Saturday, June 13, 2015

Following the Tracks: 4 Camps in 2 Days

I’ll apologize in advance for the length. I’ve seen a lot and haven’t had the time or internet to post until now, so it is a longer post than I’d normally publish.

It has been one long and empty Polish road after another as I went from city to city, and off into the middle of nowhere to see additional camps in Poland. There are six death camps in Poland and in order to see them all I had to travel for hours by car, view the site, and then leave to make it to the next site. I think I was able to plan it out enough in advance that for the most part I haven’t been rushed at any of the sites. Fortunately, since I knew where I was going I did a lot of research and reading about each of the sites in advance so I would know what I was seeing, the history of the camp, and how they all fit into the vast web of mass murder.

After leaving Oświęcim I headed to Krakow, which I had the luck to have visited last time I was in Poland with Eastern Michigan University. I had some lunch in the old city square, overlooking a festival and horse drawn carriage rides. Following lunch, I did some shopping at the amazing market in the center of the square. On my previous visit I didn’t have extra money to buy much of anything, and this time I saved up for months so I could buy a couple of special presents for a few family members. Krakow is known for its amber jewelry, and it is indescribably beautiful.

Following lunch, it was back on the road so that I could make the next stop. Lunch took 10x longer than I planned so I attempted to head right to Belzec, but it became clear that I needed to just head to my hotel in Lublin. The hotel was amazing! It sat right at the base of a castle and was feet from the old town square. I had an amazing dinner looking over the beautiful city all lit up as darkness fell. I can easily understand how it is that this city is talked about as one of the most beautiful places to visit. It is already on my list to come back and stay for a week, truly beautiful.

The next morning I was determined to get back on schedule, which meant countless miles and a very long day. I got up early and headed out on the road. The first stop was Majdanek, which is notorious because as the first camp to be liberated, it was liberated so fast that the guards only had time to flee and couldn’t hide what they had done. So the liberators found bodies, crematoria, and more importantly, fully functional gas chambers. It is here that you can step into a camp that could begin operations today. It is beyond my ability to describe the feeling of standing in a gas chamber with walls discolored by the use of Zyklon B. At Majdanek many different methods for killing were used. The guards used firing squads, carbon monoxide, and Zyklon B as the camp, and its killing capacity evolved over time.

Here are some pictures of the first part of the camp including the gas chambers:

After going through the gas chambers and the first barracks you, see an art installation that is meant to represent the unknown victims of the camp, of which there are many. While I am generally skeptical of art that attempts to capture the Holocaust, this was possibly one of the most moving exhibits I’ve ever seen. You walk into a mostly dark barracks with just dim lights and you can hear many people taking in different languages. Many lights are suspended from the ceiling and are wrapped in barbed wire. To stand here, feel, see, and smell all of the elements are an overwhelming experience. You feel both anxious, and sad, and completely uneasy, I have only had this feeling a few other times in my life and it is a unique piece of art that can evoke these feelings so immediately.

Here are some pictures of the art installation:

Finally, there are the memorials. The first is located just as you walk into the camp and is so incredibly massive that it defies logic. Which, if you really think about it, is fitting. The events that took place here often defy our logic of how the world works, what is logical, and the basic principles of human decency for our fellow man. A straight line back to the back of the camp is the second memorial. Located next to the crematoria used to burn those that had been murdered and hide the evidence was a mammoth domed monument. Once I made it to the far end of the camp I quickly realized that under this dome was a truly massive mount of human ashes. It is jaw dropping. Here are the cremated remains of countless innocent men, women, and children. Once I was able to wrap my mind around the monument as a whole I began to notice pieces that didn’t look like normal ash, this is when I noticed that there were actual pieces of bone in with the cremains. Beyond my experience with the display of bodies at sites of the Rwandan Genocide, this was one of the most graphic and grotesque sites I’ve seen. But this is a completely unique experience and memorial that I have to admit provides a completely different dimension of understanding of the scale of the atrocities committed here. How do you visualize thousands of people, much less hundreds of thousands or millions of people? Making people understand the scale is one of the major challenges and I think that this memorial effectively adds one more piece to the puzzle of my understanding.

Here are pictures of the two memorials:

Following the visit to Majdanek it was back in the car for a two hour drive to Bełżec. Once I got to the town I had to figure out exactly where the monument was. There are few signs that direct you immediately to the memorial. After a little trial and error, I pulled up to this massive memorial. The first thing you see is the wall for the compound and the memorial rising up behind it. As I walked up to the gate, I saw an inscription mounted to the wall. The metal that made the inscription had began to rust and was bleeding its color onto the wall, providing a possibly unintended, but completely bone chilling visual as I entered the camp. Here is a picture of the inscription:

When I walked into the memorial, I was immediately struck by the immense size of the memorial. It is unbelievably large and is unique to the camp. It honors the countless killed, while telling the story of the horrors that unfolded here. I will end the description here, because the pictures will do a much better job showing you what the memorial is like. Here are a few pictures:

Following Bełżec I had to jump back in the car for a 3 hour (give or take a few stops + several dozen tractors slowing me down) to get to Sobibór. I was so focused on what the GPS was telling me that I originally missed it and ended up going down a two track lane into the middle of the forest… which is a little unsettling in the middle of nowhere near the Ukrainian border! After a backtrack I realized where the camp was, only to find out it was technically closed. Luckily, the guard allowed me to go back when I explained I had come from America and that I studied this and worked with Holocaust survivors. He told me not to touch anything I shouldn’t and I could go back. After walking down a long trail, I came to the area that excavation work is currently underway. It is here that they have been excavating the site of the gas chambers. Most of it was covered, but you could crouch down and see what was under the propped up tarps. You could easily see the foundations of the gas chambers. I felt privileged to see this fragment of the history as well as to be allowed back where others were turned away. Walking around the roped off area I made it to the official memorial. Here the monument mimics that of the pile of ashes at Majdanek, though it was made of gravel instead. It was also massive, which is fitting because of the events that transpired here. Walking back a little ways towards the car I came across a path of remembrance that had rocks with plaques commemorating some who died here, with individual names. At the end of the trail was a small memorial. It was surreal to stand where thousands lost their lives, alone, and hear nothing but the breeze through the trees, and the subsequent creaking of the trees against the strain. I walked back to the car and spotted in the tall overgrown bushes and weeds the infamous metal train sign for Sobibor. After some perilous climbing around some tracks and bushes, I made it to the sign where I was able to get a few pictures. Here are pictures of Sobibór:

Following this visit, it was time to head about 3 hours to Warsaw to check into the hotel. I went to bed and in the morning was back up to go visit Treblinka, the 4th camp in 2 days. It’s only about 1.5 hours from Warsaw and was a much easier drive than the previous monuments. I arrived and made my way in the oppressive heat and in a swarm of the largest flies I’ve ever seen in my life to the memorial for the death camp. Here the memorial is again larger than you can imagine. As I started walking near the center memorial, the largest object in the memorial I realized that the ground around it was sand that apparently was home to thousands of yellow jackets. There was a constant buzz of their wings and thousands patrolled the area. I carefully navigated my way through the infested zone without being stung and continued to view the memorial. Here are pictures of the memorial:

Following the memorial, I traveled farther down the road where I saw the labor camp and then the execution sites/ graveyard farther back. Pictures included above. 

Following the rest of the memorials and visiting the recently opened museum, it was back in the car to spend the afternoon in Warsaw. Tomorrow I head to Chełmno extermination camp and then on to Berlin.

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