I visited concentration camps in Poland

Majdanek

Majdanek

There is only one concentration camp in Poland that was not razed by the Nazis before they took off. It's called Majdanek and is located in Lublin. It's much less visited than Auschwitz and harder to get to but I made the trek anyway, even with my heavy backpack.

To get to Lublin, I had to write down the name of the concentration camp and Lublin on a piece of paper and hand it to the person at the train ticket counter because I didn't speak any Polish. She handed the ticket to me and wrote down the number of the platform where I should wait. When I was on the train, I showed a man my ticket and we used charades to communicate. He held up two fingers to explain I should get off in two stops. Again, the difference between my long term memory and now non-existent short-term memory is profound!

After spending most of the year in Israel, my travels through Europe for a couple of months were both intense and a lot of fun. I could have shared many zany photos of my experiences in Holland, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Czech Republic, England. But I thought it was important to share these instead. 

The Berlin wall had only come down eight/nine years before. Poland still felt like a communist holdover. The people were incredibly friendly. When I arrived in Warsaw, I asked someone to help me find my hostel and this woman not only gave me directions but walked me all the way there! I'll never forget her kindness. She was so excited to practice her English.

The tour through Majdanek was somber. The only other people there was a group of teenagers from Israel. 

This is the entrance to Auschwitz. I don't have to look up the translation of the sign. It's "work shall set you free." The Germany Nazis, even when executing genocide, planned ahead on the best way to keep people calm when they entered the camp.

This is the entrance to Auschwitz. I don't have to look up the translation of the sign. It's "work shall set you free." The Germany Nazis, even when executing genocide, planned ahead on the best way to keep people calm when they entered the camp.

Unlike Auschwitz where there were tons of screaming children running around AND AN ICE CREAM VENDOR, Majdanek felt much more like the memorial and grave site. Because Auschwitz was razed by the and rebuilt for tourists, it felt much more like a museum. The original basement of the camps was still intact and energetically felt much more like Majdanek. 

Sad. Spooky. Dark. 

I stood in the gas chambers at Majdanek and tried to imagine the terror of what people must have felt as they entered. For anyone unfamiliar with the history of concentration camps, the Nazis liked to pull pranks on the prisoners. They'd often herd them into the showers without telling them what was happening. The prisoners would wait agonizing minutes until they learned whether it would be water or gas that would be coming out of the shower heads.

I can't imagine. 

I can't believe our country is still fighting Nazis. I just can't.

These are the ovens at Majdanek. You can see the Israeli teenagers holding Israeli flags in the background. 

These are the ovens at Majdanek. You can see the Israeli teenagers holding Israeli flags in the background. 

At Majdanek, I wandered over to the ovens where they cremated the bodies. There were very old looking houses as close as a quarter of mile from the ovens. The stone chimneys and architecture meant that these houses were likely here when the camps were filled with actual people.

Did they sit down to eat dinner every night with the smell of burning flesh wafting through their house? Did they try to sneak food to the prisoners? Did they DO ANYTHING to help at all? 

Or, did they cower in fear and do nothing?

This has haunted me for years. In times of war, it's apathy and inaction that worries me most. 

I understand that people are afraid for themselves. I get that.

But what is the line for each person? What motivates people to act?

In college, I took a psych class where they held experiments on the street. They'd have an older man faint on the sidewalk and surreptitiously filmed it. Too many times, people kept walking by the old man laying on the street. However, if ONE person stopped and helped him, then a crowd formed.

This is why it's so important that even if we're just one person, that we take every opportunity to stop, to ask, to help, to do something, even if it feels small. This is why I've been so vocal for the past year. I never forgot that experiment.

And I never forgot what it felt like standing in that gas chamber.

I don't know why I've always been fascinated by World War II. I started reading about the Holocaust as a kid and never stopped. The rise of fascism, the underground resistance, the righteous gentiles that helped the Jews, all of it intrigued me. I remember going to a talk given by a righteous gentile in college at the Hillel at University of Washington. She was amazing. One of those enthralling speakers you wish would go on and on.

I asked her why didn't more people help? I'm so upset that I can't remember her answer! I just remember being nervous to ask her the question.

Today, I imagine that she'd say something like this: nobody wants to believe it's happening. If they just continue on with their lives, then it means nothing really bad is happening.

We convince ourselves it's not as bad as it really is. It's a defense mechanism to shield us from the horrors of the human existence. 

The thing is now: something really bad is happening. 

In our own backyard. In our own country. In 2017.

Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it. This quote keeps running through my mind this week.

When we look back on this moment later in our lives, what we will be thinking? 

Will it seem much clearer in the future, as things always do?

Or, do we have other terrifying moments coming up so that all of them blur together?  

Racism, anti-semitism, and other forms of bigotry will always exist in one form or another. 

The issue is how much are we going to let this hatred dictate our actions? Our vote? Our legislation? Our culture?

Will it take more death for us to recognize that they still exist and work hard to create a world where they're not tolerated in any way?

How do we get there? What steps do we need to take to build a world where it's not tolerated?

So many questions and too few answers.

I do know this, however. We all must pitch in. By educating ourselves, stepping out of comfort zone, volunteering, donating - all of it. Just pick one thing and start there. Whether it's having your kids make cards for the mosques that have been attacked around the country or the synagogues and African-American churches in Charlottesville, do it.

If it means calling up the ACLU in Seattle and asking how you can offer your legal services, do it.

If it means joining the League of Voters to end voter suppression, do it.

If it means, attending a vigil. Lobbying your congress members. Anything. Do it.

At the bus stop right outside the concentration camp. Anti-semitism and racism alive and well in 1990s Poland.

At the bus stop right outside the concentration camp. Anti-semitism and racism alive and well in 1990s Poland.

I leave you with this photo that I took at the bus stop outside of Majdanek. It's a KKK symbol and a hangman with a Jewish star.

This was taken in 1997.

Sadly, I could easily find the exact same drawings on a bus stop today in Seattle in 2017.

Twenty years and thousands of miles away and we still have not changed enough.

The fight continues.

I hope you join us.

Much love,
Jules

PHOTO #9. This post is part of a series celebrating my life before I lost four organs to three cancers in 2014. It is an “online memorial” honoring the person I was, in the hopes that I can make peace with the disabled person I’ve become. Every day for 30 days until my birthday, I will challenge myself to write a post inspired by the photo I’m sharing. I will not plan the topic or write ahead of time. I will merely look at the photo and write whatever it inspires. Thanks for reading! #julesfor30 #happyrebirth