The Caretaker of Man's Penance

by Kenneth Rayman on February 9, 2019

Glancing over my tours I saw, “Lublin” and thought, “Oh cool! Another city outside of the Polish Triangle of Krakow, Gdansk, and Warsaw.” I told my tour agent that I wanted to avoid any part of the WW2 experience and had removed a suggestion by the Polish operator of Hitler’s Wolf’s Lair, so I didn’t look any closer. On my first guided day around Warsaw though, my guide Tomasz ended our evening confirming tomorrow’s schedule and said the words, “concentration camp.” Excuse me, what?! I wanted to check my itinerary before I said anything, however, but sure enough there it was, “tour of Majdanek concentration camp,” in the description. My thinking and excitement were too fast, when I saw the name Lublin, that I didn’t fully look at the program.

The next day, I wanted to say, “I don’t want to go to Majdanek. Where else could we see in Lublin?” Tomasz, though, turned to me and said, “I’m a Warsaw guide, so I don’t know a whole lot on Lublin. I did research all night last night for today,” holding up his notes. If I said something now, we’d be lost for direction. I thought, also, of all the times I’d heard, “It’s something everyone should know about,” telling myself that I wouldn’t be able to write my usual form of global citizenry, but maybe an experiential article.

I was surprised to learn that Majdanek (pronounced My-don-ik) was the first Allied discovery of the Holocaust, when the Soviets discovered the camp on their march to Berlin. The weather that day added to the moment’s gravity, as it was 27 degrees, or -4 Celsius, with snow that continued from the previous day. I was shown that the large monument I saw from the road illustrated the path the prisoners walked, upon arrival, to the first place they came to in the camp. Walking the path from the monument they came to two separate buildings, one for women and one for men. These were the “showers” new arrivals were lined up to be “disinfected” in.

I was asked not to take pictures and to remain silent in the chamber, feeling a sense of foreboding as I entered, waiting for that moment that would stick for the rest of my life. Upon entering, I saw a marker with a story from a camp survivor about what they were made to do in the first room, taking clothes off and piling them up. Walking to the next room, I saw the shower heads and my stomach dropped.  I stepped down into the room, saying “oh, no” under my breath, taking two more steps I looked up and saw a shower head right above me; I was standing right where someone once stood not knowing they were about to die, feeling the gut check of history. I was next taken behind the chamber and given information on the building itself and the machination of the atrocities that occurred there.

We walked through the barracks seeing various exhibits and having conversations that the bitter cold helped illustrate. In one barracks, Tomasz asked, pointing to the bunks, “Which bunk would you choose as the better one? Lower, middle, or top?” He wasn’t trying to be facetious but pleaded for an answer, at my hesitation. “I have no balance and I’m afraid of heights so I’d be on the bottom,” I replied. If I chose to bunk on the bottom, he said, I’d have to deal with rats and mice crawling into the bunk where I slept while also being hit with uncontrolled bodily fluids that fell from above; if I took the middle bunk, I might not have the strength to climb up into bed because of malnutrition plus the back breaking work the camp guards made me do. If I was on the top bunk (pointing to the windows at the ceiling), he said, “those windows weren’t there, there’d be no protection from the snow and cold air out there, so no bunk was the “best.”

We ended the tour seeing the Mausoleum that was erected next to the new crematorium built but never used before Majdanek was abandoned. The Mausoleum dome is inscribed with the words, “This is our destiny, now you are aware” and under the dome is a mound of black human ash, of which I was told the Soviets discovered 25 tons when liberating the camp.

Experiencing history’s dark side, and Poland’s preservation of it, gave me a thought with an underlying theme within Poland’s character as I walked through Majdanek. Poland is predominantly Catholic, being baptized as a nation in the 10th century, and today is 92% to 95% Catholic. While not religious, I know certain religious stories from attempts to explore religious faith. Hearing the stories of the gas chamber, bunks, rail transports, and the camp administration, I had one prevailing thought, “Could Poland see itself as the guardian of man’s ultimate penance?” Is there a divine burden of responsibility to make sure it never happens again? Does Poland see itself as the reluctant bearer of a cross?

In Krakow, however, I learned of another torment of that guardianship. As answers varied from person to person, they each still said the same thing, “it needs to be known.” A tourism office attendant said she gets tourists who ask for tickets to Auschwitz to “see if it actually happened” while pouring over the city map to find the camp (not realizing that Auschwitz is 3 hours west of Krakow), signaling both ignorance and negligence. But my Krakow guide, Robert, talked of the distinction between Poland and the atrocity itself. He talked of comments calling them “Polish death camps” and the assumption that only Jews were killed in the camps.

Driving through the countryside, he talked of Auschwitz’s history before World War 2. Auschwitz, as a location, was a former Polish military base that the Germans would re-purpose for their aims. Auschwitz’s origins reached back to the Austro-Hungarian Empire when it was built as a political prison and governmental center of the province, taken over by the Polish military after independence in 1918, and then got it’s current image through German actions. Robert said the only German “thing” about Auschwitz was the “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate and Birkenau, when they expanded the camp itself. “That’s why it’s set up the way it is. The Germans didn’t have to build infrastructure themselves, they just re-purposed it.” This clued me into how Majdanek was set up in a similar manner. “But to label them “Polish” death camps.. NO! They were German death camps where Poles, Jews, and many others died.”

I told him, “Right there, you just added to the narrative I want to write. No one probably knows of the prior history of the locations, as military bases; and while that doesn’t excuse or is meant to minimize the atrocity, it shines a light on distinction between Poland and a part of it’s history it has no control over.” This is similar to finding out the origins of the swastika as a sign of good fortune in ancient Eastern religion, until Hitler gave it the color scheme and connotation that turned it into the ultimate symbol of evil. Learning this subtle distinction to separate Poland and it’s tormented past, while not dismissing the lesson or the memory of the victims, fascinated me.