By: Shayna Zema
We passed a large stone structure, joking it looked like “Stonehenge,” as we arrived at Majdanek to our surprise. I looked out in the distance at my surroundings, and felt not the slightest urge to stop and eat lunch in a place like that. I saw what looked like a market street in the distance, and decided to approach the vendors to better see what the local economy looked like in a place like Poland. Walking on the grassy patch in that direction, I stopped suddenly, realizing that my path was completely blocked. I was enclosed in barbed wire. My eyes widened for a moment: I didn’t yet enter the camp and I already felt locked up, unable to move physically and emotionally. I turned around and headed for the monument memorial. Nobody was there; red tape lined certain areas, closing them off to visitors. I stood in front of the immense structure right in the middle. I shuddered, staring directly into the heart of a preserved Nazi death camp. The dark wooden towers, the pathways, the barracks. I felt like I had seen these images in photos before, but it wasn’t the same as viewing them in person. I looked out at the outskirts of Lublin which seemed less that 500 feet away from the death camp, and felt resentment, anger, and maybe even hatred for the Poles who lived there and did nothing to stop the Germans. Yes, taking action would have put their own lives in jeopardy, but I’d hope that if I were ever faced with danger or the preservation of human rights and justice that I would choose the latter. I sat on the edge of the memorial, staring out at the remains of Majdanek and trying to tame my emotions when, all of a sudden, a bird flew over head. Then, another and another and another bird joined until a whole flock flew, singing the joyous cries of the grieving voices that have been silenced.
We entered the camp afterward with the group. As soon as I drew closer to the space, saw the selection square, and realized that we were to enter a gas chamber, I knew this would be an intense experience for which I could never have thoroughly prepared. I entered the bathing house. While all that was visible were concrete floors, wood siding, sinks, and showers, the emptiness revealed the fullness of the misery of the camp’s victims.
I touched the walls, stood on the floor, and felt my breath grow heavy. As I passed into the foyer outside the gas chambers, I noticed a star of David etched into the wooden door post. My fingers traced its lines; there was a presence calling out to me and with each thing I touched, I had visions of the horrors that occurred in the space. As I approached the gas chambers, the tears fell uncontrollably from my eyes. I saw the pipes lining the floorboards and the blue stains on the walls from Cyclone B. I saw the thick metal doors that were slammed shut as people were locked into a cement room, no larger than a small bedroom. I touched the wall, seeing the hundreds of people taking their last breaths, screaming, clawing, and fighting for their lives. The women, men, and children, valiant in their own way, yet faced with the putrid mechanism of mass destruction.
We got back in the bus and drove to the other side of the camp. For being a “small” camp, its size epitomized the masterful design for murder and efficiency of the process. We entered the crematoria. We saw the shooting trenches. Sniffles galore and eyes red and watery, words can’t express how I felt. How the place seethed with grief, with shrieks from the victims who can no longer shout. How the ground yearns to not bear innocent blood any longer. I stepped up to the mausoleum. Standing in shock, I gazed at the ashes of the countless victims slaughtered at Majdanek. I walked around the circle and sat on the stone ledge, staring into the heap of human remains. Tears swelled in my eyes. I thought about my family, my great grandparents, cousins, uncles, aunts, women, men, children, and babies. People who could have impacted my life. People who could have told me a joke and made me laugh. People who could have challenged me to question what I value. People, who I have not and will never meet. I looked at the nearby town, again, and felt a sense of disgust, turning away not to even acknowledge it with my gaze. As I went to stand up, I noticed a Jewish star somehow on the side of the heap of ashes. I wiped my tears and reminded myself of my deep, burning commitment to stand up, to fight for Judaism and its preservation, to fight for my family, to fight for my nation.
As the bus drove away and I looked out the window, I saw people walking their dogs and pushing their baby carriages right next to the site. I sighed, thinking about the intense burden of bearing this memory. I thought about the idea of living space–of demarcating the boundary and preserving the place of the camp, while also moving on and having a place where normal life can function. But was this ok? Was it ok that the mausoleum had only a few rocks placed on top while the neighboring Catholic cemetery was overflowing with flowers? Was it okay for people to live with a grand vista looking out onto the camps?
In Lublin, we entered a museum hidden by the gate to the Jewish quarter. Tucked away in the middle of nowhere, was a place that focused on individuality, about renaming and revisualizing the importance of each individual. It is so easy with big catastrophes to get caught up in statistics, in numbers, yet each life is just as valuable at twenty, as one thousand, as one million. But how many people actually enter this museum? How many people choose to remember? How many people can bear the burden of not just walking by, looking away, and going through the gate?