In the movies, places of death are always portrayed as barren and sickly, a reflection of the terrible reality that is theirs. This, unfortunately, is not a movie. The first thought that registers in my mind as I gaze out over this vast, desolate concentration camp is how beautiful and serene it looks. Even the sturdy guard towers and the ominous barbed wire fences possess a certain symmetry. The earthy wood of bunker and barracks contrast with the tall, green weeds of this abandoned Polish farm. I shudder, distraught at how disturbing a place could possibly be so picturesque.
As the group descends towards the bathhouse, a hint of ugly gray amidst a field of healthy green catches my wandering eye. With each step I take, the gray patch becomes clearer, and soon I can make out a decaying talon, a broken wing, an ebony eye frozen and empty in death. I shudder, disgusted at the sight of the deceased pigeon.
When we reach the camp, I observe numerous gardens of carnations that have been planted next to many of the buildings. When I think of the atrocities that were once committed within those walls just meters away from the gardens, the feeling of wrongness in my gut grows.
Our first stop is the gas chamber. In the atrium are genuine showers that were once used to calm prisoners before they were ruthlessly executed. We often experience our greatest moments of joy after our times of greatest peril. Many of the inmates at Majdanek knew that their lives were in danger in those showers, and that they had never been at greater peril. When water poured forth from the pipes onto their anxious skin, they must have felt the most fantastic ecstasy.
In a room separated by a mere wall from the showers, however, I see blotches of blue and swampy green pasted permanently to the walls, stains from the gas that sixty years ago was used to systematically destroy an entire people. In here prisoners could only have known unfathomable torment in their final minutes upon this world. I stretch my mind to its temporal limits, trying to imagine their joy evaporating like the recent drops on their flesh, their hopelessness consuming them like the noxious death seeping into their lungs.
Shaken and confused at how man can force his fellows to such extremities of emotion in such tiny moments, I leave the gas chamber and the group behind. I simply cannot stand the sight of another human being.
When I enter a barracks, I am met with a pungent, oppressive rank. Before me are piles and piles of shoes, whose rotting leather fills the air with musk. A wave of nausea engulfs me, and I fight the urge to vomit. It’s funny how I’m more reviled by the shoes than I am by the gas chambers. To the prisoners, their shoes were just another of life’s necessities among many more. Shoes, even piles of them, shouldn’t be so disconcerting. It is the bathhouse, with its deceptive showers and stocks of poisonous gas that would disgust them more than any shoe. But not me. The smell of decaying leather is just too much.
The barracks aren’t very big – no more than forty meters long and ten wide. As I plod through each of them, I find it impossible to visualize how a thousand human beings could possibly have lived in such a place. Then I enter a barracks full of bunks. Suddenly, the barracks becomes much larger as I imagine the midnight conversations, the hollow laughter, the cacophony of suppressed coughing that must have resounded within these walls every night. There was an entire community in here. But while it is also larger, it is simply not large enough. Bitter thoughts of fleas and lice, of unchecked influenza and agonizing typhoid, of warm, sickly bodies packed eight to a bunk and the mortal phantom that haunted every single one of those bodies imbue a biting sense of claustrophobia within me, and I quickly exit the barracks.
Outside in the midst of a courtyard stand a miniature castle and a statue made by the inmates. Both are gorgeously crafted. The castle is an intricate, majestic fortress of stone, two meters tall and four wide, radiating all the peace and security that its crafter never knew. The statue is of three bold eagles and a meager turtle rising above the weeds, as if the artist hoped to show the hope that remained despite life’s bitter struggles. It is beyond me how people so destitute could conceive such splendor.
With an immutable weight on my heart, I reach my final destination: the crematorium. The ovens are smaller than I expected. Somehow, I thought the bodies of the dead would be incinerated by a larger, more deserving flame. Instead, the ovens are in neat rows stacked one on top of the other, a tribute to the efficiency with which the Nazis wantonly killed. As I turn to leave, I catch sight of a young woman with golden blond hair kneeling by an oven. She does not see me, but I can all too clearly see the tears streaming down her face. I realize that it is quite a pretty face, blemish-less and tan, with fierce pearl green eyes shining despite their sorrow. One so beautiful should not be in a place so ugly. But that, I realize, does not matter. Had she been here a lifetime ago, she too could have exited only though the tireless smokestack. Evil is blind to beauty.
I step outside and notice there is a flower garden in front of the crematorium. Despite my reservations, I kneel and put a pink carnation to my nostrils. Strangely, I am not unsettled by its sweet smell. As I walk back across this vast farmland to the waiting bus, I catch my last glimpse of the old fields and quaint buildings that constitute Majdanek. Its beauty no longer disturbs me.
written June 18th, 2003 immediately after I visited the Majdanek death camp in Lublin, Poland