Traveling through Poland: Majdanek and Warsaw

Hello Everyone!

We hope that you had a wonderful Shabbat!  I have a lot to share about yesterday and today.
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 liberatedand 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. 
Clearly, this camp was a difficult one for us to visit and it was truly inspiring how our over 200 person delegation came together to lean on each other for support. As in all the sites we visit, our group was able to have a meaningful closure to the experience with a moving ceremony led by Bus 2 and their committee:

Emma Lustigman (Woodcliff Lake, NJ), Taylor Kahn (Bernardsville, NJ), Anna Sheinberg (Austin, TX) and Joey Reed (Los Angeles, CA)

“I feel scared that people in this world are not afraid to openly oppress others based on their religion at birth. I feel as a community that we need to fight back against all sorts of oppression, whether it’s physical, emotional, or verbal.”  – Joey Reed (Los Angeles)
“Today we went to Majdanek concentration camp. We saw stains on the walls from deadly gas and the tiny beds that held 3 people a night. We saw the crematorium. It looked like a pizza shop, only it wasn’t used for baking pizzas. It was used to turn innocent people into nothing but ash”. – Marni Cantor (Cleveland, Ohio)

“Walking into Majdanek, I didn’t know what to expect. It wasn’t a camp that was taught in Hebrew School. As soon as I walked through the gas chamber, it became surreal. I imagined what it would have been like to be there when it worked. I walked out of it crying. I couldn’t help but think of those who lost their lives while in the gas chamber, and I was able to walk out alive. Next, seeing the barrack full of shoes, made me even more emotional. The experience at Majdanek, as a whole, was more impactful than seeing the other concentration camps.”  – Charlotte Silver-Cohen (Cherry Hill, NJ)
“Majdanek wascrazy. I felt sad, confusion, and pride at the same time. It was so real, I felt like I was going through the camp as an actual victim of the Holocaust. Now, I’m sure I’m a living witness of the Holocaust, and I am sure we will never forget.”  – Shadia Matskin (Buenos Aires, Argentina)

Last night, we celebrated our first Shabbat together with services and singing. Our Judaic committee who prepared Shabbat consisted of Aydin Mayers (Pleasantville, NY)Isaac Kesner (Albuquerquen, NM),Maya Walborsky (Los Gatos, CA)Nicolette Goldstone (Baltimore, MD), and  Hallel Cheskis (Harrisburg, PA)  and our wonderful staff, Alan Brody, Rabbi Ron Muroff and Eric Hunker.
“It felt good to celebrate Shabbat. It was special to lift each other up after a week of us learning together about how people tried to push us down.” – Lauren Katz and Sammi Landsman (Long Island, NY)
“My time in Poland has galvanized my faith in Judaism and makes me so proud to be a Jew. Everyone here on this trip is so prideful, thankful, and faithful.” –  Mayah Sachs (Woodbridge, CT)

Today, we walked to the site that was once the Warsaw Ghetto and heard the stories of sacrifice, heroism and personal accounts of those enduring the hardships during that time.

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 walked 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 stood at Mila 18, the famous bunker of the Ghetto Uprising and teens from led us in a meaningful ceremony at the Rappoport Monument (pictured), a structure honoring the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
Our boys broke into dance and singing with a Chabad group we met in the ghetto. It was truly fun for them and the idea of Jewish life happening in the center of the ghetto was exhilarating and filled all of us with pride. Another meaningful ceremony (pictured) concluded our visit to the Warsaw Ghetto. The presentation was led by Bus 4:
Anna Fleisher (Cherry Hill, NJ), Shadia Matzkin (Buenos Aires), Samantha Zuckerberg (Woodcliff, NJ) and Noah  Nadelbach (Voorhees, NJ)

From the ghetto, we walked to the Warsaw Market, where everyone had the opportunity to see the beautiful Polish architecture and sample various foods. It was a great release for everyone compared to the days of sadness earlier in the week. Shabbat ended with a Havdallah service and 2 local Jewish teens and staff sharing their experiences.

A highlight for the teens was our survivor, Paul Galan, sharing his horrific story  tonight, beginning with his family on the run for many years, thinking he had lost his sister and father, only to be reunited much later when the war was over. The teens were mesmerized by his telling and were so moved by what they heard.

This is a really terrific group of teens and we are so proud of them for understanding the magnitude of this trip and the effect it has had on them so far.

Tomorrow is our final day in Poland and our last camp to visit, Treblinka. We will end our tour with a visit to the Polin Museum (celebrating the history of Jews in Poland).Because we are leaving in the evening, I will not be able to send an e-mail until we get to Israel. I look forward to sharing more with you in my next e-mail.