Not too long ago I realized that that I had learned about concentration camps from a safe distance - only through textbooks, by reading Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, visiting Anne's house in Amsterdam, and through a visit to the Holocaust Museum in Houston. Barry, a trained historian, had been to Auschwitz-Birkenau over a decade ago, but it was evident that he wanted to visit more camps to learn and not forget. I agreed to join him when we created our itinerary to Poland; I was ready to learn and to be confronted with the hideous realities of the Nazis' crimes.
My First Visit - Treblinka Extermination Camp
It took us an hour and a half by car from our hotel in Warsaw to Treblinka. Upon arrival prior to 9:00am (opening time, closes at 5:00pm), we noticed its ample parking space, paid the 6PLN entrance fee, and began our visit by checking out the small museum which offers a good idea of the original camp layout through models. From there, we made our way to the other side of the parking lot, and encountered my first exposure to a death camp. What followed next was unexpected.
I experienced solemnity. I experienced a quiet vacuum yet without the accompanied sense of peace. Barry pointed out that although we were in the middle of nowhere (the camp is located in a forest north-east of the Polish capital) there were no birds chirping, and no inspiriting energy emitted from the surrounding trees that bore witness of all the atrocities held there. If only those trees could talk.
Lack of Bombast
As we quietly walked and reached the former railway platform, we quickly realized that Treblinka comprises of nothing; it is an open field.
It is an emotional experience to walk through the fitting and beautiful memorial surrounded by a field of jagged stones which represents each of the 10 countries and 1,700 towns and villages around Poland from which Jews were sent to be killed here.
It is gut wrenching to see all those stones and to understand that each one represents anything from a few hundred to a few thousand lives (with the largest one, Warsaw's, alone representing around 265,000 Jews).
Treblinka was the Nazis' second-biggest extermination camp after Auschwitz, with around 800,000 Jews and several thousand Romani (gypsies) gassed to death here. At Treblinka the Germans burned everything to the ground and left not a trace in order to hide their atrocious crimes. The camp was dismantled ahead of the Soviet advance.
Due to the fact that hardly anything was left behind, such emptiness, in such vastness, gives way for you to feel the trains arriving with terrorized and innocent souls, to feel how they were abused as they were moved to their barracks, to visualize how guards intimidated throughout the site, and the occupants non-stop work, sweat, tears and fears.
By this moment in time, we headed back to the car and drove down a road called "the black road" to see the work camp and also some of the extermination places. The same feelings encountered upon arrival to the concentration camp were equally experienced on this side of the camp. It was befitting when it began to rain down on us as we walked through the open area - we had time, space and nature to help us reflect on the awful atrocities without feeling rushed.
What You See is What They Saw - Majdanek Concentration Camp
The following day, after a two and a half hour drive from Warsaw to Lublin, we arrived to this concentration camp turned extermination camp situated in the heart of the city. Majdanek (the Poles pronounce it Muh-DON-ek) was going to be the source of free workforce with prisoners from nearly 30 countries. Polish citizens dominated (mainly Poles and Jews), but there were also prisoners from the Soviet Union and the Czech Republic (Jews). Apart from Poles and Jews, the Russians, Byelorussians, and Ukrainians constituted the largest groups of inmates.
Upon parking in the spacious parking lot, we visited the visitor center, and then headed out to the memorial at the "entry gate" to the camp known as the Monument of Struggle and Martyrdom. I could not help but keep my eye on it for its large scale against the blue cloudy sky. It reminded me of Rene Margritte's painting entitled "Le Chateau de Pyrenees" where an enormous boulder is floating in the pale blue sky adorned with fluffy white clouds.
Similar to Treblinka, it covers a large area which requires a lot of walking (comfortable shoes are essential), and it offers the visitor the space and time for reading and reflecting for there are far less crowds than other camps such as Aushwitz. However, the similarities end here, for Majdanek does not have an entrance fee, and there is quite a lot to see versus the barren nature of Treblinka.
Operated as forced-labour camps initially, before they became death camps fitted with crematoria, roughly 80,000 people were exterminated here in 1942 and 1943. With plenty of information boards in English, we felt we got to learn and internalize how World War II affected the city of Lublin, Europe as a whole and the people in the camp.
The former concentration camp has a lot of historical buildings dating back from 1941-1944. We suggest spending a good few hours there in order to see and read as much as you can take in.
Paying Our Final Respects
The small gas chambers, selection ground, execution trenches, crematoria, barbed wire and watch towers are a number of the original and renovated buildings along with add ons such as the memorial of the mausoleum and its impressive entrance way.
The gigantic, circular mausoleum stands at the end of the former "black path" to the crematorium, a walkway that is now called the Road of Homage in English. The English translation of the inscription on the side of the dome reads "Let our fate be a warning to you." Under the dome there is a huge circular urn, shaped like a saucer, which contains the ashes of some of the victims at Majdanek.
Throughout my visit, I found myself praying and envisioning walking corpses in sheer terror and despair. I could not imagine how these poor, innocent and suffering souls maintained their sense of self and religious belief in the cruelest of conditions.
After visiting Treblinka and Majdanek, I now feel totally different every time I see and hear these camp names mentioned. They left a memory which will surely never be erased. I will not, cannot, and do not want to forget.
Join us next time when we have a day out in Clydeside, a region around Glasgow in the Central Belt of Scotland.
Until then, happy reading and safe travels!
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