Another incredibly intense day seeing so much history in such a short space of time.
Bełżec was the first death camp set up during the Nazi regime, close to the border with Ukraine. It was constructed in the middle of a huge forest, surrounded by tightly packed Nazi planted trees and with an extra layer of leaves on top to hide it from aerial view.
Unfortunately again this place has a sense that the Nazis won here. They closed down the camp, dismantled it and hid all evidence well before the war ended. They had killed all the Jews they wanted in this area and got away with it. Hundreds of thousands of them. They proved that their Final Solution could be accomplished. The next step for them was to bring in Jews and other undesirables from further afield to larger camps like Auschwitz.
Fortunately Rudolf Reder was one of less than a handful of survivors and has the best reported testimony. Backed up by workers testimonies this really was a tragic site.
Interestingly, none of these death camps were actually set up in Germany, all of them in Poland. This was shown to be completely deliberate, to try to push the German Nazi war crimes away by a physical distance to try to absolve themselves from responsibility should anyone find out at the time of even after the war. When they realised they were about to lose the war, they tried to hide all evidence – e.g. by blowing up the gas chambers at Auschwitz whilst escaping.
Unfortunately their idea of pushing away the blame also seems to have succeeded today; it is common to blame and hate all the Polish, when actually very many of the Poles were victims too. There were many collaborators, but also many opponents and righteous. Anger is better served to the intolerant, the anti-semitic, of which we know there are still far too many worldwide.
Moving on, we stopped at another rebuilt synagogue in a small town called Łańcut. The town population, mostly Jewish before the war, was completely erased here; to zero. As we entered, we had the most incredibly moving sight of some Israelli kids (probably late teenagers) singing loudly, screaming at the top of their voices. Their energy was felt from before we entered. We were hit with the same feeling of strength in the knowledge that we are still here today. Together we are still singing.
A long drive across the country to Kraków saw us stop just past Tarnów in a normal forest. Another, unfortunately familiar, merciless mass killing site exists here in a public park. 10,000 people, many of whom are Jews or just ordinary Poles are commemorated here. In one day, 1800 Jews were taken here and shot. One by one with a bullet to the top of the spine, the base of the neck, as trained on a dummy by a local doctor. Children first. The mothers were then walked past their slaughtered children before also being killed. Finally the husbands would walk past both piles to the same fate.
Nothing like this is excusable in any way yet no-one was punished for this site after the war despite the knowledge of who did it.
We solemnly made it to Kraków for a Shabbat service. Deeply meaningful and moving given the past few days. A welcome break to the historical sites and a great chance to reflect. After dinner, our processing session saw the most incredible comments from my group. The young-adults, all between 20 and 35, opened up with passionate personal stories about their family history and what it means to them to be standing where their grandparents or great-grandparents once were.
The first time I visited Auschwitz I felt an overwhelming need to return to London and convince my friends to go. Excuses were given: it’s too far, I can’t leave work, I don’t want to be upset. So far I have failed, almost none of my friends have visited since my initial trip because of my inspiration. I undertook a bike ride from London to Auschwitz in order to document it; this was my way to try and educate my friends who have not been.
I had a very powerful realisation in this processing session. The 30 or so people in my group; the ones who I met in Warsaw airport on Wednesday; those who I have had many a lengthy and deep conversation with; those who stood next to me as we have said Kaddish far too many times; those who visited and experienced Majdanek and Bełżec with me and felt the strength of our presence at these sites: these are my new friends. I can no longer feel that I am alone in my experience, because now I have many new friends who have visited with me.