Monday, May 19, 2008

Majdanek and Shabbat in Lublin

May 2nd

In the morning, we drove to see the medieval Jewish cemetery of Lublin. It is filled with rabbis, mystics, scholars, etc. Lublin was once considered the Jerusalem of Poland, with an extremely strong and vibrant Jewish community. It was the site of the famous Yeshivat Chochmei Lublin. What is incredible now is that unless one knows to visit a Jewish cemetery or synagogue, one would have no idea that Jews ever lived there. A mezuzah, a kippah, or a kosher restaurant will not be found.
Smoke and ashes. This entire civilization vanished in the gas chambers and torture of Majdanek. Majdanek is hell on Earth. In that evil place, tens of thousands of people were brutalized, dehumanized, sadistically tortured and murdered. They lost everything. All that is left of them is a mound of ash. This accursed camp sits but a few minutes from the heart of Lublin, not hidden away in some remote area. On its edges, there are homes which have stood there since the day when its furnaces burnt human flesh.

We began our day at Majdanek at the huge monument of 6 scarred pillars, symbolizing the 6 million, with steps leading down through a valley of jagged rocks, representing the valley of the shadow of death. We then took the same path as the inmates of Majdanek took upon entering. The accursed villa of the commandant stood mocking the pain adjacent to it. We read testimony of survivours describing it as a lovely house, complete with a white picket fence, a garden, pets and a loving family. The banality of evil shocked me.

At the entrance to the camp, with a sign reading “Bath and Disinfection”, are the experimental gas chambers. When we entered the gas chambers, where so many went to their deaths, I broke down. The walls are stained blue from the Zyklon B and covered in scratches. I touched the walls and jumped back from shock. I was crushed by the pain of those gasping for their last breathe of life. The cruelty of our enemies is outstanding. Amazingly, as we left the gas chambers, alive, unlike thousands, we were hugged and comforted by our survivours.

In one barrack stood thousands upon thousands of shoes taken from those who were killed. Who wore them? They sit silently, eternally forlorn. Among the multitudes of grey, I noticed one pair of red shoes. Did the bearer believe herself to be going to a safe haven and wore red to celebrate? I will never know.

At the end of the camp, we saw the prime gas chambers. And inspiring site was yarzheit candles lie on the dissection table where Jewish prisoners were forced to search the bodies of the murdered, and a survivor recited kaddish over it. The evil commandant’s bathtub build next to the crematorium and heated with the suffering of our people, glared wickedly. The crematorium was ablaze once more, but this time not with human corpses, but with yarzheit candles.


The last sight was the enormous mountain of ashes, in a domed monument outside. I cried as I thought of how many people vanished into smoke and dust, leaving nothing but ashes in a mound. They have no tombstone, no yarzheit, no name. Nobody sat shiva for them or recited kaddish for their souls. Tearfully, we said kaddish for them and sang the Shemah, indicating that the Jewish faith has not died.


“Shemah Yisrael, HaShem Elokeinu, HaShem Echad!”

May 3rd

Shabbat in Lublin was an interesting experience. Our hotel was located directly opposite the seat of German occupation government during the War. We lit Shabbat candles Friday night and then had dinner. Spontaneously, we broke out in song and dance for well over an hour. Broken from our morning visit to Majdanek, we all somehow felt the need to greet the Shabbat with joy.
Shabbat morning, we had an upbeat service in a room above the lobby, ironically looking out on the building where the cruel plots against our nation were hatched. 63 years later, we prayed with all our might and sang the Shabbat praises. As one of our Holocaust survivor was called to the Torah, I felt a wave of emotion. The Torah is still alive.
After Shabbat lunch, we made our way to the famous Yeshivat Chochmei Lublin. It is quite ornate although tragically silent. Its libraries which one held thousands of seforim were empty. When the Nazis conquered Lublin, they made a bonfire of all of the holy texts, outside the Yeshiva walls. To hide the bitter weeping of the Jews forced to watch, they had an orchestra play. In the yeshiva, we studied Talmudic texts and then sang Jewish songs of life, in order to drown out the wicked music of the Nazis. “Coincidentally”, one guy had been studying a daf yomi and completed the tractate that day. We held the siyyum in the yeshiva and the sound of Torah once again returned to Lublin.
At night, we had a beautiful havdallah with participants all from all over Canada.

One thought that kept running through my mind is how Jewish life in Lublin simply vanished. It breaks my heart to think of the hassidim who no longer sing and dance, the yeshivot that sit silent, that Torah scrolls that grow dusty and the synagogues that will never again see another bar mitzvah or wedding. Even though we still live, the shtetl culture and the Yiddish language have been murdered. Did the streets of Lublin really once teem with Jews? Was it really the Jerusalem of Poland? It seems impossible, like a dream. It surely disappeared in the ashes of Majdanek.

7 comments:

The Frank Family said...

This is so moving just hearing you tell about it. I can only imagine what it would be like to actually stand in these places and feel the surroundings. Thank you for sharing with us.

Jungle Mom said...

Thank you for sharing. I felt as if I were there with you. I cried, I danced, I mourned.

Yehudi01 said...

I wept as I read this.

Pinky said...

The shoes...the shoes.

The heart can scarcely contain the horror, the sorrow.

Never, never again.

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