No one in my family has ever returned - or wanted to return - to Poland since my grandparents fled after the horrors of the Holocaust; last week, I broke that tradition. Here is my story from that trip:
The first concentration camp we visit is the camp of Majdanek, located on the outskirts of Lublin. The camp is, for lack of a better word, colossal. Death, despair, and tragedy all reach out as far as the eyes can see; not one square foot of land is safe from it. Upon entering the camp, we make a sharp right and enter a building titled "Bad und Desinfektion I;" "Bath and Disinfection." It is a brown, wooden structure which looks like a small barn; worn down on the outside by years of exposure to the elements, but worn on the inside solely by fingernail scratches and piercing screams of years long ago. We turn left into a large room, and I am confronted by rows and rows of old, open, intimidating showers, whose stares pierce deep into my soul. Fortunately for me, I have the pleasure of knowing these are actually showers; many did not. Following this, we enter the final room of the tour of this building; it is a cement room, neither particularly large nor particularly small. Comfortably, maybe 100 people can fit in here. But I implore of you: of what matter is comfort to those condemned to death?
It is at this point that I would like to take a moment to describe the process in which the Nazis operated. For those of you who may not know, to the Nazis, the Holocaust was a large game. The more deceptive the process of killing Jews could be, the more exciting this game was. As a proof to my point, I offer the following: why make those whose fate is nothing more than being gassed and cremated take showers? Deception.
The room I am currently in is a gas chamber. Stained with a blue residue left over by Zyklon-B, the gas used to kill Jews, the walls are marred by the scratch-marks of the thousands of Jews who never lived to see the outside world again. Packed in the room, the forty of us fan out to form a circle. Locked arm in arm, we break out into song proclaiming G-d's greatness; I feel as though we are joined by the screams of the hundreds of thousands who perished here, screams that forever echo off the cold walls of the warm room. As we exit the building and move onward, my eyes are fixated upon the black chimney of the camp’s crematorium, far in the distance. My mind is again flooded with questions: Who could perpetrate such a crime? What could motivate a group of people - a group of highly cultured people - to carry out such an abomination? Yet there is one question which seems to scream louder than any and all other: how could it be that the residents of Lublin, the very people with this concentration and death camp in their backyard, did absolutely NOTHING to stop this from happening? Two answers pop into my head, answers which are relevant to what is going on in Israel as well:
It is either that the smoke from burning Jews carries no smell, or the people of the world just get used to it.
As we begin to walk, a chaperone, a friend, and I all begin to interact with a guard at the camp. My chaperone, who has been to Majdanek once before, asks the following: "I've noticed that most of the barracks and rooms that were accessible in the past are no longer accessible; are they closed off forever, or just temporarily?" The guard quickly and apathetically responds: "Forever." Frustrated, I interject: "I am sorry to have to ask this, but of what purpose are these historical artifacts if no one can walk into them and see, first hand, the horrors of what happened here? If people cannot experience the history, these buildings become just that: buildings." With a confused look on his face, he answers me, saying, "They're just empty rooms."
Just empty rooms.
As we arrive at the end of hour tour at Majdanek, we stand outside of a large collection-dome of the ashes of the hundreds of thousands who perished here. The group gathers around the ashes to talk about the exhibit; we stand arms length from each other, bereft of words as a result of the amount of ashes in front of us. I stare out over remnants of the many thousands of Jews whose remains lay here with my heart heavy, filled with emptiness.
I now understand what G-d meant when He said that one day the Jewish people will be as numerous as stars and, in this case, as the sand.
Peering Into Emptiness
Before coming to Poland, I had one very specific expectation: That, at the very least, I'd be able to understand some of what happened. However, after the first few days, I have realized that it may be impossible to meet that expectation. I am having trouble understanding everything that has gone on so far and, thus, I have f that I couldn't really feel bad about what happened. I was angry, sad, mad, horrified, and disgusted in my heart; every part of my soul ached and yearned for the six million Jews who are no longer with us as a result of this heinous crime against humanity. However on a purely logical level, I cannot actually understand what happened. How could six million have been killed? To me, that has, for the most part, seemed out of reach. That was until I arrived at Belzec this morning.
We arrive at about 1000, and all I see are rocks. Yes, rocks; big, black, rocks. However, to me, these are more than just rocks. These rocks finally are a visual aid which puts into perspective a number. And although this number may not equal the number of Jews murdered in the Holocaust, it does put into perspective just how many six million may actually be. Belzec was a murder factory, for lack of a fitting politically correct term. There is a politically correct term which is used, but this term is not proper. The term is "Death Camp." Death is, at the very least, natural. You die of old age. You die of natural causes. You do not die of Zyklon-B inhalation; you are murdered by such a method. You do not die at the hands of the Nazis, you are murdered by them. This is not a death camp; it was an extermination center.
As we tour the grounds, I begin to notice something interesting. There is a group of Polish students there, presumably to learn about the horrors of the Holocaust. At one point, our group crosses paths with a Polish group, and I make brief eye-contact with a Polish boy. As we stare at each other in the eyes, he quickly looks away; it is as though while he stares at me, my grandparents stare back.