A Regional Ambassador's Experience on March of the Living

March of The Living 2019 – Majdanek and Belzec by Jack Nicholls

Through Lessons From Auschwitz, all ambassadors have visited Auschwitz and Auschwitz Birkenau, the most notorious sites of mass murder from the Holocaust. More people died there than at any other death camp. Although the Nazi genocide was not precluded to just camps such as Auschwitz, many other infamous sites are visited less often. Names such as Majdanek and Belzec are also synonymous with mass murder, and on MOTL we visited both. Majdanek was a POW Camp set up in October 1941 but was the destination for many who were to die through guns or gas during mass deportations in 1942-3.  Belzec, meanwhile, was a purpose-built death camp whose use was surprisingly short, yet brutally effective.


Majdanek was initially set up as Prisoner of War camp by Heinrich Himmler just after the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 and was built to house 50,000 Soviet POWs. This you could tell by the fact that it was in clear view of the nearby city of Lublin. Indeed, locals named it Majdanek after the suburb of Lublin in which it was based, Majdan Tatarski. Its purpose was extended to extermination with Aktion Reinhard in 1942. An estimated 80,000 people died at Majdanek, with some putting the figure at 300,000. Inmates were deported from as far as the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Greece. Even some American POWs were imprisoned there.


Early on 29th April, we travelled to Majdanek. It was a grey, wet day, and we arrived with hoodies and jackets at the ready. After assembling at the edge of the car park, we walked over to a huge concrete structure, which loomed large over the whole area. As we walked closer, the camp itself appeared from behind the trees by a local cemetery.  The watch towers, barracks and barbed wire fences quickly reminded us as to where we were. Rachel, our guide, led us through the grass to the edge of the monument’s vast wall, and briefed us about the camp. This monument was erected in 1969 alongside, half a mile across the ridge, an impressive domed structure that was as mysterious as it was large. A group had gone ahead of us and were walking towards the camp entrance a hundred metres away. We stood at the foot of the platform and gazed up at the memorial. The middle of the platform began to disappear the closer you moved towards the T-shaped structure; dates of the Holocaust lined the edges, contextualising exactly when this absence was created. We walked down the stairs and you soon realised how this memorial emphasised what had happened here. It was surprisingly deep; I didn’t figure this before descending. Once at the bottom you can see through a large gap underneath the memorial tower, and spot how the camp towers, fences and barracks stretch off into the distance.


We moved on towards the camp itself. It reminded me, and I’m sure many others, of Auschwitz. Rows of wooden barracks lined a makeshift path, and fences intersected various areas of the site. The watch towers too were as intimidating as they were ubiquitous. We would explore various stories as we walked around the camp that morning and afternoon. For my fellow RAs and I, it wasn’t the same experience as it must have been for many of our group. We were accompanying a few-dozen young Jewish people and most of them had not been to such a place before. It was very interesting to see how they felt and reacted to various areas of the camp. But one moment which stuck out for me was a small act of prisoner defiance that is still visible to this day.

As we walked up the ridge, through an area known as ‘Field III’, we approached a small statue with birds on top. As Rachel explained, the original statue – what we saw was a replica – had been built in May 1943 by prisoners under orders from the SS, in preparation for a visit from the International Red Cross. It was meant to improve the appearance of the camp, but the prisoners sculped three pigeons on the top of the obelisk, instead of eagles. These birds are a symbol of resistance, designed to mock the Nazis. Underneath the obelisk, moreover, lie buried the ashes of victims of Nazism. That was very uplifting; in this centre of evil, inmates still found a way to have their voice heard.


From here we moved on towards the most traumatic area of the camp, the site of mass murder. Most groups visiting Majdanek that day had by now grouped together, so it was very busy. We walked through the crematoria, seeing the rooms in which inmates were murdered in myriad horrific ways. We wandered around the whole building, including the old ovens, in total silence. When you can’t avoid seeing a site of death, you seem to be unable, or unwilling to speak or even look at anyone else. You feel a bit uncomfortable, as if you should not be there. Perhaps that is exactly it. Nobody really wanted to be there, and the place did not feel as if it should ever have existed. But it does, and we were there. It was the same experience I had when visiting Auschwitz five years ago.


