Today was a tough day to say the least, we were in Lublin, Poland. We started the day at 7:30 which was a little difficult considering we got to the hotel last night at close to midnight. At the hotel breakfast was hotdogs, eggs, yogurt, and cereal. The hotel had been a former school for Jewish boys. Remaining at the hotel was an active synagogue that we were able to go into and see. In the synagogue there were a few Hasidic men very devoutly praying and we were able to see another religion's practices and rituals.
Following that we left the hotel and headed to Majdanek, a concentration camp that was captured by the Russians and left almost completely intact. The camp was extremely chilling to walk through and was impossible to walk through and not be affected by in some sort of way. It is sad to see a place so rooted in history slowly becoming decrepit and nonexistent. I am very conflicted on how I feel about this fact because on one hand I think that this part of history belongs in the past, like Plaszow is now a public park where happy things can happen, and the memory of the lost lives there lives on in celebration of those individuals, but on the other hand, with the ignorance, hatred, and betrayal in the world I think seeing these sites is important and should teach us a lesson in loving and not fighting, caring rather than tearing.
Reading poetry written by survivors of the Holocaust after seeing the worst in humanity sent chills down my spine and made me really ponder my life as well as my actions as a bystander in society. I don't use my voice nearly as much as I should and I also don't use my white privilege to help others who need assistance. In a world where hatred and making money is more important than feeding people and providing people with necessary human rights, I think that it grows more and more important that we should learn from our past mistakes as a human race and move forward together.
From Majdanek we boarded the bus again and embarked on our way to Warsaw, yet another long bus ride. At one point we stopped at a supermarket and bought our own things so we could make lunch, and test our skills in the culinary arts. And let's just say some people are better chefs than others.
Once in Warsaw we went to the Polin Europejskim Muzeum Roku, a museum giving a history of the Jews in Poland as well as anti Semitic rhetoric throughout the course of time. Some of the time periods I had no idea were so uncomfortable for Jewish people. Different things I saw while at the museum just broke my heart because of how screwed up it was. The museum also celebrated Judaism and its triumphs and overcomings which gave a nice balance to our day, ending it on a more uplifting note.
~Stephen (aka: Shart)
Today we woke up at a hotel that was a Jewish school before the war, and was only recently turned into a hotel. The top of the building was still used as a synagogue and we went to the very top (the women's section) and looked down on some people at morning prayer. The last time I have ever seen people that devoutly religion was in Israel, but these men were actually from New York!
Our first stop today was Majdanek also known as "the warehouse" of all the camps, meaning all the shoes, hair, personal items etc. we're stored here to be sent to Germany for repurposing. In the camp stood a monument that the Nazis forced prisoners to build in honor of the Nazis ( The Three Eagles Column) and we learned that the prisoners hid the ashes of the deceased in the monument. They thought people would never find out what happened at these camps and tried to hide messages such as the ashes.
At Majdanek there is a memorial named "Shrine" and it is inside one of the barracks. There is no way I can use words to describe how powerful it is, and a picture or video can barely do it justice. Shrine is only lit by lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling, each lightbulb surrounded by barbed wire in an almost perfect circle. Under the bulbs and wire is a bed of black rocks, and this set up spans half way through the barrack. It is then followed by empty balls of barbed wire lying on the ground, creating a contrast between lightness and darkness, "cruelty and hope" as the description read. The back wall was covered with white squares filled with back circles and a book of all the nationalities of the prisoners of majdanek. I believe the most powerful part of the memorial was the sound, the room was filled with the voices of people praying in multiple religions and there was an underlying grumbling coming from the speakers as well. Shrine was the first memorial that physically made me take a step back. You can hear the music as you walk in but the sight of the hanging bulbs was so heavy and powerful I took an instinctive step back. The power of the memorial was also in its lack of words. It used space, light, sound and emotion to have an impact and highlighted the fact that many of the nameless victims were of many different origins, religions and ethnicities.
Majdanek has very well preserved gas chambers, due to its proximity to Russia, when the Russians came to liberate the camp the Nazis didn't have time to destroy the chambers like they did in Auchwitz, and today the chambers stand. Walking through the chambers was the last thing we did while at the camp, and awoke the emotions I believe people have been holding back this entire trip. Immediately after we stood as a group in a circle and read aloud poems written about the holocaust. No one could read more than 4 lines without breaking down in tears, and passed the poem to the next person who could barely gasp the words out between sobs.
