January 10-13

16 Jan

January 10: Today we got our first taste of Warsaw, and Poland in general. Might I add, Poland is cold and the language is super hard to learn. All I know so far is Djekuje (pronounced like zjen-coo-ja), which means Thank You. Don’t worry, we are all trying our best to be polite.  

We started the day off early with a walking/bus tour of the former Warsaw Ghetto. To give you a brief history, Poland had the largest concentration of Jews in Europe during the WWII period. This is why many of the concentration camps were located in this area, because it allowed for easier transportation and extermination of the Jewish (and non-Aryan) communities. It was ideal to set-up camps and ghettos in Poland because Germany would not be directly connected to the horrific acts. Finally, it is also important to note that Poland had a fantastic railway system set up previous to the war. Over 20% of the country is wooded, and one of the largest industries was lumber. The systems were already set up and provided the means to ship victims to their fates.

The Warsaw Ghetto has an interesting history and I encourage each of you to read more about it. If I remember correctly, over 300,000 Jews were confined in the ghetto walls for several years. Living conditions for them, as with many other ghettos, progressively worsened to the point that people began to die from starvation and disease. Inside the ghetto walls became a death-trap and those who were lucky to survive were simply sent to death camps, Treblinka to be exact. There was an uprising towards the end of the ghetto’s existence, though many of the ringleaders were too weak to make a major difference. No matter, the action was still incredible and brought hope and a needed sense of resistance to the survivors.

During our tour, we also learned about one leader who made an impression on the group. His name was Janusz Korcak and he ran an orphanage in Warsaw. He was a renaissance thinker for his time, encouraging his kids to think more democratically and to challenge the present. When the Final Solution was enacted and his Jewish orphans were forced to go to Treblinka, he volunteered to go with them so they would not be alone. This is not only an act of true character, but reinforces the best qualities of leadership. He put others’ needs in front of his own and demonstrated an act of humanity during a time of evil. There is a stone in Treblinka with his name inscribed on it, the only stone not possessed by a name of a city.

We studied the Judaism in Warsaw for the rest of the day. This included visits to the only pre-war synagogue left in Warsaw and the Jewish Cemetery. The cemetery contains over 250,000 graves, making it one of the largest, if not THE largest, Jewish cemeteries in the world.

Although Warsaw had a large number of Jews before the events of the Holocaust, Polish Jews are still struggling to find their place in the country. Today there are only about 2,000 registered Jews in Warsaw, and many people are starting to make efforts to learn more about their roots. Some of us visited with the head Rabbi at the synagogue during our free day. He told us that most Jewish people that survived the war abandoned their Jewish roots, because they were so scared to identify themselves in that tradition. These histories are starting to unearth, slowly growing the Polish Jewish population.

January 12: “At 4pm the train got under way again and, within a few minutes, we came into the Treblinka Camp. Only on arriving there did the horrible truth dawn on us. […] Helpless, we felt intuitively that we would not escape our destiny and would also fall victims to our executioners. But, what could be done about it? If it were only a nightmare! But no, it was stark reality. We were faced with what was termed “eviction,” meaning eviction into the great beyond under untold tortures. We were ordered to detrain and leave whatever packages we had in the cars.” –Yankel Wiernik, A Year in Treblinka

When someone says the word “concentration camp” more often than not, one would think of Auschwitz. Although Auschwitz was one of the most brutal camps during the Holocaust, there is one that I personally believe surpasses all tragedy- Treblinka. Treblinka was a death camp located about an hour and a half from Warsaw and is responsible for nearly 1/6 of the total deaths of the Holocaust. Because of its “systematic killing efficiency”, it is considered to be the factory of death during this period of history. A person only had about a 1% chance of surviving two hours after they arrived and only a fraction of prisoners escaped after the revolt.

I knew some basic information about Treblinka before we arrived. Approximately 1 million people lost their lives during its 15 month operation and the camp was destroyed when the prisoners revolted towards the end of the war. Today, the site is memorialized mainly in the field where the two mass graves reside. The display is very symbolic, with a large stone structure in the place of the gas chambers, grate-like stone planks representing the open crematorium and 17,000 stones, each bearing the names of the communities where the victims previously resided.

Although we had this background information at the ready, there was still uncertainty about what it would be like to visit Treblinka. There are few places on earth where one can stand and think, “Wow, almost a million people were murdered here.” The thought is unbearable and frankly unimaginable.

My personal impressions of Treblinka were absolutely not what I thought they would be. The scenery was gorgeous. We were in a wooded area that was just caressed with a beautiful untouched snowfall. That reaction in itself made me feel bad, because I was instantly drawn to the environment and not the purpose. We entered the visitor center where we learned more about the camp’s layout and what we would be seeing in the memorial site. I found myself flipping through the visitors’ book while our guide was telling us about Treblinka, and stumbled upon a note written late last year. It said, “This is where my sister and grandmother were gassed in September 1942”. My lost purpose was immediately renewed and we all left to visit the memorial.

The weather today was cold and brittle, but I couldn’t feel anything. I was just lost in reflection and the numbing sight of endless stones. I think this experience was a turning point in the course for the entire class. The perceptions of the death camps we studied in school started to mold into realities; a feeling that few people have the opportunity to experience.

January 13: After the day visit to Treblinka, we were all excited to relax and release our minds of the Holocaust during our 8ish hour bus ride to Krakow.

Psych. We were surprised by our professors that we had a group tour appointment at Majdanek, located about 3 hours east of Warsaw. Though we were tired and a little uneasy about going to two death camps in a row (well, three if we include tomorrow’s visit to Auschwitz), but this was an opportunity too hard to pass up. Majdanek is truly a valuable death camp, at least when it comes to today’s understanding of the Holocaust.

Why is this death camp so special? After all, if you are like me, I had never even heard of it. It is a small camp (i.e. approximately 80,000-90,000 Jews were deported there), and there are no notable figures that were imprisoned there. Its rarity emerges from its liberation. Since it was one of the first camps to be liberated, the SS did not have enough time to destroy the evidence. Almost all of the buildings, including the administrative, barracks, crematorium, gas chambers, and disinfection stations, are completely intact. Majdanek is as authentic as you can get when it comes to concentration camp preservation.

Walking around the camp was a weird experience. The weather was bone-chilling cold and ironically, the sun was out that day. The coldness of the camp also resonated from the things we saw. Our guide lead us to the registration rooms, showed us where people were shaved and showered, walked us through where people’s possessions were disinfected, and finally to the gas chambers. I will never forget seeing the blue-stained walls of those rooms (from the Zyklon B poison) and the original steel doors that sealed-of the victims’ lives.

Our tour continued to take us to the different areas of the camp. The barracks are set up as museum displays and examples for people to better understand how Majdanek was run. We saw original bunks, the camp model, and cages upon cages upon cages of victim’s shoes. That was hard to see. We then proceeded to the crematorium at the very end of the camp, another difficult site. We learned here that many of the victim’s remains were used to produce fertilizer (yes, fertilizer) for the camp. Since liberation, a large section of dirt has been preserved and memorialized under a dome structure.

Majdanek is also noted for one of the darkest days of the Holocaust: “The Harvest Festival”. This event happened on November 3, 1943 and resulted in the murder of 18,000 prisoners within that 24 hour period. There were many uprisings happening around that time at various camps, and the SS guards were worried that the prisoners of Majdanek would conspire in the same activities. In an effort to eliminate this risk, the Harvest Festival was instated. It is the largest single-day, single-location massacre in Holocaust history. 

The professors have scheduled our visits well, allowing us to work up to what is considered to be the climax of our journey: Auschwitz. 

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