June 15, 2012
One cannot begin to adequately describe the range of our journey these last twenty-four hours; from Krakow to Auschwitz and now to Belzec. I suspect that many have never heard of such a place and may there never be one like it ever on the face of the earth. Auschwitz was once described as a different planet and even a different universe. Belzec is no different and may God bless those who worked to make it a memorial unlike any other, for without their work, Belzec once bull-dozed and completely obliterated, it would never have become even a memory where nearly 500,000 Jews were murdered in a span of six months.
Our journey to Belzec was seven and one half hours and our time there was over two hours. From Belzec back to Krasno where we would be staying was another 3 hours, so all total a completely exhausting and moving day.
How does one described Belzec, if at all? It was once nothing but an empty field entirely destroyed (unlike Auschwitz). Due to the work of many, including an extraordinary fundraising campaign in the United States, it now is a fitting memorial and museum and one that is worthy of description. One of the individuals involved in creating this memorial was I believe the grandfather of one of our former participants, Max Gelb ’11.
Belzec is a very large area and replicates in the memorial design the death march of those who went to its gas chambers and then crematoria. At Belzec, the passengers, all riding in cattle cars, many of whom perished because there was no water for the journey, disembarked and went straight to their deaths – that is to the gas chamber and then their bodies cremated. The walk is recreated in the design so that one walks in the center of this large, open field, that is filled with blackened rock of some type (resembling volcanic rock) from which can be seen small vegetation now growing.
There is a very long walk-way that begins near the entrance which is centered in terms of the area, and there begins this long walk way. The walls ascend on each side higher and higher until one arrives at the gas chamber site and crematoria area. At the end of the walkway, the walls now very high on each side, where directly in front there is an extraordinary high wall in which there is an inscription from Job about the blood filling and crying out of the earth. There is an opposing wall that has names on it – I can only suppose – are the names of some who perished. Facing the large wall, on one’s left and on one’s right are two very large sets of stairs that lead up to the top of the hill. On each side is a beautiful walk way that bends to the border and then down and leads directly back to where the journey began. On each side at appropriate intervals are the names of the towns where Jews lived and then sent here to die.
I can’t say this enough – perhaps to make sure for myself that such a place once existed, this was only a death camp; a killing field as it were was its only purpose. We found the towns of both Krasno (where we are staying) and Korcyna (a ‘suburb’ of Krasno) and Sanok (the town where we did the restoration of 2010) memorialized along the way. The total number of Jews from Krasno and Sanok – the virtual end of the Jewish life in these two towns- is estimated at 2400; we have many names of the families from the Yizkor book compiled by Jewishgen. At each site, we recited the El Maleh Rachamim and then the Kaddish. Jewish and non-Jewish students alike joined in the prayers that would have been recited had they died a normal death; but such was not to be. One wonders why and one wonders if their souls have some human ability to see life here on earth – what their thoughts would be were they to know that a group of students from Dartmouth were here remembering them after so many years.
I sometimes wonder whether these journeys, now in the 11th year, are more for us than for those who perished. It seems often to kind of blur together in an unreal, almost surreal sense. There is a nothingness and emptiness and yet purposefulness that cannot be fully described in these journals; my writing being so limited.
I cannot describe Belzec. When we arrived in the town, and as we approached the concentration camp, one could clearly see the nearby train station and train tracks where so many saw their end. The sign on the railroad yard clearly says “Belzec” as if nothing happened out of the ordinary. Perhaps they should consider changing the town’s name just as Oswiecim should also seek to distant itself. Proverbs says that a good name is worth more than all the riches. I wonder sometimes if this applies to the names of the towns. Can these names ever be rehabilitated? Even if everyone once associated with these places have passed on or are so elderly as to no longer have an impact, should their names be changed so that only the death is associated with the camps but not the townspeople, many of whom, perhaps the vast majority, were not even alive when all this occurred? Moreover, one could simply blame the Germans and not the villagers. Why should there be this guilt of association simply because they lived in a town where so many suffered, so many were murdered.
Enough. You will note that I have not mentioned Auschwitz. Belzec is where 500,000 Jews were murdered one by one in its gas chamber over a 7 month period from March through I believe the end of November 1942, just a few months after the Wannsee conference, which this year for some reason, is so important in my mind – unlike in previous years. I don’t know why this is so. 500,000 is the total number of Hungarian Jews that were murdered in a four month span at Auschwitz once the second largest gas chamber and crematoria was opened to simply ‘accommodate’ them. This was done in 1944. Such a loss is beyond words. I will return to write more in this journal but it is now 5:57 and I must meet the bus downstairs and go to the Rymanow synagogue, a Hasidic shul now restored by a group in New York. There we will daven Kabbalat Shabbat and I return and complete this journal entry. There remains so much to tell including a wonderful Mayor and the towns people of Korcyna who have been extraordinary on our very first day at work.