Fire At Majdanek

The title of this post seems a little eerie.  I feel like it would be inappropriate if it were not true.  And by being true, the title seems to remind us of a not too distant past of horror and of the ability of humans to be led like sheep – both by force and by propaganda.

I was at Majdanek in the summer of 2005 with USY Poland/Israel Pilgrimage (a program of my youth group).  We spent a week in Poland and five weeks in Israel.  Visiting Majdanek was one of the most meaningful and impactful experiences of that summer, even my life.  It is still difficult for me to look at the pictures from that visit to Majdanek – the concentration/death camp near Lublin, Poland.

In case you have not heard, a fire recently destroyed most of the original barracks of the camp that contained shoes of the camp’s prisoners – seeing/smelling/being in the midst of all of the thousands of shoes of real people is a saddening and real experience.

A picture I took in 2005 of the shoes barrack at Majdanek.

Information about the fire seems to be inconsistent.  Nevertheless, here are two articles about the recent fire:

From the JTA:

Op-Ed: The Shoes of Majdanek

By Michael Berenbaum · August 26, 2010

lOS ANGELES (JTA) — Reports of a fire at Majdanek that damaged the barracks housing hundreds of thousands of shoes of the Jews murdered in the death camp should cause us to shudder. Something monumental has been lost.

A word about Majdanek: The camp is situated in a valley just outside the major town of Lublin, in proximity to Little Majdan, from which it derived its name. It was situated in the Polish territory annexed to the Third Reich. During the war, it was part of Germany proper.

Majdanek was captured whole in July 1944. Unlike at Auschwitz, the Nazis had no time to evacuate the camp or to burn its contents. Its liberation was featured on the front page of The New York Times. H.W. Lawrence, a correspondent for the Times, wrote: “I have just seen the most terrible place on Earth.” These revelations were not given much credence. The very existence of something as awful as a death camp seemed impossible. Even graphic films of the camp shown in Britain and the United States were dismissed as Soviet propaganda.

Because Majdanek was captured whole, those who visit the death camp see far more than they might see at Auschwitz. As any visitor to the camp will tell you, Majdanek is more primitive, more actual, more real and more powerful.


Visitors to Majdanek would walk through the barracks of shoes, the shoes of the 500,000 Jews from the various ghettos and camps who entered but did not leave. To me, that barracks was the most powerful part of a visit to Majdanek, more moving even than the gas chambers and crematoria that one sees intact at the top of the hill, more powerful still than the pyramid of ashes that form a mountain just outside the gas chamber.

Moses Schulstein, the great Yiddish poet, wrote of these shoes in his poem “I Saw a Mountain”:

I saw a mountain
Higher than Mt. Blanc
And more Holy than the Mountain of Sinai.
Not in a dream. It was real.
On this world this mountain stood.
Such a mountain I saw — of Jewish shoes in Majdanek. …

Hear! Hear the march.
Hear the shuffle of shoes left behind — that which remained.
From small, from large, from each and every one.
Make way for the rows — for the pairs,
For the generations — for the years.
The shoe army — it moves and moves.

“We are the shoes, we are the last witnesses.
We are shoes from grandchildren and grandfathers.
From Prague, Paris and Amsterdam.
And because we are only made of stuff and leather
And not of blood and flesh, each one of us avoided the hellfire.

We shoes — that used to go strolling in the market
Or with the bride and groom to the chuppah,
We shoes from simple Jews, from butchers and carpenters,
From crocheted booties of babies just beginning to walk and go
On happy occasions, weddings, and even until the time
Of giving birth, to a dance, to exciting places to life…
Or quietly — to a funeral.
Unceasingly we go. We tramp.
The hangman never had the chance to snatch us into his
Sack of loot — now we go to him.
Let everyone hear the steps, which flow as tears,
The steps that measure out the judgment.”
I saw a mountain
Higher than Mt. Blanc
And more Holy than the Mountain of Sinai.

The shoes of Majdanek are rotting. They smell. The rot and the smell viscerally illustrate the distance that stands between that time and our time. They bear witness to the erosion of time, which we want to decouple from the erosion of memory.

In a barracks adjacent to the barracks housing the shoes, the visitor files past the uniforms of men and women, even of children who lived in this camp, who died in this camp. Human beings once wore those uniforms and those shoes; once, they were alive; now, they are dead. One can sense their absence; the visitor must imagine their presence.

How did the shoes and uniforms arrive at Majdanek?

Majdanek was the place where the warehouses from Aktion Reinhard (Operation Reinhard, the Nazis’ code name for their plan to exterminate Polish Jewry) were located, where the clothing and valuables taken from the prisoners were collected, sorted and stored, and shipped back into Germany.

The death camp was also the headquarters for the destruction of regional ghettos and the place of supervision for the Aktion Reinhard camps — Sobibor, Belzec and Treblinka.