These camps we have seen are the most beautifully sinister places you will ever visit. They are covered with the bright green grass, flowers peak through the ground at your feet, and the sun warms you even as the wind whips by. We stand and look at empty rooms that we know were filled with suffering people or dead bodies, but we can't fully imagine. We walk the same path that thousands walked to their death but how can we truly comprehend? The two places I have seen the most emotion on this trip is at the Yad Vashem memorial at Auchwitz 1 (the room where the stood surrounded by the videos pictures and voices of Jews before the war) and when we read these poems today. Those videos and poems bring to live the emotions, the horror and the reality of the Holocaust. The voices and words are what make the grass die beneath our feet and make the sun disappear, and sink us into the true pain of what happened.
Change of tone: lunch was a blast. On our way to Warsaw we stopped at a polish grocery store in a small town. All 50 of us flooded in and stormed towards the bread and chocolate. In a mad frenzy everyone tried to put together their lunches and decipher the Polish written on items. Our dear classmate Eddie Sanchez stuffed 5 sausages into a entire loaf of bread and walked away with a smile. I was glad everyone got some of their spirit back.
Our afternoon was spent at the Museum for the History of the Polish Jews in Warsaw. The museum was very interactive and lively and we tagged along to a tour for part of the way. I think the museum was important in understanding the long history of persecution of the Jewish people throughout Europe. This museum also focused more on the life and culture of Jews rather than seeing them only as victims.
and today was Lucy's birthday, happy birthday!! (We all got kazoos at dinner to celebrate)
Today was a very all over the place type of day. We were all very happy in the morning and ready to take on the day but our happiness shortly diminished once we got to Majdanek. As you may or may not know, this is the death camp at which when the Nazis heard the Russians were coming they literally grabbed a few healthy prisoners, padlocked the gates shut, and fled. Thus meaning that virtually everything was left in tact when the Russians arrived. Before coming on this trip I watched the footage of the liberation of the different camps and all the horrors that the liberators found there. I thought that after seeing this and having already been emotional about it that I would be prepared for our trip to the camps, but I was wrong. While watching the videos it's easy to not think about the piled bodies that much but walking through the camps all I could think about was the life these innocent people were forced to live in the camps and the lives they could have had if it weren't for the Nazis.
There was an exhibit at Auschwitz that we saw which showed amateur films of Jewish communities and families before the war. Seeing their happy and fruitful lives humanized the victims. While at Auschwitz, since so much of it is destroyed, it's hard to picture those lives; but at Majdanek seeing the crematorium, the immensely large pile of unburied human ash, the unstable barracks, the crowded beds with mattresses and blankets still there, the stolen shoes of victims, and finally the gas chamber, it is easier to picture what it would have been like. Of course there is no real way that anyone would able to understand or fully comprehend what it must have been like for the victims and survivors of the Holocaust to live like that. However, at Majdanek while reading the quotes of survivor testimonies or diaries and seeing all of these things I could paint a picture in my mind of what it would've been like and it's devastating.
They had a memorial in one of the barracks to honor all of the nameless victims at Majdanek and one of the cooler things within it is the voices of people praying in different languages. Hearing it, I could picture the people of the camp praying for their lives and how scared they must have felt.
But hardest of all the see was of course the gas chambers. We had the option of not going in, but I felt like I needed to go to see what those thousands of people would have saw in order to get a sense of what it would have been like. The museum provides glass walls with quotes of people's witness accounts of what went on inside and reading them along with walking through it was very emotional. I ended up spending a lot of time in the literal gas chamber. I saw the blue residue on the walls from the zyclon b, the size of the rooms, the empty containers of gas pellets, placed my hand over the scratches and traced them with my fingers, read the quotes, and thought of once again all of the lives lost. I thought about all of the generations that never got to live because their ancestors were murdered, and all of the beautiful lives these people could have lived. What is even more heartbreaking is thinking about all of the children who all they ever knew was death because of the Germans. They never got a chance to live their lives and have children of their own. I started touching the scratches and thinking of the person behind them and how they must have felt while breathing in their last breaths. I couldn't fathom the pain they must of suffered. I probably could have spent more time in there reflecting, imagining, and letting all of my emotions pour out of me through my tears but we had to move on.
We then read poems of survivors which broke my heart even further. There is never any good enough reason for one human being to do that to another and their words were incredibly powerful. I'm going to share one of them with you now. It is titled "I Cannot Forget" by Alexander Kimmel -a Holocaust survivor :
Do I want to remember?The peaceful ghetto, before the raid:
Children shaking like leaves in the wind.
Mothers searching for a piece of bread.
Shadows, on swollen legs, moving with fear.
No, I don't want to remember, but how can I forget?
