July 19, 2007

Visits to the Camps


Over four days, we visited Treblinka, Majdanek, and Auschwitz-Birkenau. Each of the sites and memorials have a different history and impact. Treblinka was completely destroyed by the Nazis, and what is left is a stark and powerful memorial on the site of the former camp. A field of stones – each of a different size and shape – representing the destroyed communities occupies the ground upon which an estimated 800,000 Jews were murdered.


Majdanek, on the other hand, survived the war nearly intact, and a section of the original camp serves as a museum. The communist regime constructed a huge memorial in the form of a domed roof covering a mound of ashes of victims. It is difficult to estimate the number of victims at Majdanek. Early Soviet estimates put the number at 360,000, which has been significantly revised recently. The current director of the Maidanek Museum, historian Tomasz Kranz, estimates the number at 78,000, of which 58,000 were Jews. When our guide communicated this estimate, some in our group were suspicious it had been intentionally lowered to minimize Jewish suffering as an ominous step on the dangerous road toward revisionism. Although the revised number is the result of careful scholarship (the estimate of the number of Jews is also quite close to Raul Hilberg’s estimate), the skepticism with which it was received underscored a concern shared by many in our group with the attitude of present-day Poles towards the Holocaust, and how it is commemorated and taught (if at all) in the schools.

Auschwitz-Birkenau: The "Sauna"

Our visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau began with a stop at the newly constructed memorial at the Judenrampe, where all incoming prisoners arrived until the spring of 1944 when a rail spur was constructed inside the camp to accommodate the Hungarian transports. We then went to the recently dedicated memorial at the “Red Cottage” which served as an early gas chamber until the construction of the purpose-built gas chamber/crematoria complexes. We then walked through a birch forest to the sauna exhibition, which is an example, in my opinion of the best of museum practice and commemorative intent. We ended the day with a visit to the Museum's Auschwitz Jewish Center. The visit provided a welcome respite and a stark contrast to the powerful experience of visiting the death camp. There, we connected with a tangible remnant of Jewish life within a few kilometers of perhaps the darkest spot on earth.

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