So much was lost in the fire – the material remains of the people who were consumed there and elsewhere by fire, and whose burial place was the sky.

I cried when I heard of the flames that consumed those shoes, and then I thought again. Perhaps after 66 years of bearing witness to the hell fire, the shoes – made of fiber and leather – were reunited with the grandfathers and grandchildren from Paris, Prague and Amsterdam, the men, women and children of flesh and blood.

(Michael Berenbaum is a professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Institute: Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles. He was the project director for the creation of the U.S. Holocaust Museum and is the former director of its research institute.)

I recently saw that poem and the some of the shoes at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.

An article from the Jerusalem Post:

Majdanek: 10,000 pairs of shoes burnt

08/10/2010 14:37

A fire broke out Monday night at the Majdanek concentration camp barracks in Poland and destroyed ten-thousand pairs of shoes belonging to former prisoners, according to Majdanek Museum Director Tomasz Kranz.

The fire, which seriously damaged two-thirds of the wooden structure, occurred at midnight and took six hours to put out, a spokesman from the Lublin fire brigade reportedly said.

On Tuesday, Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev expressed support and assistance to Kranz following reports of the fire.

Shalev conveyed deep sorrow that such a historic landmark and invaluable artifacts suffered such damage.

“The damage to these irreplaceable items is a loss to a site that has such historical value to Europe, Poland and the Jewish people,” Shalev told Kranz.

Authorities have not been able to locate the cause of the fire yet are investigating all possibilities.

The site manager stated that the cause of the fire was unclear but it was likely that it started as a result of a power outage.

Majdanek concentration camp is located near the southeastern Polish city of Lublin.

Over 360,000 people, over half of them Jews, were murdered at the camp.

The Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp also suffered damage this year as heavy floods covered the site and nearly destroyed the memorial area.

Apparently there was also flooding at Auschwitz-Birkenau.  Click here to read about it.

I kept a journey during my trip to Poland.  Below is an unedited copy of what I wrote at/about Majdanek:

Journal Entry of June 24, 2005

Majdanek Death Camp, Lublin, Poland

“Words can’t describe emotions right now.  We are currently at Majdanek (pronounced My don ek).  The crows call above us.  Constantly calling out as if to say ‘here lie the dead’.  I’m sitting on a piece of concrete in front of a barrack.  I don’t know what to write.  I feel guilty?  Lucky to be alive?  Hopeful for the future?  Worried for my kids?  The crows seem to be mocking us.  Rattling Nalgene bottles, beeping digital cameras – how?  How do we allow ourselves such luxuries in the place of countless dead?  We walked through our first building & saw an experimental gas chamber, real showers, Zyklon B storage room & real gas chambers.  Not until sitting outside the buildings did I realize what I’d just seen.  It was in there!  There people were not killed or murdered but exterminated.  Ah the crows!  Kids ride their bikes through the camp as a shortcut home.  People live right next door.  We saw a van drive through.  How?  How does this happen?  The barracks are larger than I thought & many have museum exhibits.  I was looking for one to still have the bunk beds.  I’ve yet to find it.  Creaking floorboards, wet, moldy, perhaps, rotten wood.  How?  Why?  Evan asked me to read part of a poem as we do our memorial service before we leave, but not yet though.  At least I’ll be able to do something in memory of the 350,000 dead.  They wanted us to bring water bottles.  How?  I couldn’t eat or drink in this place.  They wanted us to wear hats because of the sun.  How?  It didn’t matter for the prisoners.  I want to show off my yarmulke as if to say ‘A Jew still lives!’  The crows!

“We just did our memorial service.  We’ve seen barracks from different stages of the camp.  We walked through fields.  Saw the guard towers.  We went into the last building.  We saw the dissecting table where gold was removed from the dead.  We walked through a dark, damp, cool crematorium.  Ah! The thoughts!  The feelings!  Oh God!  We entered the room housing the crematorium.  What to think?  I’m so mixed up, sad, angry, I don’t know, I don’t – I don’t know what to do.  18,400 Jews were killed one day in pits behind the crematorium because of revolts at other camps.  It’s hard to write.  I want to cry but the tears won’t come.  I want to hug someone – to feel someone close to me to know others are still alive.  The crows keep making noise & now dogs are barking.  Everyone has different reactions.  The tears on many!  There is a monument/mausoleum where a pile of ash is under a stone dome.  We did our memorial service.  We read a poem about the blue on the walls of the crematorium from the poisoned breath.  Reading it was very moving.  I was shaking (like I am now) so badly I was afraid I would fall into the ash pit.  Elana read the poem ‘I am a Jew’.  It has new meaning having been read here.  Marc read the memorial prayer & asked us not to close our eyes.  It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, looking over the camp.  Oh God!  I can’t write more.  I’m shaking too badly.  The thoughts!  The feelings!”

Me and two friends writing in our journals at Majdanek, 2005.