We left the Warsaw area to travel east toward the concentration camp Majdanek, which is right outside of Lublin. During our journey we stopped at Kazimierz Dolny, a quaint Polish town that is now a popular day-trip destination for Poles and was once home to a sizable Jewish population. One of the attractions of Kazimierz Dolny is the town synagogue, which is still in tact although no longer functional. It is only very recently that historic Jewish sites are now of interest in Poland.
We continued on toward Lublin, which we learned is actually a very old German city that was German-controlled for a time. When the German army declared war on Poland in 1939 and began their military campaign to control Europe, they re-conquered Lublin. They thought that Lublin would be a critical strategic city, or a military “hinge” for conquering areas northeast and southeast of Poland. For this reason, Majdanek was set up nearby as a concentration camp where prisoners would work to support the German war effort. Majdanek was one of the first camps to be liberated, and some of its buildings have remained in tact and have been preserved. This preservation has enabled visitors to develop an idea of what a concentration camp looked like, but there is still no way that we can imagine what life in the camp was actually like, or how horrifying the camp was when it was operational.
The grounds itself are chilling; the fact that the camp so closely resembles how it once looked makes it a very upsetting place to visit. Our group walked into a few of the barracks that now function as exhibits. One barrack that holds thousands of pairs of prisoners’ shoes was particularly moving. Tragically this barrack caught fire shortly after our return home, and many of those important shoe-artifacts were destroyed.
Majdanek was one of the six death camps, and we know that Jews were put through extreme torture and suffering, and that 75,000 died there. This fact is reinforced by the camp’s ashpit, which still holds the ashes of former prisoners. Looking at the ashpit is a disturbing reminder of the thousands of families who were completely wiped out and reduced to nothing but ashes.
Our group left Majdanek in silence, unable to speak about the unsettling experience of visiting the camp.