Do I want to remember, the creation of hell?
The shouts of the Raiders, enjoying the hunt.
Cries of the wounded, begging for life.
Faces of mothers carved with pain.
Hiding Children, dripping with fear.
No, I don't want to remember, but how can I forget?
Do I want to remember, my fearful return?
Families vanished in the midst of the day.
The mass grave steaming with vapor of blood.
Mothers searching for children in vain.
The pain of the ghetto, cuts like a knife.
No, I don't want to remember, but how can I forget?
Do I want to remember, the wailing of the night?
The doors kicked ajar, ripped feathers floating the air.
The night scented with snow-melting blood.
While the compassionate moon, is showing the way.
For the faceless shadows, searching for kin.
No, I don't want to remember, but I cannot forget.
Do I want to remember this world upside down?
Where the departed are blessed with an instant death.
While the living condemned to a short wretched life,
And a long tortuous journey into unnamed place,
Converting Living Souls, into ashes and gas.
No. I Have to Remember and Never Let You Forget.
The rest of the day was far easier emotionally. We got to sleep on the bus from Majdanek so that we could reflect before and then recuperate. We got lunch at a grocery store and it was funny to see what everyone got. I was able to put my polish to the test trying to communicate with the workers in the store which I love getting the chance to do. Eddie made a massive sandwich which was rather comical. It was an entire loaf of bread with 5 sausages in it. He never fails to lift our spirits! :)
We then went to Warsaw which was very pretty. We went to the Warsaw ghetto memorial which was one of my favorites. Also the stones used in the memorial were originally nazi building supplies ordered by Albert Speer to use for Nazi monuments. I thought that was also funny. We then went to a museum which was all about Jewish history starting from the Middle Ages. It was so interesting to see that the idea of anti-semitism was not new. I never knew that Jewish people have been persecuted for so long. Quite frankly it made me very disappointed in humanity.
We had yet another three course meal at the museum and it was delicious as usual. Overall, I thought that the day went as well as it could have given the places we went to. We are all currently extremely excited to get up at 5:30 in the morning to fly to Prague! Goodnight! #prahain1
I don't think “looking forward to” is the right term, but with a lack of better vocabulary, Majdanek is what I've been looking forward to see since I was writing my application. In comparison to seeing Auschwitz,
Majdanek had me and everyone else more emotionally struck. There were no other visitors to the camp. The first part of the tour was seeing a memorial of the ashes found at the camp. There was a large disk hovering over a massive mound of ash and dirt. Despite the wind, the ashes stood still. It felt kind of amazing that the weather could blow away the remains of the deceased.
Next, we saw the mass graves of those who weren't cremated. Some decided to walk over and inspect the visible graves but I decided to go to the side and watch the others. It was disturbingly peaceful and seemed like a beautiful park. We then walked into the adjacent crematorium. There seemed to be more ovens than we'd seen before one this trip.
After we walked to the camp itself. Unlike at Auschwitz where we expected our worst nightmares and surprised by a camp much less conspicuous, Majdanek looked like the hell we expected. The barracks fit so many more prisoners than in Auschwitz because there weren't heaters in this camp. One exhibit, the “Shrine”, was an artistic representation of the fields and what occurred at the camp. Also in the exhibit was a book of the 52 ethnicities in the camp. I had been flipping through mindlessly when I saw “Spaniards” written in English and Polish. We learn in the course of the targeted groups of the Holocaust but it's still easy to forget that more than just targets ended up in there. I found it strange to think how far west they reached.
The gas chamber came next. There was an undressing room, a shower, and then to different sized chambers. On the walls were scratches from victims and remains of the gas on the wall that turned them blue.
As soon as we all walked out, we circled up and listens to selected poems concerning the poems that Ms. Freeman had us read in an order that she chose. I stood hanging onto my friends for comfort. All I wanted at this point was to be with family and hug them. I felt so lucky after being out of the camp to have a life I live my way. We take for granted our autonomy and privilege when we forget the tragedies if the past. In the vicinity of the camp is the city of Lublin and directly next door was a Polish Catholic cemetery which are visited weekly. Also, directly after the war, people said they didn't know what was happening. That would be impossible, since the camp is extremely visible from a major roadway and visible from the taller buildings of the city.
On the bus ride out, I felt to emotionally exhausted and fell asleep instantly when getting onto the bus. I later woke up when we reached the Polish grocery store for lunch. I astonishingly only spent $10 on a baguette, way too much chocolate, prosciutto, brie, and a salad mix. On the bus everyone formed their lunches. It was fascinating going through the grocery store to see the differences of what another country buys. There were less fruits and vegetables available than I'd find in the Roche Bros in West Roxbury.
