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.

Shoes

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

By JPOST.COM STAFF
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.

Advertisements

More On The Flotilla

The response to the Gaza flotilla has been overwhelming.  Stories from every angle are all over the home page of The Jerusalem Post.  Most countries seem to be using this as an excuse to condemn Israel, even without knowing the truth of what happened.  This is no surprise.  The United Nations has called for an impartial inquiry into what happened between Israeli commandos and the “pro-peace” activists.  With the UN’s history of discrimination against Israel, this is almost laughable.

This morning I came across a TIME Magazine article about whether or not Obama and Netanyahu could bridge their personal gaps to create peace talks.  I was going to post that here as an interesting story, but then came across a post by Joe Klein about the flotilla incident.  I generally agree with what Joe Klein writes.  In this instance, my opinions waver.  In terms of Israeli politics, I tend to consider myself moderate, wavering to the left or to the right depending on the situation or topic.  Klein gives blame on the Israeli side to Netanyahu and his right-wing government, giving added credence to my International Studies thesis. Klein’s article is as follows:

Well, this certainly doesn’t look good. Israeli commandos attack a flotilla of peace activists and supporters of the Palestinian cause–including a Nobel peace laureate, a holocaust survivor and the mystery writer Henning Mankell–in the waters just off Gaza. Ten are killed; several Israeli commandos are shot, apparently by activists who seized their pistols. I have several immediate reactions:

First reaction: This is an insane use of disproportionate force. It is a product of the right-wing radicalization of the Israeli government, an extremism that Peter Beinart wrote about in his recent, much debated New York Review of Books article. And it will further isolate Israel from the rest of the world. The US will be asked to condemn this behavior in the inevitable Security Council resolution–if Obama doesn’t veto the resolution, there will be hell to pay among the Israelophilic leaders of the American Jewish Community. If he does veto the resolution, his outreach to the Islamic world is kaput. If he abstains, everyone is offended.

Second Reaction: But wait a minute. The blockade the Israelis were enforcing is a joint Egyptian-Israeli effort, caused by the intransigence of Hamas (which, in turn, may be a result of groups even more extreme than Hamas, a new generation of militants who may be the next wave). The sticking point is the Hamas refusal to release its Israeli Army prisoner, Gilad Shalit. And the blockade is not total–food and humanitarian supplies are allowed through by the Israelis, which renders the humanitarian aspects of the flotilla redundant. The real purpose of the flotilla is to dramatize the inhuman conditions in Gaza. But those conditions are as attributable to Hamas’s behavior, especially its refusal to release Shalit and to negotiate, as they are to Israel’s intransigence. If I were an Israeli–even an Israel opponent of the Netanyahu coalition–I would be utterly opposed to making concessions to an organization as historically intransigent and violent as Hamas, unless there were signs that Hamas was willing to behave more reasonably. The first such sign would be the release of Gilan Shalit.

Third Reaction: As I wrote a few months ago, the Gaza situation is–to coin a phrase–a bleeding ulcer that requires aggressive US diplomacy. That means acting as an intermediary between Hamas and Israel. I was led to believe by senior US officials at the time that there were no contacts–not even secret or third party contacts–with Hamas. That seems hard to believe. There is an obvious deal to be negotiated here:  the release of Shalit in return for a limited lifting of the blockade, especially construction supplies so that the Gazans can start rebuilding their homes.

Fourth Reaction: Hamas has achieved a propaganda “victory” here and will be even less likely to negotiate immediately, enjoying every last moment of the international condemnation of  Israel.

Update: Here’s an Israeli account of the incident, which–in Orwellian fashion–calls it a trap set by the pro-Palestinian activists. It is claimed that the Israeli commandos were armed with paintball rifles (huh?)…but they were apparently also armed with pistols, which they used and were used against them.

Update2: Right on schedule, the Likudnik Israel-firsters over at Commentary throw down the gauntlet. It’s up to “liberal zionists”–that is, people who believe in Israel but not in Likud’s neo-imperialist policies–to “choose” between Israel or Hamas. Sorry, but it’s a false choice…and I’m certainly not going to submit to some juvenile ultimatum thrown down by right-wing extremists whose knee-jerk support of Netanyahu’s sado-masochistic coalition is hurting Israel grievously. I understand Israel’s position on the Gaza blockade, though not its crazed macho military nonsense against the flotilla. I believe it’s up to Hamas to initiate negotiations that will lead to the lifting of the blockade. But I also believe that Likudnik policies created Hamas just as surely as the disastrous 1982 Likudnik invasion of Lebanon created Hizballah. It is just astonishing how these shameless people can be so noisy and so wrong for so long. In truth, the one thing that might deter Netanyahu from his disastrous course might be if responsible American Jewish leaders quietly sent the message to Bibi that enough was enough, that they’re happy to support reasonable acts to ensure Israel’s survival, but not this Goliath-like stupidity. (It’s interesting that some of the Palestinian activists were using slingshots against the IDF commandos; that’s an image no Jew wants to see).

The Washington Post article that Klein quotes is interesting in itself.  While essentially tearing apart the flotilla organizers and supporters, the article simultaneously blames Netanyahu and the Israeli government.

We have no sympathy for the motives of the participants in the flotilla — a motley collection that included European sympathizers with the Palestinian cause, Israeli Arab leaders and Turkish Islamic activists. Israel says that some of the organizers have ties to Hamas and al-Qaeda. What’s plain is that the group’s nominal purpose, delivering “humanitarian” supplies to Gaza, was secondary to the aim of provoking a confrontation. The flotilla turned down an Israeli offer to unload the six boats and deliver the goods to Gaza by truck; it ignored repeated warnings that it would not be allowed to reach Gaza. Its spokesmen said they would insist on “breaking Israel’s siege,” as one of them put it.

