Sunday, May 16, 2010


I arrived at Majdanek (my-dan-ek) concentration camp, becuase of a time zone error, a little before it officially opened. The gates were open and I went in. In the morning, nuns from the seminary across the street come to pray and they were leaving. The young woman who was posted at the front office sized me up as I entered too early. She asked, in Polish, where I was from. Polish is close enough to Ukrainian - and I've become good enough at guessing - to know what she was asking. I answer in English. She apologized, and then laughed a little. She told me she would go ahead and open everything up for me - which was very nice of her.


The whole experience is emotionally devestating. I've read books and seen films about the holocaust, but to be present on the grounds where the atrocity actually occured is an intense experience. This is the the room where the guards would stand to watch while the gas was pumped into the gas chambers. Standing in this little room, I began to sympathize with Holocause deniers - because that simply seems to be the only explanation that could cover the evil and make it go away. This couldn't be real ... could it?


It's the faces that haunt most effectively. On one wall hang dozens of pictures of guards, orderlies, doctors, and commanders who oversaw the concentration camp. On the opposing wall hang photos of hundreds of pictures of victims: jews, homosexuals, polish, women, childen, doctors, lawyers, artists, bricklayers, escapees, liberated, murdered. If you were to take down the photographs and shuffle them together you could never sort them back out again. The jewish doctor killed at Majdanek looks just the same as the commanding SS officer who oversaw his murder. The toys and religious items manage to pack a double punch.


One building contains 250,000 shoes found on the grounds of Majdanek. They line the walls in fenced containers. Children's shoes and ladies-high-heels. Workers boots and summer sandals. I recounted briefly being upset that morning for walking with a pebble in my shoe I just couldn't shake - I felt a tremendous amount of shame for the comfortable life style in the presence of this monument to human courage and catastrophe.


Sometimes I didn't want to walk any further. In the back of the camp there is a crematorium and I didn't want to go inside. I didn't want to face the true evil of the human condition. Each crematorium furnace had a sliding plate the exact size of a body. These were truly built with only one purpose in mind. After circling the whole camp, the final sight is an old Soviet monument. Under a large rock dome rest the ashes of thousands of Majdanek victims.

This is a lesson from history which I hope future generations will never learn from firsthand experience.
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