‘just returned from a March of the Living program’s annual commemoration of Kristalnacht. The “March” as it is known, is a two week trip that takes Jewish teens to the ruins of Jewish Poland and it’s death camps for a week and then to experience the risen Phoenix with a week in Israel. This past trip had 15,000 teens from around the world, places with tiny Jewish populations like Cuba, as well as those one would expect to be represented. Kristalnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass” is recognized as the beginning of the assault on the Jews, the precursor to laws isolating Jews from every social and economic corner of society, and then the actual Holocaust. It was the night that Hitler unleashed Germany on it’s Jewish citizens, their homes, their stores, their houses of worship, and their persons, anyone unlucky enough not to have found a hiding place.
This year’s program featured a documentary about what is called the “mid-field” at the death camp Mydanek. This camp, in Poland, is noteworthy for several reasons. First it was the only concentration camp that was built within sight of a major city, Lublin. The sight of the one mile high plume of black smoke and its burning meat smell as it drifted and settled over everyone and everything was unescapable. Secondly it was the only camp not built at the end of a rail line. The thousands of souls whose lives ended there were brought in by truck transit once they exited the train cattle car transports. Thus there were many opportunities for “public viewing.” Let us dispense with the nonsense that people didn’t know or couldn’t do anything.
Having traveled on the March with my wife we both felt the scariest of the camps was Mydanek. It is so well preserved that one feels a flip of a switch in some building somewhere and everything would jump to life. Juxtapose that to the people, some mothers pushing baby carriages through this open air national museum that contains, barracks, crematoria ovens, slabs of concrete still stained with blood where people’s innards were cut open and emptied in the search for swallowed gold and gems, and the gas chambers whose walls are still stained with Zyclon B gas and marked by the finger nails of terrified, hysterical people as they realized the heads in these “showers” were releasing a choking gas, not water. Mom and babe in arms, or stroller, out for a noon day walk. Oblivious.
Mydanek became so over-crowded as prisoners from other camps threatened by the Allies’ advance were crammed into it that before the “selection process” (the separation of men from women and children and the marking those for “work” and those for immediate extermination) there was no place to house them. They were placed in zoned fields (ever the German precision); zone 3 became known as the mid-field because it was the middle zone.
We have unlearned through education that all Jews did not go quietly to their deaths. There were many forms of “up yours” activities. Some were bold statements–the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto. Others were simple, individual acts of defiance. Such were the actions of thousands of people who grouped together as families and friends at mid-field and took everything and anything they had of value and buried it. They buried it using anything else they had that could be used to dig. Spoons and fingers mostly. No one knew because until 2006 none of the survivors uttered a word. It is truly remarkable. It was not a plan, it was not a cabal. Each individual survivor came to the decision to protect those items all by him or herself. It wasn’t until one survivor decided that this Holocaust story needed to be revealed to the world that he revealed the secret to someone who told someone etc….
Now in an impossibly complicated, legal agreement with the government of Poland an archaeological dig has begun. And the earth had begun to give back the secrets stashed by the dead.
In sight of “mid-field, is the center piece of the camp, today a national museum, that even two decades after having seen it, brings chills to my body. As the end of the Third Reich drew near the pace of Jewish slaughtering became frantic. At Mydanek the ovens cooked 24-7. They had to be cleaned out periodically so their efficiency wouldn’t be curbed. The piles of ash, spaced around the camp, were finally brought together, the remains of separated loved ones finally united in death, their souls gone to G-d. A concrete, convex “roof” was built over the “bowl” of ash. One mounts enough steps to make the lungs ache–that’s how how the pile of ash is. At the top it confronts any who dare to look. To look at it is surreal. This gray mound of once upon a time human beings has a weed or two, a flower or two, that have rooted in it. If one can be persistent enough, one can spy bone fragments. Of whom? Never to be known. It is estimated that the mound of ash weighs between five and eight tons. If you have a fireplace, stick your fingers in and put some ash in your palm. What does it weigh? It weights nothing. How many bodies would it take to create that many tons of ash? I could tell you; do yourself and your children and your grandchildren the good service of looking it up yourself.
So the election is over. Truly the nastiest in modern history. Some have taken, wrongly, to the streets. But it is undeniable that terrible things were said about many people, some citizens, some not.
The world needs to remember that the Holocaust and other mass blood-lettings all started with terrible things said about inhabitants of a country.
So when Jews recoiled in shock, and I called for the arrest and prosecution of the man leading “Jew-S-A” chants at a political rally, and shouting to the media, “We know where you live,” I ask you not for your pardon, I ask you not for your understanding, I ask you for your self-education.