Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Hardest Day of the Trip

In many ways, this was the hardest day of the trip for me, not logistically, but emotionally.  Logistically, everything went far smoother than last time.  We reached Belzec from Lublin in a little less than 2 and a half hours.

I knew there was no food for purchase anywhere near the camp, nor is eating permitted in the memorial site, so I warned the students that they would need to pack a meal.  There are no chairs, benches or tables, so we sat on a small, raised curb in the parking lot where they put flags during ceremonies.  Behind us, we could see the entry to the camp, written in iron letters that are intentionally rusting, leaving stains down the concrete that resemble blood.

We began by touring the information center.  The area of the center is quite small, but I did warn the students that they may find the room of reflection somewhat disturbing.  The museum is really quite small, but packs an incredible punch for such a small space.  Where there are pages to turn, they are bound to a heavy, dark metal plate that makes a scraping noise as you turn it.  I pointed out some of the officers from the camp that the text highlights, like Oberhauser and Höfle. 

The director Claude Lanzmann tracked Oberhauser down in the late ‘70s, after he had been released after he had only served 4.5 years for participating in the murder of half a million Jews.  Sure enough, they had that clip playing around the corner.  Höfle was the officer who met with Czerniakow in July 1942 to organize the murder of the Jews of Warsaw. After Czerniakow failed to receive any assurances from him about the fate of the orphans, he committed suicide rather than participate in the deportations to Treblinka.

Around the corner was a diagram of the camp and excerpts from Lanzmann’s documentary Shoah.  It’s always surprising to me how many people were murdered in such a small space.  I explained to the students how this was scheduled murder:  the Nazis had to make sure that not too many victims were sent to the camp at the same time, so as to not overwhelm the ability of the Sonderkommando to burn their bodies. 

After a model of the gas chambers, labeled in German, “Bath and Inhallation” and with a Jewish star over the door there is a single sentence, repeated in Polish, Hebrew, and English, on a metal slab stretching from floor to ceiling.  It’s a quote said by a child inside the gas chamber to her mother and was heard by Rudolf Reder, a member of the Sonderkommando and the only survivor of Belzec who lived to give testimony.

The first time I saw this in 2006, I turned pale and fled.  The next time I did my best to avoid looking at it.  Even two years ago, I tried to avoid reading it.  As we were talking afterwards, one of the students mentioned it and I started crying.  It profoundly affects me every time.

The museum includes artifacts they found when they prepared the site to construct the memorial.  These include stone tokens given to the victims to recover their clothing after their “showers” and some of the Star of David armbands that had been on their clothing in the ghetto. 

At the end is a map, showing the systematic murder of the Jews of southern Poland.  Month by month, Jewish communities light up in blue as they are murdered.  Like stars in a dying galaxy, they flare up and then go out. 

Beyond that is the “roof of reflection.”  To get to it, one must pull open a tall, heavy, metal door at the end of a concrete corridor.  Beyond that is a large, dimly lit, cool concrete room.  Beyond a small Polish plaque in stone, the room is completely empty. The sound of the metal door slamming shut on the empty concrete room often unnerves students.  The space is meant to be disturbing, and the empty echoes on the plain concrete floor meant to convey, emptiness, fear, and hopelessness.

After talking for a while outside, we began to tour the memorial itself.  The surface of the memorial is covered in a mix of slag, ash, and impoverished soil, with burnt metal sticking out here and there.  Every now and then, a tiny green shoot peeks through, but they are not allowed to grow and are periodically removed.  Cutting through this field of dark and blasted stones is a path tracing the way the victims walked to the gas chamber.  The floor of this path is paved with cobble stones taken from numerous Jewish ghettos.  The walls of undulating rough grey concrete rise up on either side, higher and higher as one approaches the heart of the memorial, until one is entirely cut off.

At the end is a large stone wall, carved in Hebrew, English, and Polish with a text from the Book of Job. Opposite is a list of common names of people sent to this place to be murdered.  I found my great grandmother’s name and read the Yizkor prayer for those murdered in the Holocaust, first in Hebrew and then in English.

To continue the tour, we climbed the stairs and found the alphabetical list of cities and towns from whence Jews were deported here to be murdered.  Their grave is the vast field of stones and their tombstones are these city names.  I found the marker for the ghetto my great grandmother was imprisoned in and deported from. 

We found a sliver of shade and talked about the memorial and its design.  After that I bought a new book on the camp and we got on the bus and headed away.

Since our drive takes us through Zamosc, I thought it would be nice to stop there for a breath of air.  The town was commission in the 16th century by Count Jan Zamoyski, who wanted to build a town to develop trade in the region. He brought over an architect from Padua, who designed the town around a classic Renaissance square (though the large town hall was added over half a century later).

From there we went to the Sephardi synagogue.  When I first came to Zamosc in 2006, this was still the community library.  Now, it’s small exhibition space.   

Eli Zolkos, who sold us our tickets, turns out to be a leader of the Jewish Defense League in Poland.  His website is full of praise for Rabbi Meir Kahane, ימח שמו. Kahane was a racist son of a bitch.  I saw him once in Jerusalem in 1984 or ’85; he was the only person I ever met who could make Hebrew sound like German. Not happy to see this organization being revived and very unhappy to see it here in Poland.

I gave the students an hour to explore the city or have some food or buy souvenirs.  I sat in the main square and ordered a sundae.  This was a lovely, refreshing dish of two scoops of forest fruit ice cream along with a scoop of vanilla, strawberry sauce, whipped cream, and fresh fruit.  It definitely hit the spot.

After some difficulty, I managed to round up all the students and get them on the bus back to Lublin. 

For dinner, I went to a “Jewish style” restaurant in Lublin’s historic rynek.  I had walked by it many times before but never eaten there.  I was tempted by the duck, but it was half of one and that was just too much, so I got a steak instead, but started with the cabbage soup garnished with raisins and almonds.

I had a very nice conversation with a lovely couple who come to Lublin almost every year.  The wife got a Fulbright in 1984 to teach here in Lublin and recounted stories of the really bad old days.  Her husband has been installing an art installation in a neighborhood.  I asked him about some art I had seen hanging in a tree in Zamosc and the husband said he knew the artist, but couldn’t remember his name.  He’s going to get back to me when he does.

As I was finishing dinner, I could see flashes of lightening, so I called for the bill and paid. Just then it started to rain, so I took cover in the restaurant.  Within a minute, there was a torrential downpour.  Everyone sitting outside rushed in.  I found a chair in the lobby, about three meters from the door, and two meters beyond that to the rain, but the wind was so strong, I could feel the water that far away. 

I found wifi and logged on to the internet.  After telling me the chance of rain today was 0%, it said that the rain would stop by 9:15 (in 35 minutes).  Pretty soon, though, the rain was dying down, and by 8:55, it was safe to leave.

The sky was dramatically red, and I could hear music when I reached the pedestrian mall in the city center.  I walked over and saw that they had lit up the fountains and small children were splashing through them and dance music played loudly.

The sky still looked suspicious so I headed back to my hotel where I ordered a diet coke and the “Beza,” basically a meringue, but this one was flavored by halvah.  I’ve seen a lot of that here, which really surprised me.  
 So now it’s time for bed.  I’ll pack in the morning.

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