Visiting Majdanek and Bełzec

Sunday May 29, 2016
*Auschwitz wasn’t the only concentration camp used during the Holocaust. In fact, 6 camps existed in Poland.*

Today is our first full day in Lublin. We have a meeting with our tour guide, Magda at 9 am. Our plan is to visit another concentration camp, Majdanek (pronounced my don ick), to see how it compares to Auschwitz-Birkenau. When we first got there, the sight was completely different than the sight of Auschwitz. At first we saw a large rock memorial dedicated to those who lost their lives here.

There were hardly any people there to visit, which raises an important question: why does everyone visit Auschwitz, but no one visits other camps, or even knows that other death/ concentration camps exist? I personally didn’t even know about any other death/concentration camps prior to this trip. One confusing part about this camp is that it’s basically in the middle of the city. People living near the camp can literally look out their backyards and clearly see a death camp. I’m not sure why anyone would want that as the view from their home. There are homes that are closer to the site than what this picture shows. 

Some have said that the Polish government is embarrassed about Majdanek, which could explain why the Holocaust is not taught in Polish schools. I found this information very puzzling. I can remember first hearing of the Holocaust when I was in 4th grade, so it amazes me that the people living near these camps are completely unaware of what’s in their backyards. The barracks that we saw at Majdanek were vastly different than the ones at Auschwitz. I’d say the ones at Auschwitz were slightly nicer than the ones at Majdanek, although neither are suitable for living. 

There was an excerpt from a Polish political prisoner who was at Majdanek for a little over a year, and here’s what they stated regarding the camp: “Along came several SS men whose ranks I cannot recognize, and they order us to enter empty barracks. There we must undress quickly and hold all our valuables and clothing in our arms. That’s the order. We stand there naked and wait. The double gates of the stable-type barracks are wide open, and we get goose bumps. The reading of the transport list finally begins; those whose names are called cross to the other side. Reading out 700 names takes a long time. The ones called out leave behind their clothing and food supplies… finally they order us to go to the showers in groups of 100. Naked and barefoot we run across the frozen ground to an adjacent building, about a hundred meters away ( 330 feet) in the cold cloakroom sit several barbers, Slovakian Jews, who shave off the hair on our heads, our mustaches, the hair under our arms, and all over our bodies.” I thought this quote gave the best overall description of what exactly happened when the Jews would arrive to a death/concentration camp.

Inside one of the barracks, I saw the room that was used for showering. There were roughly 30-40 shower heads in the room. “Bathing and disinfecting the newcomers was one of the camps obligatory rituals. After showering, prisoners were made to immerse themselves in concrete tubs filled with a disinfecting solution. During the prisoners stay in the camp, baths and underwear were rarely changed, usually once every few weeks” As I learn more about the exact living conditions that these people had to go through, I am in complete disbelief. I cannot imagine such horrible conditions, and the things that these people had to go through on a daily basis. If you look at the ceiling of the first picture, you can see all the shower heads. The second picture is the tubs used for disinfecting.

After seeing the shower room, we were led into a gas chamber. This gas chamber seemed a lot more intense than the one at Auschwitz. At the top of the picture, there is a wooden square opening, that’s where they would pour the Zyklon B into the chamber, then on the wall, there were two openings where they would send heat into the chamber. The heat/humidity would then activate the Zyklon B and become a poisonous gas. 

One of the most strenuous task at the camp was using the rolling pins to level out the road. These concrete rollers were quite large, and I can only imagine how exhausting it was to have to use those.

 I was able to see the design plan for the camp, I was surprised to see that only about 1/3 of the camp was actually constructed, which is the portion marked in blue on the right side of the photo. I’m not sure the exact reasons why the entire plan was not carried out. 

Again, we were able to see a plethora of shoes, another chilling sight. I have no idea how many shoes are actually shown in this picture, but it’s an unsettling amount. 

During our visit, I learned that the medics of the camp would use the fat from the bodies of those killed to make soap. People actually used soap made of body fat from someone who was murdered. Some say that only 78,000 people were murdered at Majdanek but we know that can’t be true since 18,400 people were killed in one day alone. The actual number ranges anywhere from 110,000-150,000. It is hard to get an actual estimate since people have long been trying to hide the evidence of this camp, and make it seem less impactful than it really is. The beds that the people slept in looked somewhat similar to those at Auschwitz. The barracks weren’t well equipped at the beginning of the camps operations, people usually slept on straw or wood shavings. The bunks weren’t introduced until the spring of 1942. When the number of prisoners reached the camps maximum, barracks designed for 250 people were holding around 500 people in them. 

Visiting the crematory building at Majdanek made me nauseous. There were 6 ovens in this one, compared to the 2 we saw at Auschwitz. There was something about this crematory building that was much more chilling than the one at Auschwitz, something that I never want to visit again.

 The final sight we visited at Majdanek was a large memorial site, inside was a mountain of ashes of those killed at Majdanek. We lit a candle in memory of those who lost their lives.

 The worst thing that I learned about Majdanek is that some Polish people want to tear the site down so they can build a supermarket.

After Majdanek, our tour guide took us to a death camp. This wasn’t a part of the original plan, but she really wanted us to experience this camp. There is a difference between a death camp and a concentration camp. In a concentration camp, the people there are put to work, whereas a death camp is strictly a place where people are killed upon arrival. The next camp, Belzec (pronounced bell zick), was a death camp. There are no remains of Belzec, since the Nazi’s destroyed it when they left during the war. Some say that the site was destroyed because it was a death camp and would make the Nazis look more guilty than the concentration camps would. Also because such extreme acts of murder occurred here in such a short amount of time.

One common reason that most people have not heard of Belzec is because there were little to no survivors. During the 9 months that Belzec was in operation, some 500,000 people were killed and only 3 people survived. The scale in which people were being killed at Belzec is astounding. If they were able to kill 500,000 people in 9 months, I can only imagine how many would have been killed if it was open as long as Auschwitz. Auschwitz was open from 1940-1945 and killed roughly 1.3 million people. 

At Belzec, they had a replica gas chamber that people could go in. This was the 3rd gas chamber I’ve been in so far, and by far the worst. Our tour guide suggested that we go in one at a time to get the most out of the experience. I cannot even try to explain to someone what it was like being in that chamber. I don’t think I took a single breath while I was in there. I think the fact that I cannot even form a sentence that can accurately describe the chamber speaks volume about just how incredibly horrific they were. 

“This is the site of the murder of about 500,000 victims of the Belzec death camp established for the purpose of killing the Jews of Europe, whose lives were brutally taken between February and December 1942 by Nazi Germany”

I’m glad that I have been learning about other sites than just Auschwitz. Throughout my education, I have only been told of the horrors of Auschwitz, and to find out that there were several other places just like it is eye opening to say the least. 

Tomorrow should be a less emotionally challenging day.


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