Nothing could have prepared us for the shock of visiting a concentration camp for the first time. The expectations conjured within the minds of a Holocaust student don’t even begin to compare to the confronting reality of setting foot on the soil of Majdanek for the first time.
The livelihood of the tour bus, filled with laughter and carelessness was brought to an abrupt halt as the unexpected viewing of Majdanek appeared through the bus window. Silence sliced the air as we absorbed the seemingly endless fields of the camp in awe.
No more laughter.
No more happiness.
We simply observed.
We piled out of the bus onto a patch of grass on the outskirts of the camp. With Majdanek in clear view, we sat down and ate our lunch. A confused sensation overwhelmed many, as the shocking reality of our location began to sink in. The weak Polish sun scarcely lit the earth beneath, as we soaked in all we could of this rare occurrence. I couldn’t help but consider the inappropriateness of enjoying a filling meal beside a place once filled with unforgettable pain and suffering.
A dense hazy cloud hung heavily over the fields of the camp, as a prominent stone monument caught our initial attention. From up close, the giant stone shadowed our seemingly insignificant presence as the sky hid humbly behind the monument. A slither of sunlight peered through the bottom of the statue, a slither of sunlight that slowly expanded as we ventured up the steep stairway to discover a magnificent lookout of Majdanek’s fields.
Hand in hand, we descended into the camp. We walked in silence. We walked as one. Having travelled along the wide pebbled road, we stopped to cover ourselves with Israeli flags. With great pride and satisfaction, 51 Jewish Australian students wore the flag of Israeli independence on our backs in a place where our people had once been captive to the evil confinement of the Nazi powers.
The alarming siren of an ambulance rang in our ears as it sped along the street parallel to the camp. The vehicle was in a great hurry to save the life of someone in danger, and I couldn’t help but wonder why no one sped to save the lives of the thousands in danger within the confined barbed wire of Majdanek. Purposely placed in a central location to employ a sense of fear, the concentration camp was surprisingly ignored by many passers by. Nowadays, life is considered precious, and we’ll do anything to save the life of our fellow human beings. That being said, how did society manage to stoop to such a low level whereby life was considered so insignificant?
Our first steps into the confined, musky scented chambers of Majdanek, set the sombre mood for many. The floorboards creaked hauntingly beneath our feet as we made our way through the various rooms used for different processes of preparing the inmates which included shaving their hair, showering, and finally gassing. Silence fell over the group as the harsh realities of death lurked from the very walls that enclosed our presence. After an extended period of quiet exploring, Rabbi Benji began to hum a soft tune of Ani Ma’a’min (I Believe), which gradually grew louder as more people joined in. Tears streamed down the faces of those confronted by their surroundings, unable to detain such powerful emotions.
The tense atmosphere was released as unlike the unfortunate stories of those who were gassed, we were lucky to return to the brightness of life outside the dark chamber. A sense of relief was shared as we escaped the horrors, and re-entered the radiant, green luxuries of freedom. The intensity of what we’d just experienced hit everyone hard as tears, cries of Jewish pride, and comforting embraces were shared by all. Some pressed themselves against the barbed wire, whilst others sat or stood alone in attempt to process the enormity of the situation. Each reaction individual, each reaction, a part of a collective. One found themselves comforting those they wouldn’t usually, as a sense of collectivity unified the group.
We continued our journey through the camp as we visited a large warehouse room. Towering barracks filled with piles of old shoes created an identifiable scent. A majority of the old shoes were grey, however an occasional few obtained their colour. Each shoe had belonged to an individual. Each shoe had a story. Each shoe represented unique traits of its owner. We were told to imagine the possibilities. The lost opportunities are endless. It’s somewhat unimaginable.
Through the barbed wire fence surrounding the fields, we continued our tour. High piling bunks that had once granted the inmates a chance to re-energise and reflect on the hardship experienced, overflowed the eery wooden sheds. Shed after shed after shed. Nightmares, freezing conditions, and the questioning of faith and existence overwhelmed many as sleepless nights became ordinary. Bodies pressed against bodies as the absorption of heat was vital in order to make it through the frozen Polish winter nights, which many failed to do.
Next was a place where Jewish resistance went up in flames, as bodies faded to ashes – the crematorium. Within the walls of torture, inhumanity lurked where the unimaginable acts of barbarity took place. The towering brick chimney had released the lifeless ashes, back into the crisp winter air. Nighttime fell now as the sun stopped shining, and the moon took its place in the sky, setting the mellow mood. The freezing temperature continued to drop until the bitterness became unbearable. Overwhelmed with sympathetic tears, unfulfillable anger, and sensations of sorrow, our raw emotions continued to peel away.
What we saw next is an image that will remain in my mind forever. The massive dome of human ashes came into our sight as we traveled down the pebble stone road leading up to the crematorium. Underpinned by a shocking sense of anger, tears overwhelmed our innocent eyes as the enormity of the memorial exceeded all sense of reasoning.
A dense hazy fog carried us out of the camp and back onto the bus. The gloomy emptiness of the night sky reigned terror on the lifelessness below, as our emotions were insulated by the bus windows. There were no more words, as the silence said more than words could express. We all changed that day.