Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Crows, Flies and Tears (June 27)

This will be a rather emotional posting.

This morning I got up, had breakfast, and headed by city bus to Majdanek, which was a Nazi concentration and extermination camp located in a suburb of Lublin.

I had trouble telling what stop was the one I wanted because 1) someone had defaced the poster on the bus explaining how many stops there were on each street; 2) I had trouble telling what street we were on; and 3) bus stops in Lublin (unlike other Polish cities in which I've been) don't have signs posted indicating what the name of the stop is. As a result, I got off a stop early and after asking for directions, began to walk towards the camp.

I had to gasp when I passed a residential building and suddenly saw the barbed wires, guard towers, and prisoners' barracks across a wide field. It really is just outside the city. I made my way towards the entry gate. This consists of a metal fence in the shape of melted metal, abstractly referring to the barbed wire of the camp fence. Beyond it is a tall, concrete sculpture, which appears to abstractly embody numbers? I had trouble figuring out what it was intended to signify. Certainly not a menorah, since at most one can discern six separate verticle shapes. Squat lights with bases that are shaped into the years the camp was in operation, line the walkway towards the large sculpture. A plaque indicates that this sculpture is a memorial to the peoples from many nations and nationalities who were imprisoned, enslaved, and killed by the Nazis in this place. In between the entrance gate and the sculpture is a long gash lined with boulders as if from a quarry.

To enter the camp, you can either go through the sculpture and climb down the steps, or you can walk down the steep steps into the gash and make your way through a rough narrow passage. I chose the later.

From there I walked to the corner of the fence where I saw a wooden structure and signs. One pointed straight ahead to the crematorium, the other to the right to the gas chamber. Since it looked as if the entrance to the main part of the camp was to the right, I turned that way. As I approached the barbed wire gate, I saw a cobblestone parking lot and a sign laying out the basic structure of the camp. It was divided into several sections. I had passed several out buildings, used by camp guards. Within the camp proper, there was first a set of barracks used for the storage of items taken from prisoners and those killed in the camps, as well as the early gas chambers used in the camp. To the left of all of these structures stood the prisoner sections of the camp. These were subdivided into six "fields," the barracks of only one of which survive intact.

I had heard there was a museum in the camp, but as I walked through the camp, I didn't see it (it turns out that I had arrived too early and the museum section didn't open until 9 am -- I saw it on my way out of the camp). The first structure I entered after passing through the gate was the men's bathhouse and gas chamber. From out the outside, the entire building seems wooden, and the first room maintains this illusion. There were shower heads on the ceiling and it seems that this room was used for hot showers (though no soap or towels were provided, since, as you will see, this was not the intent of the room). The room served a dual function, to calm the prisoners before extermination and to quicken the extermination process by opening the pores.

The next room, which was lined with concrete, was the experimental gas chamber, where the Nazis practiced how to gas people. That was followed by the storage chamber for the Zyklon B gas cannisters, followed by the first of two gas chambers. In the first chamber, the Nazis killed people with cyanide gas; in the second, they used carbon monoxide gas. Next to the second chamber, you could see the carbon monoxide cannisters and the tubing that carried it into the chamber. Throughout all these rooms, the only sound was the incessent buzzing of flies, which seemed omnipresent.

I quickly left the building and made my way to a barrack that was opened. As I entered, I noticed an odd smell, and with my sun glasses on, all I could see were tall, dark shapes. As I took my glasses off and my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I realized what I was seeing: shoes. A series of bins, the ones on the sides being about three feet high, the two in the center being six feet tall, ran the length of the barracks. I couldn't see the end of them as they disappeared into the darkness. These were not the shoes the prisoners wore in the camp. These badly worn, and in many cases torn and damaged shoes, were what the prisoners wore when they arrived in camp. They were taken from them to be sorted and shipped back to Germany.

From there I saw a gate in the fence leading to the prisoners' barracks. All this time I was the only person, other than grounds staff, in the camp. The only sound was made by the flocks of noisy crows, cawing, hopping, and flying about. This portion of the camp has a model of a castle built by prisoners. I had thought it would lead to the barracks, but that portion was sealed off by the barbed wire fence. I finally found the proper entrance and walked through the double rows of barbed wire into the entact compound. One reason it is intact, is that the Soviet NKVD used it after the war to house members of the Polish army who were later deported to the gulags in Siberia.

