Majdanek in Poland and Masada in Israel

We have had a rollercoaster of feelings the past two days. Our trip to Majdanek was when the reality of the Holocaust took on a new meaning for all of us. This extermination camp is right in the center of the town of Lublin and it was the one camp that was not hidden in secrecy or subterfuge. The fact that it is exactly as it was when liberated and can be up and running within 48 hours made the visit all the more horrific.

Pictured is the large crematorium on the far right and the mausoleum (far left) containing 17 tons of ashes, the equivalent of 68,000 bodies.

Majdanek was one of the six death camps built by the German/Nazi occupation forces and the SS in occupied Poland. Originally a POW camp for Soviet prisoners, camp authorities started using Zyklon B to murder prisoners, and the camp continued to serve that purpose until it was liberated by the Soviet army in July 1944. Over 800,000 people were transported through Majdanek. The numbers of victims is estimated to be 78,000, including 61,000 Jews. After Fall 1944, the USSR used it as a place for detention of anti-Soviet forces among the Polish population.

The camp covered 667 acres of land, surrounded by an electrified barbed wire fence and 19 watchtowers. Up to 45,000 prisoners could be housed in the 22 barracks. The camp also had many satellite camps, and the Nazis planned to expand Majdanek to house up to 250,000 prisoners. However, these plans were never followed through.

During its existence Majdanek had seven gas chambers, two wooden gallows, a small crematorium and, from 1943, a larger crematorium. As in most concentration camps, many Majdanek prisoners died simply from being there. Death due to disease, starvation, exposure to extreme temperatures, overwork and exhaustion, or from beatings by camp guards, were all extremely common. Others were murdered in mass killing actions. Many of the prisoners, mostly Jews, were sent directly to the gas chambers on arrival.

Throughout the tour, the teens were understandably overcome with an array of emotions and relied on each other to share their feelings. They asked a lot of questions to try to comprehend what they were hearing and seeing. To conclude, all four buses gathered together for Bus 4 (black) to reflect and to lead us in a memorial ceremony.

The following teens inspired us with powerful words, poems, writings and song: Our International AZA President, Colin Silverman (Illinois); Sam Wasserman(Connecticut) speaking near the mausoleum of ashes; Gabe Adler (Georgia) reading his very personal poetry writing; Logan Stalarow (Texas) sharing his thoughts; Sydney Schulman (North Carolina) and Harris Block (Maryland) leading the Traveler’s Prayer; Jodi Teitelman (Connecticut) leading everyone in singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”; and Kaela Shore (Pennsylvania) explaining how the song had so many underlying Holocaust themes.

Flying into Israel Monday morning was filled with so much excitement. Despite the early morning hours and lack of sleep, everyone rallied and climbed Masada and swam in the Dead Sea.

Masada is an ancient fortification in the Southern District of Israel situated on top of an isolated rock plateau on the eastern edge of the Judaean Desert, overlooking the Dead Sea. It is the place where the last Jewish stronghold against Roman invasion stood.

The Dead Sea, also called the Salt Sea, is a salt lake bordering Jordan to the east and Israel and the West Bank to the west. Its surface and shores are 1,388 ft. below sea level, the lowest elevation on the Earth’s surface on dry land.

“The contrast between the darkest and lightest parts of our Jewish history, the dark horrors of Poland and the bright, rich Jewish culture of Israel, has allowed me to feel an overwhelming sense of pride and enthusiasm, to be part of such a strong, resilient community.” Hannah Moses (New York)

“After an emotional day at Majdanek yesterday, being able to walk out of the camp, fly to Israel, land, and immediately hike Masada and swim in the Dead Sea was an even more magical and incredible experience.” Sydney Alhadeff (Illinois)

“Even on the first day, the contrast between Poland and Israel is immense. In Poland, we lived through our people’s past and found power in the strength of community. In Israel, we are building our country’s future and celebrating our desire to do so.” – Maddie Oliff (Illinois)

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