administrative centers in the planned eastern territories.
Majdanek holds a central role in the administration of Operation Reinhard. To recap, for just over two years beginning in October 1941, the purpose of the operation was
1) the physical annihilation of the Jews residing in the Generalgouvernement (occupied Poland);
2) the exploitation of some Jews selected to survive temporarily as forced laborers;
3) the seizure, evaluation, and recycling of clothing, personal property, valuables, and currency taken from the murdered Jews at the killing centers; and
4) the identification of so-called hidden assets of the Jews in the Generalgouvernement.
Within the framework of Operation Reinhard, Majdanek primarily served to concentrate Jews whom the Germans spared temporarily for forced labor. It occasionally functioned as a killing site to murder victims who could not be killed at the Operation Reinhard killing centers: Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka II. It also contained a storage depot for property and valuables taken from the Jewish victims at the killing centers.
Like other concentration camps in the Reich, Majdanek also served as a killing site for targeted groups of individuals, including members of the Polish resistance, hostages taken from the Security Police prison in Lublin, and prisoners in the camp itself who were deemed no longer capable of work. ~USHMM
Majdanek. Photo by Alan Bush.
Majdanek. Premier Soviet Sixties style.
You know how a sound, or a smell, can bring trigger memory?
I am at Majdanek. This place is the real deal. The barracks are intact wooden shacks. The guard towers menace like creatures from “The War of the Worlds”.
On top of that, the Soviet Memorial in the far off distance resembles a flying saucer hovering over an unknown object.
Majdanek. Note Soviet Memorial at the end of the road… It is actually much more than a memorial. Which I did not know until I saw it with my own eyes.
Approaching the memorial. Still no idea of what I am about to witness.
The buildings reek. I know that smell. Gasoline-like. My dad used to layer it on thick, this petroleum based wood preservative, on our hunting shack in the Adirondacks when I was a teenager, before the government outlawed it for public use.
At this site, do you know that this camp is, to my knowledge, the only one that was captured intact, by Soviet forces, exactly 69 years ago this month as the Red Army overran this area? And it has an un-destroyed gas chamber?
So why not see it?
Go in it?
Majdanek. Gas Chamber building. “Showers”.
Majdanek. Gas Chamber building. “Bath and Disinfection I”
Well, I did go in the building where it is housed.
Low ceiling. Dark. Concrete floors with gutter channels. Sinks. Pushing a bit deeper, my chest begins to constrict. Collar feels tighter. Into another door and room in the “assembly line”. Showerheads above, all connected, all so orderly.
Trailing behind, now.
To continue moving forward with the group will bring me to the gas chamber. I turn around and my feet carry me back, fast, and through the entrance, I exit.
I’m just not going there.
Alan takes a photo inside, not of the chamber or the empty Zyklon B canisters, but of the sign:
Bath and Disinfection I-Fawn, Alan, Ashley, Beryl–Majdanek Poland 15 July 2014. Photo by Alan Bush.
I wait outside. I am conscious of a pull to witness, but today I am just not going to go in.
The next building is the storehouse. “Majdanek also served another key Operation Reinhard function; it contained storage facilities for clothing and personal items stolen from the Jews before their deaths in the Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka II killing centers.” (USHMM)
Walking in here you are overpowered first by the smell of the creosote, then your eyes try to take it all in- row upon row of piles of shoes, behind chicken wire. Is this possible?
Shoes and lost dignity, Majdanek Poland 15 July 13. Alan Bush photo.
Alan Bush photo.
Time to move in to the barracks area.
Two young Polish women with a stroller casually pass us, chatting. They are cutting through Majdanek to take a shortcut to the Catholic cemetery on the outside of the memorial complex. The irony is not lost on the group.
And it is going to get a helluva lot more ironic in the next 20 minutes.
On to the Soviet Memorial and the crematorium. The crematorium is intact, too. Again I hang back.
My journal, written on the spot, at that moment:
I am at Majdanek. I would not go into the gas chamber and right now I will not go into the crematorium.
I go over and check out a memorial stone with a plaque near the steps to the Soviet Memorial.
Memorial Stone. Note undulating terrain in background. Alan Bush photo.
Me alone at Majdanek.
So what happened at this spot? I think I need to sit down. Now.
They play the music really loud to try to disguise the gunshots to the folks back in the town. It’s starting to have the makings of a really long day. A bit chilly too, being early November and all. The shooters.
Right now I am sitting on the concrete steps alone in front of a memorial stone, right before the ditches where 18,500 Jews were executed in the “Harvest Festival”.
I am in front of a mass grave by myself. I want to be alone so right now I am pretending to write something deep.
And here is your 1943 view.
So I’m kinda stunned, sitting on the stairs and scratching such nothingness into my notebook. What else should I be doing?
When the group trickles over to the steps, we ascend. Someone asks if I am okay.
Yeah, I’m fine.
Eighteen thousand five hundred. Murdered right in front of me. In one day. That is twenty times the population of our high school, on a good day, when they all feel like coming to school.
Now we are under the dome, that stupid looking flying saucer. We are in it, looking down on a mound the size of a small house. Big pile of whitish grayish stuff. And as the realization dawns, now comes the shock that nearly knocks me over on my ass. What the poor saps in the Twilight Zone must have felt as they realized everything was the opposite of what they had assumed. I’m suddenly in a very personal episode of the Twilight Zone.
I don’t need a sign for this. As a trained archaeologist, I have excavated this more than a few times.
I am looking at a mountain of burned bone. Calcified bone fragments, powder, and earth.
Kippah on ashes Majdanek 15 July 13. It’s a giant urn, an open air mausoleum. (Note people in background for scale.) Photo by Alan Bush.
I am face to face with cremated human remains. Bleached white and gray from superheat.
How many thousands of human beings are in front of me?
I don’t know why, but I don’t participate in the Kaddish here. Sorry. I don’t pocket a rock for a memorial memento, either.
Catholic cemetery, Poland. I suppose you could get an accurate count here.
Today was a bad dream day.
And if there are any words, they are drowned out by some kind of twisted irony here in Majdanek, this monument to the dead, in the sounds of being outflanked by a speeding baby stroller cutting through the camp, wheels squeaking-yes, maybe life, but an apt metaphor for the present, willful yet oblivious, dodging and darting the presence of the past.
But it’s here.