Gassings began in Majdanek October 1942, and many mass executions were also carried out with gunfire. One of these, Aktion Erntefest (Operation Harvest Festival), took place on 3rd November 1943. Over 40,000 Jews were killed, with 18,000 being taken out of Majdanek, shot and buried in ditches nearby. After visiting the crematoria, we conducted a service within a few metres of these ditches. It was a sobering experience. Then we walked up the stairs of the huge domed memorial, which we were told was a tomb. A big mound of ash, discovered by the Soviets upon liberating the camp in July 1944, met our eyes as we climbed to the top. I did not know how to react – none of us did. Not only were we seeing human remains, with small bones sticking out in a few places, but the mound itself was unfathomably large. Statistics, images, films, survivor testimonies all help to educate us about the past. But this sight was unlike anything else. I’m still not sure how to feel about it. Shocked, definitely. Numbed, yes.


The next day we visited Belzec, a purpose-built death camp. It was created by February 1942 as part of Aktion Reinhard, an operation designed solely for the mass murder of Jews. The site was very small, only 275m by 265m, and you could tell that it had been built for a clear purpose. We arrived at the camp’s entrance, and right next to it lay the railway line, which was the main track that connected Lublin and Lvov. That Belzec had been built right next to the tracks conveyed a rather bleak message. Although the notion that the Nazis’ apparatus of mass murder were highly efficient has long been debunked, it was very clear to us that the creation of Belzec had been planned carefully.


The atmosphere thus matched the weather, which was as miserable as the previous day. Rachel briefed us about Belzec. The camp only operated for nine months, but an estimated 500,000 Jews, many of whom came from within the Generalgovernment region were murdered at the camp in that time. Many victims were deported from the ghettos in Lublin and Lvow. Upon arrival, Jews were calmly promised by the SS that they were to be moved to work camps. As at Birkenau, hair was removed and all possessions were confiscated before the victims were sent to the gas chambers. Once dismantled, all that was left of the death camp was a series of mass graves. Human remains were not far from the surface.


The old camp is now one big memorial complex. Covering it, concrete, rock and iron are meshed together to form what looks like the aftermath of a volcanic eruption. Surrounded by thin woodland, it rises slowly to the far end of the field. Other bus groups were beginning to walk around it on a concrete path, by which were listed the names of various communities that had been wiped out by the gas chambers of Belzec. Down the middle the memorial was split in two by a narrow route towards a tall grey wall. As we walked deeper into this concrete, metal mass, the walls grew higher and the path narrowed; it dwarfed you. By this point is was pouring with rain, and we hurried to the far end for a UK MOTL group service.


One of the survivors who accompanied the UK trip was Harry Olmer. Many members of his family perished during the Holocaust, and he was to read out the names of those who perished at Belzec. To everyone’s shock, he listed much of his immediate family. Realising that we were with a man whose close family had been murdered on that very spot was humbling. Candles were lit, prayers were sung, and a minute silence was held. Despite the heavy rain it was a very quiet minute. The silence continued as the group began to break up. The walls listed family names of the innumerable victims of Belzec. It was a privilege, albeit a harrowing one, to be able to witness Harry share such a painful part of his life with everyone. Thinking back, this was one moment on MOTL which reminded me that we must continue to be the witnesses to the Holocaust.


Afterwards we walked up and around the side of the site. Here we walked past more names of the multiple local communities that had been destroyed by Nazism. Looking down the ridge towards the coach, you could see more clearly how small the area was. For so many people to have been murdered here was a chilling thing to think about. Many of us were alone with our thoughts. It had been a challenging, but very important experience, and I felt immensely grateful to have witnessed it.


Before getting on the coach, we stopped by a pile of old rail tracks. On the concrete wall was a message which epitomised how families have been broken up and destroyed by Belzec. It was a very moving poem, and with this, we left Belzec. It had been a brief but harrowing visit. to have visited other camps reminded me that the whole concentration camp system was much larger than one or two sites. Alongside Auschwitz, Majdanek and Belzec were just two in a long list of places across Europe that became the final resting place of millions of people. These sites also illustrated to me the determination of the Nazis to wipe out Jewish life in Europe.

For me, the whole March of the Living experience was both fantastic and moving. I struggled to process with various sites and images; I still do with regards to a few moments. What we saw will stick with me and guide me through my next steps. Learning about how humans behaved towards each other – and seeing this in such horrific ways – has made me more determined to ensure that the victims of the Holocaust are not forgotten. On our visit to Poland we saw things which took place all over Europe. The scale is almost unfathomable, and I am resolute in my hope that this doesn’t happen again.

Jack Nicholls is a Holocaust Educational Trust Regional Ambassador