Only a few of the barracks are open for viewing. The first shows what the barracks looked like early in the camp when it was used as a slave labor camp. The barrack looked like a stable for horses, with the prisoners sleeping on grey mats on the ground. The second barrack shows what they looked like during the middle period of the camp. Three-tiered wooden bunk beds were added, allowing the Nazis to place 800 prisoners in each barracks. In the final barrack, the Nazis narrowed the bunks and added some rudimentary plumbing (though I couldn't see any sign of it).

From there I headed out of the barracks, turning right onto the road leading to the crematorium and the mauseleum. The latter was a large round dome shaped building I could see from the entrance sculpture. It was built in the 1960s, at the same time as the entrance sculpture, and houses the ashes of some of those burned in the crematorium. The mound is two stories tall.

At that point I was joined by a tour bus of almost all Israelis (there was one man from Holland who I spoke with later who asked what books I used in my class in the Holocaust). The guide was addressing them in Hebrew and I sort of tagged along. I chatted with a few of the people who told me they had spent the night in Lublin, and I could tell from his talk that they had already been in Auschwitz. As we approached the crematorium, he explained that this was the later gas chamber in Majdanek. He noted that wooden exterior, but pointed out this was merely camouflage, since wood is porous and doesn't make a good gas chamber.

As we approached the building one woman in her 60s or 70s cried out (in Hebrew) "the smell! the smell!" I didn't smell anything in particular, other than a faint unpleasant odor that I think was coming from whatever they treated the wood with to keep it from decaying. The first room after the wooden entry way was the dissection room. The guide explained that sometimes prisoners sought to hide valuables by swallowing them. The Nazis were aware of that and so would put the prisoners in water (I had a hard time understanding this part of the guide's talk) and depending on their buoyancy, they would mark them for later dissection. After the gassing, the bodies were placed on a large concrete slab table and cut open, as well as removing any gold teeth.

The next room was the gas chamber. This had a low concrete ceiling and as I stood there with all those people in the mostly dark room, I had to shudder to think what it would have been like in complete darkness and crammed full. From there we moved into the next room, which was used as a morgue where bodies were put while waiting to be either dissected or burned. There was a large sarchophagus in the middle of the room holding the bones of those killed here, surrounded by memorial wreaths and markers.

That room led immediately to the ovens. When I walked in and saw the 7 or 8 ovens with open doors I started to cry, eventually uncontrollably. Even now as I write this some 10 hours later I'm tearing up. A man I had talked to earlier, an Israeli in his late 50s with a ponytail came over and told me that it was all right, that I was alive and had my own country. I felt uncomfortable sobbing so loudly in front of everyone so I quickly made my way back out of the building.

After a few minutes I went back in. By then there were only a few people left in the room and my crying had mostly stopped. I talked with some of the people about the place and how none of my family had died there, but at Belzec. We walked outside talking. From there we went to a section of trenches behind the mauseleum, which were marked with a matzevah, which explained that on two days in November 1943, the Nazis shot 18,000 Jews in these pits and buried them. This was part of their horrifically named Erntefest (literally "harvest festival") which was the code name for the liquidation of the remaining ghettos and slave labor camps in Poland. After that, the only ghetto remaining in Poland was Lodz. The Jews brought here were the last Jews from the Lublin ghetto, after which the Nazis demolished the entire Jewish quarter of the city.

I asked the guide about the museum at Majdanek and he told me where it was. I said goodbye to the group as they prepared a ceremony. Some people had brought a portable tapedeck and were singing songs as I walked off (the man who had tried to comfort me earlier said "am yisrael chai").

