Visiting Lublin and Majdanek

My Heritage Seminars group woke up in Lublin after our second night in Poland. We spent the first part of the morning exploring some of Lublin’s sites. First, we went to the Old Jewish Cemetery of Lublin:

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The cemetery was situated just off some roads and residential areas, so it made for an odd juxtaposition to be in the very old (and mostly destroyed) cemetery but also to be able to look out and see normal life so nearby. Something that was emphasized repeatedly on the trip was how the Nazi’s war against the Jews was much more than a physical war – it was also a mental and emotional war. One of the most striking examples of this was that when Jewish cemeteries were destroyed during the war, the tombstones were often taken and then used to pave the roads in the concentration camps where Jews were kept prisoner. Using Jewish gravestones to pave roads was intended to feel belittling and dehumanizing.

Which brings me to…Majdanek.

Majdanek was the first concentration camp to become a museum and commemoration site – established as such in 1944. One of the unusual things about Majdanek (and perhaps coincidentally the reason for its speedy commemoration) is that it had a high percentage of Polish political prisoners who labored there. The camp first started operating in late 1941, and it was originally opened to be a labor camp for Soviet Prisoners of War. This purpose evolved to include many Polish political prisoners and also Jews. One of the unique features about Majdanek is that – unlike many other camps – it is not in an isolated area. In fact, it is within the boundaries of Lublin. Today, it is right next to some busy roads and residential areas. It was crazy to imagine the people living there giving directions to their house, “okay, so you drive straight past Majdanek and then turn left…”

The camp today includes a combination of commemorative art, restored barracks and other buildings, and a museum. At the entrance to the camp is this distinctive piece of commemorative art – to approach the sculpture one must go down into a narrow arrow with jagged stones coming in from all sides.:

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Approaching it really gives the impression of walking towards an ever-increasing peril with no escape – the artist did a good job relaying the message! Looking out at the fields of Majdanek, I was immediately struck by how vast the camp was. Compared to the relatively small area of Treblinka, it was abundantly clear that a camp needed to be much larger if people were there to work rather than only to die.

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We entered the camp through the same gate at which men and women were separated after arriving to the camp, and we passed several guard towers along the way:

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After being separated along gender lines, people who arrived to the camp experienced the infamous sorting process of who was fit enough to work and who would be killed immediately. Both groups made their way through this building:

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Those who were selected to live were stripped of their clothes, belongings, hair, and sent to this room where actual water came down from the shower heads on the ceiling. The water was often freezing cold and then boiling hot:

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The clothes of all the prisoners were disinfected in another room in the same building. The disinfectant used for the clothing was Zyklon B, the same chemical that would later be used in the gas chambers to kill people. The pictures below show empty Zyklon B containers as well as stains on the walls of the rooms where the chemical was used:

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Those who were not sent to the real showers, were sent to the ‘showers’ – the gas chambers were referred to by this code name so as to decrease the likelihood of revolt. Those who were to be gassed were crowded into a small room:

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An SS guard would stand outside in a small adjoining room and dispense poisonous gas through metal pipes into the room. The SS officer would also watch the death of those in the room through a small grated window:

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Most of the people who died in the gas chambers were women, children, and the elderly, although men who were too sick or emaciated to work were also killed in this way.

After leaving the bath and gas house, we walked about 30 minutes towards the other end of the camp, stopping to take a glimpse into one of the barracks:

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At the far end of the camp was another piece of artistic memorialization.The writing on the outside of the dome reads, “let our fate be a warning to you.”

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Inside the dome, are the ashes of prisoners cremated at the camp, collected when the camp was liberated in 1944.

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This was one of the two most disturbing sights for me during the entire trip (the other being a seemingly endless mound of hair at Auschwitz). I don’t know what I was expecting when I approached this mausoleum, but when I looked in and saw the above pile of ash, it was too much for me and I walked away immediately.

The crematorium, where these ashes were produced, is right next to the mausoleum:

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And, as a final reminder of destruction, there are also mass burial pits at this end of the camp next to the crematorium and mausoleum. These pits hold the bodies of Jews killed during Aktion Erntefest (Operation Harvest Festival), a ‘cleaning up’ operation in which about 42,000 Jews were killed in two days in November 1942. This was an attempt to wipe out those Jews who had not been killed by the three Reinhard camps.

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While this was another heavy day, I also experienced a lot of feelings of gratitude and appreciation. The silver lining, for me, of this type of trip is feeling an immense desire to treasure the good things in my life, the people I love, and the good fortune of my own relative safety in the world. Seeing sites like those described above makes it difficult to complain about little things or to not feel amazed at the good fortune and blessing of my own life.

