Recently, Cohort V took a study tour through Poland, with our guide John Phillips. Our first day in Poland, we drove to Majdanek and spent the day there, learning about the death camp. The first building we went through were the disinfection and gas chambers, which were still stained blue from the Zyklon B pellets.
When we left the building, one of our students shared about an artist that she research through the Ghez Collection course, Léon Weissberg. Weissberg was born in Przeworsk, Poland in 1895, and studied in the art academies of Vienna and Munich. In 1923, he moved to Paris, the heart of the avant garde. Weissberg had a wife and daughter who was born and raised in Paris. He was best known for his Parisian cityscapes and circus scenes. After the Nazis invaded France, he escaped with his family to the South of France but they were betrayed by two French Vichy policemen. They were arrested and sent to Gurs concentration camp in February 1943, and on March 6, 1943 Weissberg was deported to Majdanek death camp.
One of the exhibits in the remaining barracks especially stood out. The barrack we visited was full of shoes, from the doorway to the end of the barrack, about 30 feet. Another student shared a personal story about this exhibition, he is also a guide at Yad Vashem. In a section of the Yad Vashem museum, there is a glass floor and beneath the glass are a few pairs of shoes, including a pair that belonged to a little boy. Our student wanted to include these shoes in his tour because his family, from Holland, were Righteous Among the Nations.
They tried to save a little boy and his parents by hiding them, however neighbors informed on them and they were all sent to Auschwitz and murdered in the gas chambers at Birkenau. The shoes that were chosen to represent this story were actually from Majdanek. The reality is that Majdanek has a surplus of these artifacts. Clothing items, valuables, anything Jews brought with them to surrounding death camps Sobibor, Belzec, and Treblinka II were sent and sorted at Majdanek. The sheer volume of goods at Majdanek was overwhelming, each item associated with a separate life.
Another notable aspect of the camp is the attention to architectural detail. Our guide talked about a concept called “Camp Pride;” the commanders of the camp actually took pride in their camps, so they added architectural details to make their camps stand out. At Majdanek, the prisoners were forced to create decorations for the camp: a model castle, a life-size architecturally German doll house, a giant cement turtle and more. These elements show the perversion of Nazi ideology, that these camps would be something to elicit pride.
After touring the camp, we saw the crematorium and the memorial, a weighty dome, which now rests over a massive pile of ashes and human remains. Behind the substantial dome are zig-zig pits, which is where the “Harvest Festival” or “Erntefest” of the fall of 1943 occurred. This was one of the last, large efforts to rid the Lublin District of Jews. After studying, the Nazis found that the best way to kill and eliminate people was to dig these zig-zag like trenches, shoot the people into the pits and burn the corpses. 42,000 Jews were killed during the Nazi “Erntefest.”
At the end of our time at Majdanek, students from our group lit candles for Kaddish and said a prayer for those who had been murdered here.
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