Yitgadal V’Yitkadash Shmei Rabbah – thus begins the traditional Jewish prayer for the dead. How many times was it said here at Majdanek? Too many to count. How many tears were shed? Too many to count. How many people were murdered? Too many to count.
But count we must. Each person, Jew and non-Jew that died here, must count. They counted during their life – they were important to someone – a mother, a father, a brother, a sister, a husband, a wife, a talmid (student), a teacher, a friend. The pile of human ash mixed with rock and bone sits quietly under the dome of a massive stone monument. The monument itself does not speak to me – it is cold, grey and impersonal. But the massive heap of ash and bone below the dome screams so loud that it penetrates my soul.
The crimes committed here were done by humans of flesh and blood. How am I to begin to understand this? I walk through the sleeping barracks where grown men and women were crammed into long wooden buildings filled from front to back to with tri-leveled wooden bunk beds with a bit of straw. How many humans, starved and exhausted, can fit on one small wooden plank to try to find some respite in sleep for a few hours from the hell that the next morning will bring yet again.
I walk into the men’s disinfection barracks where men removed their clothing and had to immerse in a mikve-like cement tub to become “clean.” Really, the Nazis pushed them under water to force to open their mouths wide to reveal any hidden jewels or valuables in their mouths. The disinfection room has shower heads on the ceiling. Water came out of these heads – not gas. Scalding hot water, then freezing cold, poured onto their naked bodies, as SS officers watched from the side. Tens of thousands went straight to the gas chamber, but that was not how it began here at Majdanek.
The order to build the camp was given October 7, 1941, less than four months after the Germans expanded the war by attacking the Soviet Union. This camp was originally built to imprison Soviet POWs and Polish political prisoners. It was built on a hill just outside of Lublin. You can see the city clearly from the camp. I can imagine prisoners looking down at the city at disbelief – it was so close.
By spring of 1942, Himmler was convinced that it would be impossible to relocate the Jews of Poland. They would have to be “eliminated.” Thus began the transformation of Poland from a war zone to a zone of genocidal murder. Building Chelmo, Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka would not be sufficient – Himmler decided to employ Majdanek as well. On March 25, 1942, the camp held only one hundred prisoners – none of whom were Jewish. Three months later (June 24, 1942) Majdanek imprisoned 10,600 men, almost – Jews. Women were added to the mix and thus it became a full blown concentration camp. (KL 319) The numbers grew quickly. Majdanek was a hybrid camp – Jews and non-Jews, some were selected for labor, starvation and suffering. Others were selected for immediate death.
There were 7 gas chambers, but two now remain. I was shocked at how small they are. One is smaller than my children’s bedrooms at home, the other slightly larger than the first, but not much. The grey dull walls of the larger gas chamber were streaked with blue – residue left by Zyklon B, which along with carbon monoxide was used to asphyxiate the victims. I stood before these chambers – motionless – until my body began to convulse with sobs. I looked into these rooms and saw mothers holding their children, fathers clutching their sons, old people, barley able to stand. I saw Jews and non-Jews. I saw people gasping for breath. I saw them saying Shma Yisroel.
The dead bodies were taken by wooden wagons all the way across the camp to the crematorium. Surprisingly inefficient for the Germans. This too was smaller than I imagined. The building is made of brick with a large chimney on top. The corpses were searched one last time for gold teeth or other hidden valuables, then shoved into the oven, burned and the ash removed for use as fertilizer.
After the uprisings at Treblinka (August 1943) and Sobibor (October 1943), Himmler got worried about further Jewish resistance in the camps. So on one day – November 3, 1943, he issued an order to shoot all Jews at left at Majdanek. It was called Operation Harvest Festival. The SS shot 18,000 Jews into pits dug at the edge of the camp – in one day. I looked down into the killing pits from atop the monument with the ash pile. It stands for all to see — a silent testimony.
Yitgadal, V’yitkadash Shmei Rabbah.