This morning we went to the concentration/extermination camp of Majdanek. As we were driving into the city, I noticed how urban it was. With the blink of the eye, I was shocked. I saw a building and then a huge concentration camp. At Majdanek, we learned that 300,000 people passed through and 78,000 died but I was hit the most the minute I entered the first barrack. The barrack was filled will thousands and thousands of shoes. Shoes of prisoners of all sizes. I recognized a familiar smell. It was a mixture of Plum Street Temple, and my summer camp; two places that I have happy memories. I don’t know if they both smelled the same because they are old but it was an extremely familiar smell. A smell that I feel comfortable with. Yet, here I was, in Poland, at a concentration camp where thousands died and it smelled like home. I was confused. I was taken aback. I walked around and saw a single shoe out of the 40,000. It was the size of my hand. Maybe even a little smaller. Instantly, the next image that crossed my mind was of the two little kids I babysit and their adorable smiles. But then I realized that their feet would fit into those shoes and maybe with some room to grow. I was angry and upset. Why were families torn apart, why were people tortured for doing nothing wrong, and why didn’t anybody do anything to stop them? We spent a lot of quiet time in there and when we moved on to the next barrack, I noticed an uncanny similarity between how it looked, and how a cabin at my summer camp looks. The same exact ceiling and smell. The only difference was that the bunkbed had three levels instead of two. I stood and looked and thought to myself, ‘why can a place that makes me so happy and proud of who I am, and where I have spent 8 summers also resemble a place of terror, hate, and awfulness?
“Forging a Lost Connection”
A string was cut. A quilt unwoven. An entire generation eliminated. To say it’s difficult to understand what happened here would be an understatement. It’s impossible.
These last few days, I’ve been grasping for something- anything- to help me comprehend the enormity of death of the Shoah. But I can’t. Peppi (our beloved guide on this journey) tells us powerful stories of individuals- just like us- who walked where we walked today: Lublin, Majdanek, and the Buczyna woods. But I can’t see those individual faces. I can’t feel them. I am standing on the wooden beams of the barracks where they once stood, but they are not there. All I see is what has been left atop those beams postmortem: ashes, grass grown over killing pits, 40,000 shoes. And I’m angry.
I’m angry because I can’t feel anything at all. I feel numb to their struggles because I have never and will never experience anything akin to what they experienced. But do I have to experience to understand? Why isn’t my imagination letting me go to that deep place of empathy? Why can’t I put myself in the shoes of someone just like me only 75 years ago?
Then I realized: that connection was lost, that string was cut, that quilt unwoven, purposefully. The Nazis succeeded in killing 6 million of the 11 million Jews they intended to kill as part of their “Final Solution to the Jewish Problem.” They succeeded in killing 1 million of the 1.5 million Jewish children they intended to eliminate. Children snatched from their mothers, thrown into the air, and shot as if for play, only to land in a killing pit alongside thousands of other murdered Jews.
I can’t comprehend that. No one truly can unless they were there then. That’s why it’s so important to be here now. That’s why it’s so important to listen to Peppi’s wondrous storytelling and expose myself to the countless, horrific narratives of the Shoah. It is through these stories that I can begin to understand.
My method of remembrance is through forging a personal connection. The Nazis may have succeeded in murdering 6 million Jews, but I am still here. I am a Jew and I am alive. That in itself is a miracle. I have a family that I would give anything for and would give anything for me. What if this was my family? What if this was my community? It could have been. That is why I remember. And I don’t just remember internally, I remember with my entire being- through action.
The quilt of Jewish heritage, this infinite string of strength, this lineage which connects us is alive and well. We weave our own story, we create our own path, and we will continue to live and thrive- because that is how we remember.