Saturday, July 5, 2008

Lublin & Majdanek

Note: Due to the uncertain nature of internet access at our current hotel, postings will most likely be sporadic and behind.

If ever the day was a study in contrast, it was today, Friday, 4 July. We had an unexpected hour or so to explore Lublin this morning. Several of us took the time to walk through the old town down to the site of the old Jewish Quarter and the castle built by King Kazimierz in the 14th century.

The streets of the Lublin I walked had an old European feel to it with three- to four-story buildings. There are a number of alleys running off the main road like an old medieval town. What made Lublin a bit more curious in its layout was that the Jewish Quarter was actually in the shadow of the castle. It was Kazimierz who invited the Jews of Europe to settle in the Kingdom of Poland, which helps to explain why close to half of European Jewry was located in the East.

We then went to Majdanek, one of the most notorious labor and concentration camps. As opposed to Sobibor, which was hidden from view, Majdanek was off of the main road in plain view for all to see. Many of the structures were burned by the Russians after liberation due to the unhygienic conditions of the camp. However, representative structures were rebuilt and according to our guide Majdanek was operating as a museum of sorts by late 1944 to show the world what the Nazis had done.

I will not go into what the Nazis did at Majdanek. There are more and better informed sources than me. It is a sobering and spread out place. As a transit station Majdanek was a collection site for the belongings of Jews from other places. One of the storage sheds had piles of shoes — thousands of shoes. Shoes. Why keep so many shoes? And who owned those shoes? And these shoes went on for the whole length of the building. According to Jonty (our guide) this is but a small fraction of the shoes discovered at the camp by the Russians. And imagine that something, some personal article of clothing, jewelry, and personal goods filled the dozens of storage sheds on the grounds.


Denise Pollack said...

Saul, you can't imagine the comfort your blog is giving to these parents of a teen who is on your trip. Every morning (and some late nights) we are "tuning in" and have some idea of what our daughter has seen and experienced that day. We really appreciate your diligence, creativity and thoughtfulness. Thank you for sharing with us. -Denise (mom of Leah)

David May-Stein said...

Saul, Thank you so much for taking the time to share what you and the group are experiencing! The pictures you have posted are powerful and telling. I look forward to referring to this blog when I teach this fall. (With your permission, of course.) You have provided another dimension of "first-person" account by your writings. I am eager to read more...
Thanks again!!!!!

Rosanne Levine said...

Thank you to all of the survivors, teachers, leaders, and students who have gone on this trip. It is so vitally important to communicate the lessons of the Holocaust, and you have invested time and emotional energy in this transformational experience. Thank you for taking on the responsibility of ensuring that these memories and these lessons are not lost. Thank you also for creating this blog and sharing your "ruminations", which are poignant and thought-provoking.

Jerry and Judi said...

Saul,Thank you so much for your thoughtful and moving commentary. It is bringing a very emotional and personal experience to life for all of those who read it.

Joelle Armenti said...

Dear Saul-

Just read your blog: Moving and very interesting! Your itinerary is very different from mine, but that only makes sense as you are travelling with different survivors. Different lives, different stories, but oh, God, so tragically, incomprehensibly the same, too- your blog is bringing back some painful and sobering emotions from my own trip...I hope you are dealing as well as possible, along with Paul and the rest of your companions. I remember how overwhelmed I felt at times.

Take care and BTW- "Saulman"? very very cute...

Safe passage & see you when you get back!

Anonymous said...

Madjenek was one of the hardest camps. We went into the gas chamber that was there and saw the blue stains on the walls from the Zykon B gas that were still there. I went into the SS man's small room where he watched the prisoners die from behind a small, wired window.

Two things about this trip: you don't go on a trip like this thinking the Shoah didn't happen. But being here forces you to start to accept the reality of it all in a new way. You know you have a new understanding and a new certainty about what you know when you've seen the two tons of human hair at Aushwitz with the fabric that was woven out of it for sale and the pictures of the bales of human hair, marked and packaged for shipment that were left when the Russians liberated the camp.

You can't deny the truth of this thing when you see the mountain of eyeglasses, toothbrushes, combs, hairbrushes, shaving brushes, pots and pans, tools, artifical limbs and back braces and luggage left behind: only 1% of the total amount of items looted from the Jews. Seeing the tallitot that people so faithfully brought with them to their "resettlement" made me cry.

The other thing that you learn on a trip like this is that you really can't understand it. As Elie Wiesel says at the end of Night, this is beyond human understanding, and certainly when there is only bright blue sky, memorials made of stone and ash and deserted fields full of wildflowers, one can not grip the reality of what happened. So why should anybody go on a trip like this?

Knowing there is a lot you can't know is the beginning of real understanding and deep feeling about a subject like this. A humility before the subject is completely necessary, and people don't always understand this very important point.

Manny's incredible knowledge about the processes and his insight and detailed memory-- for instance, he relayed a story about the Hungarian Sondercommando screaming at them to make them move into the latrines faster(which they only got to visit sometimes once every day or two because since the prisoners didn't eat or drink much, they didn't have to go very often.)

Every day I find one small moment that makes this trip a once-in-a-lifetime event. One such event was watching Manny and Michael hold hands as they walked down the street together, as if strengthening each other as they confronted their past. Another: Manny zipping up Michael's coat for him. Another: Manny leading us in Kaddish and then saying to us, "Chazak, chazak, vee a muks," meaning, "Strength and courage."

Whatever strength we have been privileged enough to offer to Manny and Michael has not been equaled by the strength the two of them have offered us. Manny at 92 is a superhero, and the kids and I call Michael Rambo.

When the kids get sad, they make jokes about how nobody can keep up with Manny, aka the EverReady Battery Bunny. Manny is a loving and giving presence who seeks people out to hold their hand and take their chin in his hand and look in their eyes and tell them stories. What an honor and privilege to be here!

Susan says, "Today Manny held my hand as we walked through the gas chamber at Aushwitz. It made it easier."