Other Poland posts:

Warsaw
Tikocyn and Lupachowa Forest

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Heritage Seminars in Poland

Last week, I went on a five day trip to Poland with Heritage Seminars. The trip was through Pardes, and I went with about 25 other current and past Pardes students. As soon as I learned about the opportunity to participate in this trip, I knew I wanted to go. I had not been to Poland before, and I thought that the trip would provide a valuable experience for me to learn about, confront, and better understand the destruction of Jews that took place in Eastern Europe during the Holocaust. While the trip definitely had a somber tone and – at times – felt extremely frightening, there was still an emphasis on life, perseverance, and the ultimate survival of the Jewish people.

We arrived to the Warsaw airport at about 8:30am (after traveling through the night) on the Sunday before last, and the group immediately embarked on a fully-scheduled day.

The first stop of the trip was the Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw.

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Warsaw was one of the European centers of Jewish life before Word War II. In 1939, there were 3.5 million Jews living in Poland – 350,000 of them living in Warsaw. At the end of the Holocaust, 90% of the 3.5 million were murdered. The cemetery was active before the war, with 150,000 people already buried here pre-1939, so there were some extremely old parts of the cemetery:

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Many of the older tombstones were adorned with art and carving. This tombstone shows a hand giving tzedakah (generally translated as charity, although it’s not a perfect translation!). The hand is partially obscured by a curtain to indicate that the giver is donating anonymously (anonymous giving is considered the highest level of giving according to the Rambam).

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There were also several graves that had been restored in recent years with new tombstones. The severed column represents that the person buried there died earlier in life than what would be normally expected:

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During the war, 80,000-100,000 people were buried in this cemetery in mass graves. Today, the cemetery continues to receive some use from the small – but existent – Jewish community of Warsaw.

Inside the Warsaw cemetery was the grave of the well-known and much-beloved Yiddish author, I. L. Peretz. Peretz died in 1915, and is said that over 100,000 people attended his funeral.

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After the cemetery, we visited a piece of what remains of the Ghetto Wall:

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Most of the ghetto wall was destroyed by the end of the war (along with 80% of the entire city of Warsaw), so there isn’t much left of the wall to see – and even less remains of what was the ghetto itself. The small section pictured above now stands in the midst of apartment buildings and sidewalks, a grim reminder of what happened here. When the ghetto was instated, 450,000 Jews were crowded into the area (all of the Jews living in Warsaw, plus another 100,000 from the nearby areas). This was nearly 40% of the city’s population occupying only 3% of the land.

After visiting the ghetto wall, we went to the new Museum of the History of the Jews. This museum has only been open since April 2013, and its core exhibit just opened this past October. I don’t have pictures because it was dark when we got there and I was too enthralled by the exhibits to take pictures, but the museum was fabulous! It is ENORMOUS (about 43,000 sq. ft., according to their website), and it thoroughly covers the narrative of Polish Jews from their arrival in the 1300s until post-WWII.

After the museum, the last event of our jam-packed first day in Poland was a visit with the Chief Rabbi of Poland, Rabbi Michael Schudrich. Rabbi Schudrich is actually an American, but he has lived and worked in Poland since 1990. He is in the white shirt in the photo below:

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We heard Rabbi Schudrich speak about the Polish Jewish community, the challenges it faces, and some details about his work. He told us how, after the war, only 10% of Poland’s Jewish population remained alive – about 350,000 people. Of that group, 250,000 left Poland, mostly moving to Israel of the United States. Of the 100,000 that remained, many hid or cast off their Jewish identities, too afraid and traumatized to fully live as themselves. Today, many of the children and grandchildren of these survivors are discovering their Jewish roots (or, older family members are beginning to think it is safe to reveal the truth). Rabbi Schudrich described a large part of his job as being to help these people to piece together different bits of information or ‘clues’ they have regarding their Judaism and, also, to help determine how many ‘pieces’ need to exist before being able to determine that someone is, in fact, Jewish. The situation that Rabbi Schudrich describes in Poland doesn’t exist in isolation, and many Jews from the former Soviet Union are experiencing the same identity challenges.

Overall, the first day in Poland was an exhausting whirlwind fueled by only airplane-sleep (ie, poor sleep), but it was a great first look into the history of the Warsaw/Polish Jewish community and the effects of the war. In hindsight, I think this day was the ‘easiest’ emotionally – no mass graves, no death camps, and, given the destruction of so much of the city, very little to serve as a physical testament to the horrors of the Holocaust. And, on that cheery note, check back soon for more photos and information about the rest of the trip!