Posted on March 28, 2012 by Lauren Schuchart
(The third in a series of 5 posts detailing my heritage trip to Poland… originally posted on my blog)
Houses of Life
We visited several Jewish cemetaries throughout Poland. In ordinary circumstances, a cemetery would seem like a low point on an itinerary. In Poland, cemeteries were a way to remember and memorialize great lives that were lived.
Prior to the trip, each of us were assigned a “personality” that we were to research and prepare a presentation on. Many of these presentations were given next to the grave of the person, honoring his/her individual life. My classmates and I shared stories of heroism and determinism, stories of great success, as well as stories of tragic circumstances… but mostly, we told stories of individuals who significantly added to the narrative of the Jewish people that is continued today.
|Kyle gives a presentation.|
The first concentration camp that we visited was Majdenak, which is just outside of Lublin, Poland.
The first thing that I found striking about Majdenak was how close it is to town. Many of the camps were built in remote, rural areas. Here, there were houses that literally looked over onto the camp. These particular houses might not have been there at the time, but the people in the town were certainly close enough to understand what was happening.
Many of the concentration camps in Poland were destroyed to some degree by the Germans immediately following the Holocaust, as a way to cover up traces of what happened. Majdenak is one of the best preserved camps; we were able to see gas chambers, barracks, a reconstructed crematorium, and a mouseleum full of ashes.
I’m not sure how to describe what I experienced here; the feeling of standing inside a gas chamber, where thousands of people met their death by suffocation. The distinct smell of the wooden barracks where people “slept” in unfathomable conditions. The bitterness of the Poland cold, which I couldn’t fully understand, as I was wearing winter clothing.
Walking around Majdenak was an eerie and chilling experience, especially because we were the only group there. While I have trouble putting into words the feeling of entering the camp, I have even more trouble putting into words the feeling of leaving. This was a common theme for me throughout my trip: how fortunate am I that I have the luxury of walking away from these terrible places.
|View of Majdenak Concentration Camp|
|Inside the gas chambers. Shower heads were installed to give inmates the illusion that they were in a shower.|
|Inside the gas chamber. The Zyklon B pellets were poured through this roof, creating the blue color.|
|Storage room in Majdenak|
|Majdenak guard tower.|
|Barracks in Majdenak|
|Reconstructed oven in the crematorium. After bodies were defiled, they were burnt in the ovens.|
|Inside this moseleum is an enormous pile of human ashes.|
On our second evening in Poland, we had the pleasure of visiting the Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva.
This internationally-recognized yeshiva (Jewish study center) was opened in the 1930s, and served as a vibrant center for Torah learning and text study. Students came from all over Europe to study there.
When the Nazis invaded Lublin, they destroyed the building and burned all of the holy books in the town square, in a public display.
Books are of the utmost importance in the Judaism; they hold wisdom, divinity, tradition, and history. When Lublin was invaded, the outcry wasn’t over the damage to the building, but over the burning of the books.
During pre-war time, Jews made up about 40% of the town’s population. After the invasion of the city, the Jews were moved to the Lublin Ghetto, and eventually taken to either Majdenak or Belzec death camps.
Today, the building is being restored, and there has been an effort to revive Torah study. We spent our evening learning about the richness of pre-war Jewish Lublin, and doing what Pardes students do best: studying Torah.
|Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva|
|Inside the restored synagogue.|
|A few of the Pardes educators in the sanctuary.|
Pardes trips to Poland are run in partnership with Heritage Seminars. The Claims Conference has provided trip scholarships for qualifying Pardes participants, as well as subsidies for program components directed at Jewish educators.