Major Peter Lerner is the spokesman for the Central Command. During this week (April 2-9, 2011), Maj. Lerner will be blogging his experiences from the “Witnesses in Uniform” program, a special program run by the IDF as a way to contribute to commemorating the Holocaust and heroism in the army.
Today is finally over. We have traveled all over Poland and I am now sitting in a hotel room in Krakow.
“We, the 149th Witnesses in Uniform IDF mission, stand here in our dress uniform, and not in prisoners clothes. We wear ranks and not a yellow star. We stand tall and not bowed over, we stand here knowing that – never again. A Holocaust of the Jewish people will never happen once more.” Captain (Naval) Sammy Tzemah announced at our closing ceremony today at the Majdanek Death camp. It was another emotional day, and I can’t really figure out what is most important to tell you. Forget everything you have ever read, learned or seen in a Hollywood movie about the Holocaust. Nothing can prepare you for the first contact with a real camp.
Over the last two days during our bus trips from place to place, we have watched “The Pianist”, “Escape from Sobibor” and “Schindlers List” all good movies but none convey the message of the Holocaust on a personal level.
I walked in to the camp with my team lead by Captain Tzemah and our guide, Shoshana. She took us to the place called “The Field of Roses” – this is where the selection of those that will live and those that will be executed took place. It was here that it dawned on me that I would not have cut this selection. Since I was three years old I have had asthma and for the Nazis that was more than enough reason to be rid of me. We entered the disinfectant chambers where the showers took place and the clothes of the prisoners were disinfected with cyclone B gas (the same gas used to exterminate Jews in Auschwitz). I was walking around – everything is as it was all those years ago. Either original or reconstructed, everything is so genuine and authentic. I could see the men, women and children going through the process.
While walking around, as usual I was snapping away with my camera, and the team moved forward through another door. I couldn’t quite hear what Shoshana was saying but I thought I heard the word “chambers”. I wasn’t prepared for this because overlooking the camp I could see the crematorium chimney and I mistakenly concluded that the gas chambers would be there. As I got closer I found myself looking in to two chambers and a third room. I felt a strong suffocating feeling in my throat and there was a strong stench that I think was from all the pine lumber that make up the huts of the camp. I felt quite sick to my stomach and at the same time was mesmerized with the two death chambers. In these two rooms, four hundred Jews were crammed while their Nazi executioners watched. I was shocked. I was even more shaken at the understanding that the bodies of the dead were carried through the entire camp to the crematorium. Everybody witnessed this. This was the daily life in the camp. Some seventy eight thousand people died here, sixty thousand of them Jews. This hellish place on earth was at the time just two kilometers from the town of Lublin. The stench of burnt bodies must have been terrible and the ashes of the burned must have constantly rained down.
We walked in to the next chambers and found shoes piled up taller than me, an entire room full of shoes, 430,000 pairs of shoes were found at this camp. Between 1941 and 1944 shoes here could mean life or death.
Next we went in to the sleeping quarters and Camp 3, the camp where the Jews were kept. Rooms that were constructed for 250 people held usually 500. Living conditions were beyond comprehension. This got me thinking about the little things in life we take for granted. Like running water, or when you wake up in the middle of the night and need to relieve yourself. None of these luxuries in life existed in the camp.
Today stands a mausoleum that holds some seven tons of ashes and earth of the victims of Majdanek. Some of the ashes were found packed in boxes to be shipped off to other places in Poland as fertilizer. Today the ash stands as a reminder of the atrocities. Above the mausoleum is scripted in Polish “Our fate should be your warning”. Here we saluted and sang today for those that pay the ultimate price and gave their lives.
Captain Tzemah continued at the ceremony “What we have seen here today we must forever remember and not forget, we must tell, and it is our obligation to advocate the memory of the Holocaust in memory of those that perished for generations to come”.
Krakow – Peter April 5, 2011