Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The End of the Road: Finding Chełmno

On the 14th I made my final stop on my journey. After a short drive from Warsaw, I arrived in a sleepy Polish town, Chełmno. I decided to first go to the forest where there are many memorials to those murdered here. The forest was used as the site of mass graves. When victims were loaded into vans with rerouted exhaust, they were driven a few kilometers into the woods. By the time the van stopped everyone inside had asphyxiated and they were dumped into mass graves. Over the years there has been an ever increasing amount of memorialization at this site as well as a great deal of archeological surveys to discover the exact location of the graves, and previous buildings. When I pulled up I could see the massive memorial and some smaller memorials close to the road. One memorial was for the murdered Poles of the area and another much larger one for all of the victims. The memorial, like at the other camps, is massive. As I took pictures of it I realized what was happening in the carvings on the memorial. It was (in my opinion) depicting people going to their deaths, suffering, and was filled with sorrow. What has struck me the most is that each death camp has a completely unique style, aesthetic, or whatever you’d like to call it. Each seems fitting based on what happened here. See these memorials here:

After looking at these memorials I followed the trail down and found more memorials as well as signs showing what buildings used to be located in the forest. At one point along the concrete path there was a small wooden bridge going over part of the concrete path. After some examination I found the sign that explains that where the yellow lines are painted (which is the area the bridge goes over) is the site of  a mass grave 60 meters or so long. After following the trail a little farther I came around a corner to see a huge area cut out of the trees. This area has stone markers to show you where mass graves are located, though a sign says that further research has indicated that the graves are even larger than what is marked. It is mind boggling to come face to face with this place where so many were buried after being murdered. It was just one mass grave after another with small memorials and monuments and paths that you can walk down to see the whole area. There is also a kind of memorial wall which gives the name of the camp and the dates and then visiting groups have attached plaques to the wall to memorialize villages that were lost to Chełmno, and sometimes individuals. Here are some pictures:

After visiting the site of the mass graves I went back to the town to find the museum there. Sitting next to a large white church is a small marker that denotes this as the location of Chełmno Extermination Camp. The church is where Jews were kept overnight when they arrived in the town, and then they were walked over to the palace next door, brought trough the basement, and made their way up ramps into the back of the gas vans. The Nazis have long since destroyed the palace in an attempt to hide the truth of their actions, but archeologists have unearthed the foundation of the building and have found pieces left behind that prove what happened here. I met an amazing woman at the museum who showed me around and gave me additional background information. She was also able to talk to me about the formation of the museum, the challenges they face in preserving the site, how they managed to find all of the materials they did for their small exhibit. It was great getting to hear all of the inside information. She took me to what used to be a grainary where they kept Jews to make shoes, repair items, etc. and they have turned this building into a small museum with a very big collection of items they have found in several garbage piles the archeologists located. The sheer volume is staggering. Here are some pictures from inside the museum exhibition:

Following the museum I spoke with the employee some more and she showed me their library collection they have been working on and pointed out a couple of books that they feel are the best on the camp. I always love a good book recommendation, but to get one from the woman who actually manages the entire memorial and museum was awesome. I know what books I’ll be buying ASAP! 

Following the camp I drove on to Berlin for the night. In the morning up to see more of the city and a little shopping. Then on the road to Frankfurt where I’ve been for about 2 days. Today I catch the long flight home and will sit in Newark waiting for my connecting flight, missing Germany, and Poland, the wonderful people, the moving history, and the power it has to rejuvenate me in my work.

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