Majdanek: When Humanity Looked
“God of our Fathers, let the ashes of the children incinerated in Auschwitz, the rivers of blood spilled at Babbi Yar or Majdanek be a warning to mankind that hatred is destructive, violence is contagious, while man has an unlimited capacity for cruelty.”
- Alexander Kimel, Holocaust Survivor
360,000 “enemies of the Third Reich,” Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, and Poles, were murdered at Majdanek. 667 acres of extermination; 22 prisoner barracks; seven gas chambers; two gallows; a crematorium—that was Majdanek. But was this concentration camp, this camp of horrors, hidden from the public eye? No, unlike many other camps, Majdanek was not hidden in a remote area, nor in a forest, nor even in a security zone; the death camp was right off a highway connecting Lublin, Zamosc, and Chelm. And, equally disturbing, Majdanek bordered a Polish town—only one fence lay between extermination and everyday life.
Majdanek not only tells a story of death and suffering, but one of terrifying acceptance. Judith Becker, survivor of the tragedies at Majdanek, watched a soldier cut off a prisoner’s fingers. The Nazi soldier had never met the prisoner before, nor had the prisoner done anything to insult him; his orders were simply to remove all belongings and, in order to remove the prisoner’s ring, the soldier cut off her finger. This story is not one of anger or even hatred; it tells the story of obeying, of a detached acceptance. Not only did soldiers take all the belongings of Majdanek prisoners, but immediately thereafter, they brought these men, women and children, whom they had never met before, to gas chambers to be killed.
Then again, these soldiers were members of the Nazi Party, men who had already dedicated themselves to the purging of such “enemies.” Their acceptance was different, as they held a truly horrifying set of beliefs. The true crime of the Holocaust extends even farther than a dangerous, radical group, but to those who accepted the rise of this racist regime. “Never again” does not mean that people will never again attempt ethnic exterminations and genocide, but that we will never again sit idly by and allow it to happen. We will not be the residents of the town bordering Majdanek, or the families who drove along the highway from Lublin to Chelm, men and women who saw smoke rise from the crematoriums and knew what it meant. I will not be one such person. We have a responsibility and, in today’s world, no matter how difficult it may seem, we must uphold this commitment.
For that reason, I traveled on the United Synagogue Youth Poland and Israel “From Darkness to Light” Pilgrimage in the summer of 2006. When I stood inside the gas chambers at Majdanek, looked at the shoes taken from the prisoners, walked through the crematorium, and stared at the spot where Jews were killed in a mass extermination, I was forced to confront the terrors men were willing to exact on others. And, standing at the entrance to Majdanek, I was able to see the town that allowed a concentration camp to sit peacefully at its border. How could they do nothing, I thought for what felt like the hundredth time that trip, and allow innocents to be slaughtered?
But how far from that have we come today? How am I fulfilling the responsibility that I have both to my ancestors and as an individual privileged to see first-hand the results of racism and power unchecked? Staring at the town neighboring Majdanek, I began to analyze what I could do, and what I was already doing. As I saw two young men biking next to Majdanek, and a couple laughing together at the camp’s entrance, I knew there was so much more to do; these people were not racist, they simply did not appreciate the warning that Majdanek provides to everyone today. That apathy gives way to the ethnic cleansing in Darfur, to the acceptance of a Holocaust Denial conference in Iran, and to a radical leader’s calls to destroy Israel, my people’s homeland. When one does not understand the Holocaust, one cannot understand the lessons learned—that is why members of the Holocaust Denial Conference in Iran are the same people who call for the destruction of Israel, the only safe haven for the Jews.
The true failure of the Holocaust was the worldwide inability to respond—not only among those living in the town bordering Majdanek, but those living in every country across the globe. As early as October 1940, the Western Allies were aware of the existence of and slaughter taking place ni Auschwitz-Birkenau and, by March 1944, had the ability to bomb the railroads leading to the death camp (Wyman). Yet the leaders of these countries chose to give priority to the land war against Germany, and the extermination of the Jews continued. We must never prioritize anything above human life. We must remember our past failures and do more than simply proclaim “never again;” we must live by that lesson, because in every aspect of our lives we have a chance to make a difference.
What many people do not know is that currently in the United States Congress there is a resolution calling for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president who calls for Israel’s destruction, to be tried for attempting to incite genocide under the Geneva Convention. Here, for example, is an opportunity to call your representative and tell him or her you support the bill. As an intern at a congressional office, I know that those calls make a difference. So pick up your phone, dial a telephone number, and share your support for the resolution. Three simple steps—five minutes at most—and you have brought our world a step farther from the Holocaust.
Moreover, not every action involved in living the ideal of “never again” deals with danger on such a grand scale. Nearly every high school has some form of tolerance or multicultural club. Join that club; each student’s membership alone makes a difference. And, if your school has no such club, start one—find a teacher willing to help you, and start the organization. Put posters up on school walls telling people about the genocide in Darfur, or about intolerance around the world. Most people are not intolerant, they simply are not aware of the atrocities around the world, and that ignorance can lead to apathy as well. Having led a freshmen orientation group on tolerance, I have seen that people are willing to make a difference, but just do not know how. We can show them. We can teach them to live by “never again,” to eliminate their indifference and lack of awareness before it is too late, so that humanity will never again look away.
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