by Barbara Davis
I stepped into a long, low building at the Nazi death camp, Majdanek. Near the door a weathered wooden sign said, “Bad und Desinfektion.”At the other end of the building was a chimney.
A few steps inside the gas chamber was a cement swimming pool for children to play in while the adults got undressed for their showers. The shower heads were still in place. At the very last moment, the children were gathered up and thrown like footballs over the heads of their parents and the door slammed shut. There was a gas-proof peephole on the door where SS men stood and watched for the 18 or so minutes it took everyone to die. The glass on the peephole had been smashed.
After the killing, forced laborers began the task of separating the bodies, putting them on carts, and sending them to the dissection room to be searched for gold teeth and jewelry. The walls and ceiling of the huge room bore sea-blue stains from the Zyklon B gas. Two carbon monoxide tanks were bolted to the wall in one corner, and hundreds of metal Zyklon B canisters, still full of pellets, stood in tall stacks behind chain link on the other side of the room.
My eyes stung in this place, my lungs clenched like fists. I grabbed at a wooden beam in the middle of the room and closed my eyes. When I realized that thousands of people had clung to this very beam while sucking their last breaths, I didn’t jump back but held the beam even tighter.
“I’m here,” I told them. “I feel you. I will tell what I’ve seen.”
This was Christmas Eve, 2005.
My sister and I had tormented ourselves about whether or not to go to Poland for several months. She felt great trepidation about jumping into such a dark and surreal situation—a ten day tour of nine Nazi concentration and death camps—as her introduction to human rights activism. She had been invited onto the tour by a fellow professor who specialized in human rights. She invited me to come along for moral support. Both of us cringed at the names of some of the camps on the itinerary: Treblinka, Sobibor, Auschwitz, Birkenau. But, it seemed this was a once in a lifetime opportunity. As the summer months changed into fall, we decided to go.
From December 18 through December 28, 2005, we rode trains and vans and buses at top speed through Poland, the madness of one camp building on the next, with only Christmas Day off to rest.
After landing in Warsaw, we took a long train ride up to Gdansk, and from there visited the concentration camp Stutthof. The barracks were preserved, with exhibits including the striped uniforms and wooden clogs worn by inmates who had been shipped in from the occupied countries of Western Europe. One of the uniforms had a pink upside-down triangle over the left breast. A homosexual. While the other members of the tour remained in the exhibits, I walked alone on a long road to the back of the camp, where a tiny brick gas chamber stood with the crematorium nearby. Next to the exit of the gas chamber was a huge wooden Star of David and a Christian cross. Behind these an old cattle car, used to transport the prisoners, sat on a section of tracks. It looked barely tall enough to stand up in.
I went into the crematorium, where wreaths of plastic flowers sat in the mouths of the ovens. Each oven had a metal slab inside it, onto which a body would be placed to burn. I reached into one of the ovens and touched the wooden handle of the slab. I was here, really here. This was no black and white documentary. Someone had been gassed or worked to death and burned on this slab. A student from the tour came inside the crematorium and I yanked my hand away, fearing I had desecrated this place by touching it. Maybe I had.
Our next camp was the death camp Chelmno. Here the old and infirm, the mentally unstable, the Poles and Jews and Gypsies of the region, and many thousands of Soviet POWs had been loaded into huge vans converted into gas chambers and then driven, suffocating, the 2.5 miles to their own burial pits in the woods. Witnesses had heard screaming as the vans passed. We drove the exact route the vans had taken, from the old manor where the prisoners had undressed and left their belongings, to the forest camp, which now consisted of nothing more than mass graves in a huge clearing in the woods.
Each grave measured approximately 280 yards long by 20 feet wide, and there were enough of them to hold 340,000 bodies. I could see outlines of the graves in the deep snow. I dug a few inches down until I found beautiful black marble that delineated the edges of the grave. Its gold flecks shone in the sunlight, which warmed and calmed me through a huge down coat and gloves and arctic snow boots. It was strange, but I could breathe here.
Similarly, at Treblinka, where an estimated 1.2 million people evaporated, the camp suddenly took on the appearance of a landscape out of Narnia. This was to become a recurring, uncomfortable sensation in Poland—the grievous history of the camps versus the incredible beauty of that particular winter, with snow bending the great forests and sparkling in the sunlight and against the brilliant blue of the skies. Later, my sister told me she doesn’t remember the brutality of Treblinka, but the magic—a place she often returns to in her mind to experience eternity.
Every time I hear a certain car company lauding “the power of German engineering” on TV, my stomach does a flip and I remember the indoor railroad track leading from the gas chamber to the crematorium at Auschwitz. When I saw the cart for bodies on a railroad track—a railroad track inside the gas chamber—I thought I would throw up. Of all the death machinery I had witnessed on this tour, this indoor railroad track brought into shocking focus the incredible swiftness and ingenuity with which the Nazis dispatched their victims. I covered my mouth with my hand, paid quick respects at the crematorium, and then fled the building.
At Birkenau, I climbed the steps of the famous elevated train station whose image so often shows up in Holocaust documentaries. From up inside the station, you can see the train tracks stretch the full length of the immense camp, which was built to receive 100,000 forced laborers and exterminate millions of Jews. About halfway down, the tracks split; one line goes to the selection platform, the other straight back to the blown up ruins of the gas chambers and crematoria. I walked the tracks alone, picked up a rock, put it back down. Around the ruins the ground was soft and spongy underfoot—ashes—all that is left of the 1.5 million people who perished at that place, the site of the greatest massacre in human history.
Incredibly, a blue enamel mug sat in plain sight on one of the ruins. I picked it up and checked inside—it was rotted through, a real relic from the Holocaust. Had some SS officer sipped his coffee from that mug while looking through the peephole of the gas chamber? I didn’t know what to do with it. For a moment, I wanted to hide it inside my coat and take it home with me. Then, horrified at myself, I tossed it back onto the ruins. It dropped between the bricks and vanished from view. This was my last experience at a Nazi death camp. I had seen enough.
The day we left Poland, we stopped at Oskar Schindler’s factory in Krakow. The guards let us slip inside the gates, though the museum was not yet open to the public. They showed us the steep staircase that appears in “Schindler’s List,” and let us go up the stairs to Schindler’s office. Inside, his original furnishings remained. I kissed his desk. The guards led us to a pile of rubble from recent renovations and told us we could fill our pockets with tiles and anything else we found. While the rest of the tour went inside the concentration camp where Schindler’s workers had lived, I stayed on the bus and fingered my jagged pieces of tile.
I cried on and off for a month after the long flight home from Warsaw. I winced at the sight of old brick chimneys. I read every book on the Holocaust I could get my hands on and it still didn’t begin to make sense to me. Nine years later, I am still nauseated by the crash course in hatred I took in the winter of 2005. I will never fully understand what I saw. But I do understand that the camps in Poland must remain intact to tell their story, so that it never happens again.
Barbara Davis is at work on her first novel. She holds a bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Harvard University and a master's in US History from the University of Colorado, Boulder. She lives in Indianapolis and has a son who is almost 18.