I made my way back to the museum and toured it. I had earlier mentioned to several of the members of the group that it bothered me that there were so few mentions of Jewish prisoners at Majdanek (the matzevah -- put up a few years ago -- was the only place I saw a reference to Jews in Majdanek). At the museum, I saw that they now prominently mention that Jews made up 48% of those killed in the camp (the second largest group being Poles). They also include a series of displays on Jewish religious items taken from prisoners, though the most heart rending were the dolls and toys taken from children brought to the camp. There was a barrack building on children in the camp, but I'm pretty sure it was closed and at that point, I couldn't take any more. I left Majdanek.

I wanted to get away from Lublin, so I had planned to go to Kazimierz Dolny. This is a renaissance-era town, about 45 kilometers away. It was about 50% Jewish before the Holocaust and the town is well preserved. I had to take a train and then change to a bus, and when I made the change, the skies opened up and it began to pour rain (of course, I had left my umbrella in the hotel). Not that it would have made a difference; it was so humid that I was soaked just sitting on the bus.

At one point, the woman seated next to me, in her 60s or 70s, asked me a question. I told her in Polish, "I'm sorry, I don't understand. I don't speak Polish." She asked me if I spoke German and I said yes, so we talked in German. She was on her way to Kazimierz Dolny to meet with her sister to sell off her father's things (he had died there three years ago). She lived in Wroclaw, and she's going to Berlin in a week, where her two daughters live. She then told me sotto voce that she's going to work there to earn a little extra money. She said, I think, that she remembered Kazimierz from before the war when it was a half Jewish city. She also told me how angry it makes her when she's in Germany and she sees German posters or listings referring to her city by its old German name of Breslau. I mentioned to her how I had seen a rather fancy train in Gdansk, where the placard on the side read: "Berlin -- Danzig -- Koenigsberg" (referring to the latter two by their old German names, not their present names of Gdansk and Kalingrad). As we got off the bus, she told me that Kazimierz was a very beautiful city, but that the people there are not very nice.

I made my way to a restaurant for a very late lunch. According to my guide book, this is one of the best Jewish-style restaurant in Poland. I've had mixed luck with such restaurants. The ones in Lodz and Tykocin were very good, but the one I ate at last night was pretty bad. Of course, when the menu said that stuffed cabbage was a dish traditionally served at Shavuot, I should have known not to trust the food (Shavuot is traditonally a dairy holiday). It was ok, but the sauce was just tomato sauce covered in fresh dill.

The restaurant in Kazimierz, on the other hand, turned out to be one of the good ones. I ordered the tzimmes, which was prepared with thinly sliced carrots, prunes, honey, and a little bit of cinnimon (though I would have added more). Also, I'm not sure, but I think it may have had some schmaltz in it. For the main course, I ordered the cholent. This was made with yellow lentils, barley, carrots, and roast goose. They served some schmaltz on the side as a gravy, but I did not avail myself of it. It was delicious, but the portion was too large. I only at the goose and as much of the cholent that came with it, but I left a lot of the lentils and barley over. Even now, 7 hours later, I'm not really hungry for dinner (and it's nearly 9pm).

After that it was threatening rain again, so I quickly walked the kilometer out of town to find the local Jewish graveyard. I had read that they had an unusual memorial. Since the Nazis had destroyed most of the cemetery and used the tombstones for road material, in the 1980s, as much of the broken tombstones as they could find were gathered together and made into a wall in front of what remains of the cemetery. About two thirds of the way down the wall there is a jagged gash, which forms the entry way. According to my guidebook, and I think they're right here, it's meant to symbolize the radical rupture of Nazi Germany into Polish Jewish history.

Afterwards I went back to town and found the Jewish market square with the 18th century synagogue (turned into a carpentry shop by the Nazis and a movie theater by the communists). I saw a Polish tour group come by and I could make out the guide telling them in Polish that this was the Jewish market, and describing the synagogue.

After that I just wandered about a bit. It really is a beautiful town, situated on the Wisla river. This is the third (or if you count Malbork, fourth) time I've seen the river, and in the course of my trip, I've basically been following it upstream to its tributaries.

Anyway, time to go to dinner and then pack for Zamosc in the morning. I still haven't figured out how I'm getting to Belzec, but I know for certain I can get a bus to within 8 kilometers of the camp, and from there I may just take a taxi.

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