The article says that the only way for Netanyahu to get out of this “disaster” is to take credible and solid steps towards a Palestinian state.  Neither Israel nor the Palestinians are in a place for this to happen right now.  Making such major decisions as a result of a diplomatic crisis will only end in failure.  If  the writer of the editorial had read my thesis, the writer would know this.

Gaza Flotilla – Not About Freedom

Last night (U.S. Time), Israel attacked a flotilla that was bound for Gaza.  Israel has blockaded Gaza due to the rule of Hamas and terrorist activities.  While this blockade is well-known, some groups (mostly humanitarian but many with pro-Palestinian and/or pro-extremist ties) have tried to run the blockade and reach Gaza.  Israel and the UN allow humanitarian aid in and offered the flotilla the opportunity to pass the aid on, after a security check.  The offer was turned down.

After being warned to turn around/stop, Israeli soldiers boarded the flotilla ships.  They were attacked by the people on the ships.  According to one Israeli Navy commander, the people on board “came for war”.  The soldiers responded, believing their lives were in danger, and ended up killing several (10 – but number still uncertain) on board the ships and wounding others.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had been in Canada, canceled a trip to Washington to meet with Obama on Tuesday in order to return home and deal with the impending international crisis.  Obama called Netanyahu today and the two discussed the need to know the facts as soon as possible.  European leaders are already using the incident as a call to end the Gaza blockade and instead act against Israel.  Obama and Netanyahu plan to reschedule their meeting.

Israel has the right to stop ships and check their contents for security reasons (as do all sovereign countries), nevertheless, extremists are using the opportunity to call for attacks against Israel.  To some extent, Turkey is even giving credence to these calls and encouraging some sort of protest against Israel.

"A television grab from Turkish station Cihan shows Navy troops storming the Mavi Marmara" - From Times Online

While it is clear that my views are pro-Israel (which does not mean that I am anti-Palestinian), I try to have a fairly balanced view of situations like this.  The mainstream media, including the BBC article linked to above, almost always represent Israel negatively.  This is biased and untruthful, yet continues to happen.  As such, below are some notes and quotes on the situation, from Stand With Us.  Stand With Us is obviously pro-Israel, but I think these notes are obviously true regardless of whether or not one agrees with the situation that is unfolding.  Clearly we need more information on what actually happened – and it is unlikely to come from unbiased sources.

• Activists carried out a pre-planned violence, armed with knives and metal bars, each sailor being attacked by a mob of a dozen extremists

• The provocateurs were organized by an Islamist organization that has links to fundamentalist jihadi groups.

• The extremists brought small children on board knowing that they intended to violate international maritime law.

• Israel offered to transfer the aid to Gaza again and again – they refused – and chose confrontation.

• Israeli Minister Danny Ayalon: “Weapons found on board; the organizers intent was violent, their method was violent and the result was, unfortunately violent”

• Israeli Minister Danny Ayalon: “We repeatedly called on the organizers to stop this provocation”

• Israeli Minister Danny Ayalon: “The maritime blockade in Gaza is because of the terrorism of Hamas”

• Israeli Minister Danny Ayalon: Allowing the illegal flotilla to reach Hamas would have opened a corridor of smuggling of weapons to Gaza and resulting in civilian deaths.

• Israel transfers about 15,000 tons of supplies and humanitarian aid every week to the people of Gaza.

• “We fully intend to go to Gaza regardless of any intimidation or threats of violence against us, they are going to have to forcefully stop us,” said one of the flotilla’s organizers

• Using the Arabic term ‘intifada,’ Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said “We call on all Arabs and Muslims to rise up in front of Zionist embassies across the whole world.

• Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said this week: “If the ships reach Gaza it is a victory; if they are intercepted, it will be a victory too”; Hamas is responsible for the suffering of both Palestinians and Israelis.

• Israel left Gaza in hopes of peace in 2005 and in return received more than 10,000 rockets and terrorist attacks.

• Israel has said that it will deliver any humanitarian aid to Gaza, as it does daily.

• No country would allow illegal entry of any vessel into their waters without a security check.

• Any police force in the world would respond to aggression; the provocation is the reason for this regrettable outcome.

• Wounded, including violent activists, are receiving medical treatment in Israeli hospitals.

Al-Jazeera TV Report from “Freedom Flotilla” Before Its Departure for Gaza: Activists on Board Chant Intifada Songs and Praise Martyrdom.
http://www.memritv.org/clip/en/2489.htm

Israeli Navy addresses a ship in the flotilla and offers it to dock in the Ashdod port:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qKOmLP4yHb4

BBC report shows violent, masked activists on ship:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/10195838.stm

Read StandWithUs Statement:
http://www.standwithus.com/app/iNews/view_n.asp?ID=1444

Ironically, all of this is unfolding on the United States’ Memorial Day.  The flotilla claimed to be pro-freedom, but their preparation for violent attacks and resulting occurrences show that freedom may not have been the main or entire purpose of this group.

My friend offered the following thoughts on Facebook:

Dear Palestinian “Peace Activists,” You don’t approach an area under blockade and NOT expect to be stopped. THOUSANDS of heavy weapons have historically been smuggled into Gaza so don’t blame Israel for wanting to ensure its own security by searching your ship. Moreover, why not just submit to the search and be on your way… No, go ahead and attack Israeli commandos and see how that works out for ya. Morons. That said, its truly sad for so much loss of life…

Syria and Lebanon claim the attack could lead to war.  This is not surprising and could be a way to once again delay any sort of peace process.