When I last left you we had made it to Lublin. Just outside Lublin was the death camp of MajDanek (pronounced My-Donick). When I say outside town, I mean right outside town. Today the city surrounds it. It was kind of eery as we stood looking into the gas chamber where thousands were murdered, you could turn right and see a whole complex of modern apartments not 50 yards away. Rabbi Poupko addressed the obvious question. Why, with the town so close, when it was so obvious what was happening here did no one do anything? He was gracious in his response. He reminded us that the Third Reich majored in terror, of all those in their grip, the Jews in the camps and subject to all of what they went through, but also Polish, Catholic citizens, many of whom were murdered alongside Jews, for helping them, or aiding them in any way. Do not get me wrong, some actually helped the Germans, this is a fact substantiated in many quarters but the vast majority were terrorized and frightened also.
What we talked about on this trip was what has been called “the band of folded arms” and how we do want to make sure we do not become part of that band. I am speaking more of that here. But many did step the other way, and boldly stood up and helped the Jews. In fact, there is a whole hall of pictures of “political prisoners” at Auschwitz and we walked by them all, of Polish citizens who died there. In the video I present below, the two pictures from this wall you will see were a priest and a monk. At MajDanek there is, now covered, a huge mound of human ashes, which was there when the camp was finally liberated. It sits there to remind us all, thousands of names, souls represented there. It sits right next to the crematorium, which we walked through, and is a building I shall never forget. At Auschwitz we saw the same. They are holy places now, where inexplicable evil once was perpetrated.
Another awe inspiring moment happened at Auschwitz, the main camp, when we happened along a grandfather and his two grandsons, who engaged Rabbi Poupko. He had brought his sons with him, to see where their great grandmother and grandfather met, and survived. In the video below you will meet this man, Mordecai, from Detroit. He tells some of the story of his mother, and then he played for us an interview she gave some 16 years ago before her death. You will need to practice understanding her. She was a rare Greek Jew, and so she was even more alone in Auschwitz as she did not speak German or Polish when there. You will hear her if you listen, she spoke Greek and some Italian. She speaks on this tape of taking the showers they gave to “delouse” the Jews and then having all her hair cut off and then being tattooed with her number on her arm. There are many moving displays in the museum that is now Auschwitz, all the shoes, the old canisters of poison, used to murder, everything that was taken from the Jews as they arrived. Having been told to pack for a prolonged stay, many brought precious things, and useful things, just as any of us would. These things were all taken from them when they arrived at camp, and all of this, throughout the war, was shipped back to Germany. Shoes, suitcases, pots, pans, hairbrushes, jewelry, and hair. Yes, hair. All of these displays were moving, but perhaps the one that moved us all the most, was the stores of human hair they found when liberated. It is estimated to be the hair of over 40,000 women, all in one place. Hair was shipped back to Germany to be used for textiles and fabrics.
Rabbi Poupko made a quite astute and sobering point while at many of these places. While we took a close look at the gas chambers he remarked that a lot of research had to be done to make sure the doors could be sealed. In fact, engineers had to work on how to seal the doors, so the gas could do its work. There was the need for a glass port hole in the door so that the guards and those doing the killing could make sure the people were dead. The Rabbi pointed out that the creator and manufacturer of this glass porthole was so proud of it, that his name is on it. Surely, they knew what this was being used for, but commerce and greed seem to never be far away from our atrocities.
I was truly astonished at some of the stories our guide told us, a wonderful young Polish man named Jed. As we walked through the crematorium at MajDanek, he remarked that the glass up all around the actual ovens, used to not be there, but a few years ago, a Polish High School class was touring and a high school girl thought it was be great to climb in one and take a selfie. Thus the glass. This entire pilgrimage has been a test of conscience and a sad glimpse into the callousness, the abstract disregard, of humanity.
I have to cop to the fact that I misnamed the video below, although thanks to a kind comment made a correction where I could. It is not the “Death Camps in Poland” But rather, “The German Death Camps in Poland.”
I am running out of words to share the incredible impact of being present in these places and the impact my presence has had on me. I encourage you all, as you are able, to go if you can. Indeed, we may plan a return, in 2021, so consider if you would want to go. For me, it was not so much seeing these places, although that put a context on it that would never be so without presence, but more than that was the incredible and rich learning that came through Rabbi Poupko and all of our Jewish fellow travelers. The bus rides, the casual discussions, the bemoaning of our current reality, of our current world, not nearly as far from those days as we want to believe. So, instead of a lot of pictures, I have put a video together of those last few days, its about 9 minutes. It starts off a bit clunky but hang in there!
May we never forget, and may we not become members of the band of folded arms.
Elegy for the Little Jewish Towns
Gone are, gone are in Poland, those little Jewish towns
Hrubieszow, Karczew, Brody, Falenica
You look for candlelight in the windows
And for a song in the wooden synagogue in vain
Vanished the last leftovers, Jewish tatters
Blood was buried by sand, traces were cleared
And walls were lucidly whiten by glaucous lime
Just like after a plaque or for a big holiday
Here glitters one moon, cold, pale, alien
Already out of town, on the street, when night lights up
My Jewish relatives, poetic boys
Will not find two golden moons of Chagall
The moons are now above the planet
The flew away frightened by grim silence
Gone now are those little towns where the shoemaker was a poet,
The watchmaker a philosopher, the barber a troubadour
Gone now are those little towns where the wind joined
Biblical songs with Polish tunes and Slavic rue
Where old Jews in orchards in the shade of cherry trees
Lamented for the holy walls of Jerusalem.
Gone now are those little towns, they went away by shadow
And the shadow will fall between our words
Until will come closer brotherly and will join again
The two nations fed by centuries of suffering
Antoni Slonimiski (1947, translation P. Dorman)