As I prepare to go on the HAJRTP trip in just a few days, I realized I had one more student reflection to add to the blog.
Here's Jill Santos' piece on Majdanek:
Before I went on this trip, everyone told me that visiting the sites would be difficult. I had imagined in my mind what each camp would look like. From pictures I’d seen in class, I conjured up some imaginary panoramic view of what I would see. However, I never stopped to think that my vision might not be correct.
For the entire bus ride to a camp called Majdanek, I imagined it. I thought about how various teachers told me it looked exactly like it had in 1945. I thought about testimonies I read from survivors and soldiers who had liberated it. I thought about crinkled black and white images I’d seen in textbooks of people barely living in the prison. And as I was thinking, I didn’t see the large stone monument creep up on me. I turned my head, and there it was. It stood tall over a vast field, nearly blocking the entire view from the bus window. However, as tall as it stood, there was still a sense of despair in the structure. Individual carvings in the large rock looked like suffering figures, ready to fall. Instantly, it passed to me the same anxious feeling that it passes on to everyone who looks at it. I suddenly knew that the image I had prepared myself for was, not so much wrong, but much less than what was actually there.
We all got out of the bus and walked silently down steps to go through the pass. There was ground on either side of us that jutted out with rocks, like the walls were closing in. And then finally, steep steps took us up under the monument, and it looked even more overwhelming from underneath. I felt small and vulnerable, in a way I never really had before. And then, as we all walked one by one to the other side of the monument, we saw it: Majdanek.
It was a bit movie-esque, the way we each stared out at the camp with our own looks of despair. Our faces crinkled with nerves, worry, and disgust that the large place had only been put into existence for the persecution of others. We were still above the camp, on the hill that held the giant stone, and looking out, the camp look endless. More importantly, and more striking, though, it was there. It looked untouched, like it could still have been running. The past camps we had visited had all been destroyed, only leaving remnants of foundations as evidence of the crimes committed there. Majdanek stood, completely, like it was ready to be judged for it’s heinous crimes.
Moments later, we were down in the camp. We were the only ones. However, it was not silent. Noise from the city echoed across the distance and into our ears. It sounded like a busy day, like people hustling and working. Above us, birds flew freely and chirped loudly, maybe because they didn’t know where they were. However, that’s when everything really hit me. I was sure, that from the construction of the camp until it’s liberation, the birds chirped. They flew, and dove, and rose, and laid their eggs as they had always known to do. They landed at the camp, and took off when they pleased. They went on with their lives, made families, lived, and died.
I always told myself that I would try to imagine myself in the camps, as an inmate. I didn’t think it would be difficult when I was actually at the camp, but it was. I tried to feel the blistering summer heat and the frozen winter air as I walked through buildings and the gravel paths. I touched the barbed wire and tried to imagine myself not being able to cross through the gates they held. I tried to imagine myself laying on wooden bunks, with only other bodies for heat. It was hard. I cringed at many of the emotions I tricked myself into believing, but nothing was worse than trying to imagine myself hungry, thirsty, and withering away, as birds were able to go free. How would it make me feel, to be robbed at my chance to have a childhood, to be educated, to grow and start a family of my own and to watch my children grow, while the birds flew overhead and went on, nothing stopping them from doing everything they pleased.
And then, we were at the Mausoleum, built to honor those who perished in the camp. I still heard chirping behind me as I ascended the steps, not really sure of what I was going to see. The shade that the giant concrete structure provided made the inner area cold and eerie, and I didn’t have much time to think before I saw what the Mausoleum housed. In front of me, was ash. It sort of took the breath out of me. There was no glass separating it from me. There were no signs explaining, no bars indicating you to stand back. It was just there, and the closeness of it haunted me. For as much as I tried to imagine myself during the visit, I stopped. I could not do it. I could not imagine what it would be like to truly understand.
But I did try to imagine the people. The people, all that ash, it used to be people. They were people who were robbed of their childhoods, their education, and their right to have a family and to watch their children grow. It was no longer some sort of imaginary image- it was there. I remembered all the pictures in museums of living, breathing people with goals, aspirations, friends, family, and thoughts. I could not fathom that this was the fate of millions of people, who were so deserving of so many things they were deprived of.
I then thought to a monument in the destroyed town of Lidice. The monument was based on photographs of children who were stolen or killed when the town was raided. Each child looked exactly has they had in real life, and their faces were indescribable, but sculpted forever with this intense despair. Children like them were victims, and their fates were similar to what I was currently looking at in Majdanek. The thought absolutely sickened me.
Everything I’ve said has been extremely descriptive, and I wrote it true to the emotions I felt at the time. I think it’s important to pass on exactly what I felt, so other people can know what I now know. It is important, especially now. The last survivors are beginning to pass on, along with the last soldiers, the last heroes who hid hunted peoples, and the last relatives and friends of people who perished during the war. I feel extremely lucky to have gone on this trip, because to me, it is incredibly important to remember. As the years pass on and new problems arise in the world, if our generation does not remember, then who will?