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The overcast sky and cold wind seemed fitting as I walked along the Black Road: a shingle pathway that leads to the entrance of Majdanek.
I’d already passed through the massive, oppressive stone memorial that greets you when you arrive, and was now making my way towards a place that had played a horrific role in the Holocaust.
The State Museum of Majdanek
Now known as the State Museum of Majdanek, behind the rusting barbed wire still stands many of the barracks, warehouses, workshops and guard towers from its time as a Nazi concentration and extermination camp. Today, alongside the gargantuan monument and mausoleum, these are used to tell the stories of the 150,000 people, from over 25 countries, who passed through its gates – 80,000 of whom never left.
As I walked through these gates, I found the site eerily quiet. From time to time a few people would appear from one of the buildings, but everyone was quietly pensive, and the loudest noises came from the gusts of wind rushing across the barren fields and the caws of ominous crows perched atop the towers. I expected tumbleweed to appear at any moment.
I’ve partaken in ‘dark tourism’ experiences before, for example visiting the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City and walking the Killing Fields of Cambodia, but this was the first time I’d stepped inside a Second World War concentration camp.
Many might find this ghoulish, but I feel strongly that it’s important to pay my respects to the fallen at such sites, and that their stories should live on. How else will humanity ever learn if our past mistakes are not remembered?
Celebrating lives as well as mourning deaths
The State Museum of Majdanek covers the original site of the camp; 90 hectares of land, with many of the original buildings left as they were, while others have been turned into permanent exhibitions housing items and documents found on-site or donated by survivors.
An interesting thing about Majdanek is that rather than being solely about the deaths and horrors of the site, the museum also celebrates the lives of the prisoners; sharing stories of their day-to-day experiences living in the camp, of relationships and bonds built within its walls and also the tales of survivors and what they went on to achieve.
Learning about the ‘people of Majdanek’
What I found both the most heart warming and heart breaking were the books and personal items of the prisoners, including secret letters written by inmates to each other. Here you discover the people behind the haunting images on the walls, how they found strength from each other, would work together to survive and found tiny ways to ‘rebel’ and keep their dignity. They would even make each other little gifts; such as the simple bracelet I saw which a prisoner had carved the receivers ID number into.
Videos played sharing stories from survivors, with displays on the walls showing the photos of some of those who didn’t live to see freedom again. These stayed with me more than anything else, as they told their stories; where they came from, what they did etc, becoming real people rather than just victims.
Following in the victims’ footsteps
Getting to ‘know’ these people was amazing, but it did make it all the harder to walk around the site, taking the same path as many of them did, into the showers, then onto the gas chambers. Signs in each of the rooms you visit tell you in detail about what happened within their walls, often joined by physical reminders, such as stains made by the gas, or empty gas canisters piled up in a cupboard. I ran through a whole gamut of emotions; from numb to furious, from frustrated to devastated, as I learnt more and more about how they both lived and died.
The history of Majdanek
With each building I explored I discovered more about the site, seeing plans for its original expansion and learning all about the horrors of Operation Reinhardt and the ‘Harvest Festival’, in addition to visiting a beautiful artistic memorial requested by the survivors, and even the god-awful crematoria.
The sky darkened with every barrack I visited and it just felt so right when the heavens finally opened – I cannot imagine being here on a day full of sunshine and fluffy little clouds.
I became lost for words when I walked inside one of the barracks to come face to face with 430,000 shoes piled from floor to ceiling, or saw the tiny cramped bunks that the prisoners would try to find rest in – those lucky enough to have a bed that is. However, the most chilling experience was the coming to the end of the long walk up to the mausoleum, where I discovered a vast umbrella of concrete that covers a literal hill of human ashes.
A trip to Majdanek is not for the faint of heart. It is a tough experience, but in my personal opinion, an important one. What’s particularly hard to face is that some of the first buildings you come to are the showers and gas chambers, so I do recommend being mentally prepared.
I still get goose bumps when I think back to my visit – just writing this piece brings back all the emotions. Even so, I am glad I visited and that I got to share so many stories of hope and better understand the strength of the amazing people that lived and died here. I hope their stories will continue to live on, and that the horrors they experienced – many of which are still happening somewhere in the world even today – will eventually be relegated to the dark pages of history for good.