Then we were on a long bus ride into Warsaw to see the Polish Jewish History Museum. It did a great job of showing how Jews were treated from the 1300s till contemporary times with an extensive exhibit on the Holocaust. After a couple hours in the museum we had a delicious meal there and headed to the hotel. Despite an early wake-up call for the next morning, I organized with one of our resident Poles to see the Old Town of Warsaw. It was stunning to see how beautiful the reconstructed city looked. We simply walked around and took pictures of the city. With a 10 o’clock curfew, we power walked to the hotel.
Poland is so extremely beautiful and it has quite a troubled past. It made me think of something that was said to me, “I can't live somewhere where there was such a tragic history” which I disagreed with at the time but couldn't into words until later. I disagreed because if we lived like that, there would probably one square mile of land that has been untouched by the poor decisions and monstrous actions of the past. It makes me think of how the death camps of Poland are breaking down and if we should let it fall or preserve it forever. I personally believe that we need to commemorate the events but preserving too much is unreasonable. All of history moves on as do the people and nature especially.
Before I sign of, thanks to Seamus, Dan, Eden, Lucy, Alex, Dr. Prosper, and Mr. Lane for comforting me after a rough morning. You made me feel loved and I don't know how I would be feeling now without your shared support. Thank you.
Today was a long but really interesting day for us. We started out bright and early with a visit to a restored synagogue in the top floors of our hotel after breakfast. I've never personally been to a synagogue and it was interesting to see a place of worship that's different from mine. The people praying were Hasidic Jews, which is a devout, Orthodox sect of Judaism. Ms. Freeman later told us about the movement from certain Jewish communities, particularly in New York, to restore old Jewish buildings and communities throughout Europe, especially Hasidic practices.
Then we headed to the concentration camp of Majdanek. It was located in the city of Lublin in Poland. Originally it was created as just a work camp but it also became a death camp later in the war. The people there worked in the camp storage units, as Majdanek was the main shipping location from Poland to Germany for goods taken from prisoners, or in the city's factories. The barracks were really crowded and the conditions for health and sanitation were low. Some prisoners were commissioned to make a stone column for the middle of the camp for the SS there. The prisoners hollowed out the center and out letters telling about there experiences because they so strongly held the belief that their stories would never be heard.
We saw an amazing memorial inside one of the buildings called "Shrine". There was a series of light bulbs surrounded by barbed wire and then balls of barbed wire in an area of stones behind that. At the very back was a total of 12 black circles on white paper. Playing through speakers was a series of prayers from different religions in different languages to show the diversity of the camp. It was very dark, simple and quiet which I though made it more personal and effective. After that memorial, we walked through the gas chambers at Majdanek. It was hard to walk through the showers, disinfection chamber and then see the gas chamber, along with old zyklon b canisters (zyklon b was the gas used in the gas chambers for a large portion of the war.)
After that, we all were standing in a circle to read a total of 8 poems/pieces Ms. Freeman had chosen for some of us to read to the group. There was a poem about being a bystander until you became a victim with no one to help, one that was a list of items but instead had people as the items, and a third was about orders given for the destruction of the targeted groups in the Holocaust. Mine was a message to the people unaffected who did not help that take their lives and happiness for granted. The pieces were effective and very moving but it was hard to hear. That part of the day was very emotionally draining for all of us I think.
What really struck me was how close the camp was to the city. Along one side and the back of the camp, there was a cemetery that was actively used during the war and the camp was very much visible from the city and the street. Additionally, Lublin was a highly industrial city and maybe if the camp prisoners left everyday to work in the city's factories. It's crazy to me that people said they had no idea what was happening at the camp or notice the people in their terrible conditions that walked through the city every day. Additionally, the tortures that one person would put another through and the all encompassing hatred that the victims faced is something I don't know how to put to words.
After that, we stopped on the way to Warsaw to get lunch and had a great, lighthearted lunch. We drove some more to the POLIN Museum for the History of the Polish Jews. This was a very interactive, modern museum. I liked the flow from room to room a lot and the time periods of the exhibit we saw were all coordinated differently. While it was not my favorite museum we have been to on the trip, it was definitely a fun and intriguing experience that I would highly recommend.
Lastly, we had dinner as a group at the restaurant there. We also celebrated our friend Lucy's birthday as a surprise for her! It was a long and kinda hard day but like every other day, it's been so rewarding and such a great experience.
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What follows are the poems we read at Majdanek.