Majdanek 2017

We arrived in Warsaw tonight after a long and emotional day touring the Majdanek extermination camp. The reality of the Holocaust really took on a new meaning for all of us. This camp is right in the center of the city of Lublin and it was the one camp that was not hidden in secrecy or subterfuge. The fact that it can be up and running within 48 hours made the visit all the more horrific.

BACKGROUND

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.

You can only imagine how difficult it was for everyone standing in the gas chambers, seeing the blue residue remains on the walls from the Zyklon B gas and being in front of the numerous ovens of the crematoria. Outside of the crematorium, we walked along the rolling hills of the mass graves of 48,000 victims that were killed as a retaliation for the revolt in the Sobibor camp, also located in Poland. Pictured above is the large crematorium on the far right and the mausoleum (far left) containing 17 tons of ashes, the equivalent of 68,000 bodies.

Teen Reflections

“Walking around today made me feel connected to those of our past. To walk, to sit, to pray in a place where such hatred took place made me confused, yet glad that I had the opportunity to be a part of this.” – Jaclyn Finkelstein (Gold Coast Region)
 
“With every step I’ve taken on this trip, I have felt a reverberating presence of G-d. An experience such as this allows us to walk the footsteps of our ancestors, replace hope with grief, and carry on the Jewish tradition. Being at Majdanek has given me insight into both the tangibility of the Holocaust and the abstraction of 6 million Jewish lives lost.” – Tara Murray (Eastern Region)
 
“At the end of our walk through Majdanek we came to a large mountain of human ashes. The pile was made up of 60,000 cremated bodies of my people. Although I wanted to look elsewhere and walk away, I couldn’t. Those were once Jews just like me.” – Julia Immershein (Heschel School, Manhattan)
 
“Never again can happen again if we’re not remembering.” – Sharon Shefi (Big Apple Region) 
 
TOMORROW
We will tour Warsaw and then Treblinka. I will not be able to send an email tomorrow night because we will be traveling to Israel.

The Jewish population in Warsaw was 375,000 (1/3 of the city’s total population) when Germany invaded Poland in 1939.  It was the second largest Jewish community, next to New York City.

The ghetto existed from 1940-1943, with half a million Jews forced to live in an area suitable for 10,000. Over 100,000 died from starvation and disease. In the famous ghetto revolt, 300 resistance fighters led a massive street battle against 3000 German soldiers, using makeshift explosives and stolen guns. The Germans finally set fire to the entire ghetto. 75 escaped through the sewers to join the partisans in the forest, but, most were caught and killed. In 1945, Warsaw was liberated. Today, a younger generation of a few thousand is reviving Jewish activity in the city.

We will walk to the Umschlagplatz, which was the station where victims were shipped to Treblinka in cattle cars. Over 300,000 Jews were loaded on trains with promises of a better life, which of course, was a ruse to keep them calm. We will stand atop Mila 18, the famous bunker of the Ghetto Uprising and tour the new Polin Museum, retelling the history of Jews in Poland. The Rappoport Monument (pictured above), is a structure honoring the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in the center of where the ghetto once stood.

BACKGROUND

Treblinka was a major complex, located 50 miles northeast of Warsaw, on the main Warsaw-Bialystok railway line. There were two camps. The Nazis opened the first, Treblinka I, as a small forced-labor camp. The second, larger camp was Treblinka II, built for the sole purpose of extermination. The total number killed at Treblinka was 800,000, making it second only to Auschwitz in the numbers of Jews killed. On August 2, 1943, a group of Jewish prisoner-workers resisted in a planned revolt. Most of the 200 or more who did escape were eventually killed or recaptured. The Nazis closed both camps by 1944 and plowed over both camps to conceal evidence. There were fewer than 100 survivors.

Today, Treblinka a symbolic representation with 17,000 stones scattered over a massive field (pictured), representing every town, community and shtetl that was obliterated during the Holocaust.  The larger stones bear the name of larger towns lost, and the smaller ones are of the nameless small communities that perished.

Our teens will gather at the site of the pits where the bodies were buried in a mass grave and conduct a memorial in memory of the 800,000 Jewish people who lost their lives in Treblinka. We will conclude with a wrap-up of our time in Poland.
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