Concentration Camp Tourism

The barracks at Majdanek.

Thirteen years ago I visited Hell for two hours and then boarded a bus to a local hotel.

My wife Risa and her friend Judy were taking a winter holiday in Poland, immersing themselves in the Jewish history and culture of our Eastern European ancestors. To fully understand their life it was crucial to see how it virtually ended in the Nazi gas chambers of World War II. Poland, to its credit, has maintained its Concentration Camps as permanent shrines to its appalling past.

I had chosen not to do the trip, but I was doing some business in Europe at the time and joined them to take the chartered bus from Krakow to Lublin where the Majdanek Concentration Camp was located.

This memory reopened for me Monday when Bob Ducanis of Orlando, an old friend and client, sent me a book he had just read, Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning, about the local guys in Poland who became willing, even eager participants, in the Nazis’ “Final Solution.” Reading the 1992 paperback brought back my memory of Majdanek, which I would like to share.

Our bus ride to Lublin was slow because of a continuing snow. Not much talk because I think everybody on the bus was thinking about relatives who made this trip to death in sealed railroad freight cars. We finally arrived at Majdanek. To my amazement it was a few hundred yards from a residential neighborhood in the old city of Lublin, once a hub of Jewish life in Poland.

We disembarked from the bus to enter the main building of the Camp. The weather was cold, with light flurries, but not harsh. Everybody walked toward the entrance but me. I tried to take in the moment, but I was struck by the sheer ordinariness of the buildings and the closeness of the town. This factory for killing looked from the outside like a rundown manufacturing plant on the Southside of Chicago.

An impulse hit me to pull off my heavy parka – and then my sweater, shirt – and finally, undershirt. I wanted to really feel the cold on my naked chest. I felt the snowflakes melt on my body, rubbed some snow on my hands, and tried to connect with the horror people must have felt 60 years earlier. It was a weak gesture of connection. I put my clothes back on and walked silently back into the “welcoming” area.

There was a registry of the people who had the horrible misfortune of being sent to this Death Camp. There were notes next to the names, like “Jewish” or “Gypsy”. I had forgotten that the Nazis regarded Jews and Gypsies and homosexuals all as vermin to be eradicated by their efficient extermination processes. I touched the straw barracks beds that the victims used for a very short period before they were killed.

Then I moved on to the shower room. That was where the true horror of the place hit me. I saw where the gas came through the vents to quietly kill the naked showerers. I took in deep breaths – and didn’t die – and then I walked out shaking. I couldn’t deal with any more. I left and sat down next to the bus. I relived the showers and looked at the ordinary neighborhood so close by. “They had to know what was happening in their midst,” I kept thinking.

Finally, my fellow Concentration Camp tourists came out of the building and we headed for our local hotel – in dead silence.


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21 thoughts on “Concentration Camp Tourism

  1. Peter @ Polygon

    I’ve also experienced that moment of silence after learning the fate of Jehovah’s Witnesses who were also targeted by the Nazi’s and their concentration camps, and when walking the Vietnam memorial and suddenly finding myself 6 feet under. The war machine is cruel at best. Those memorials are a good reminder of it.

  2. John Otto

    I can not imagine being classified as a enemy of the state in need of extermination and can not understand how so many people were led by a maniac into doing what they did to so many people.
    If I think about being separated from my wife and children to be killed, put into forced labor, or any other number of atrocities that took place in this evil time, it makes me happy to know we have the 2nd amendment, which will give me the ability to shoot my way to my death if some such maniac ever tries this again.
    So all you people out there that think that guns are evil, think about which is the lesser of the two.

  3. Steve Horn

    In 2001 I was able to visit Auswhitz Concentration camp. I will admit that at times I felt sick to my stomach. How can humanity view another person as a commodity? Yet that was exactly what was done. The size of the original camp was nothing compared to the massive camp just outside of the city. It was designed to destroy the “unwanted” of the Nazi’s regime. I was further moved by the young lady who guided the group. Here a young women of Jewish ancestry was telling of the horrors that happened to her relatives. I purchased a book and took lots of photo’s so my children may never forget. Unfortunately the past if often repeated if we choose to ignore or say it never happened. If that takes place a greater atrosphy will occur. Never Forgot the past. Six million human beings were killed by fanatics.

  4. Carol

    What scares me is the direction our country is going. If we think that this cannot happen again then we need to re-read history and see how willing people were to follow someone like Hilter. The socialism direction and the Muslim Brotherhood are just a few things to be very afraid of.

  5. Ric Gudell

    There were ‘willing helpers’ in every country of Europe where the Nazis appeared and in countries that were not directly under Nazi control but influenced by the Nazi world view.
    The phenomenon of the ‘willing helper’ who promotes or secures the destruction, removal or maiming of a population deemed unpopular in a region seems to be universal.
    You are sure to recall the events at Rainbow Beach in Chicago when you were a teenager.

  6. Kelly Hagberg

    Lloyd thanks very much for sharing. I look forward someday to going and visiting my grandfather’s homeland.

  7. clayton smith

    My wives’ Polish Father spent five years in a concentration camp in Poland. Not the ones you mentioned but it was in Poland. He fought the regime and that’s where they put him. I never met the man but I understand he didn’t like the Germans or the Russians. Don’t forget it wasn’t only the Jews and Gypsys but tons of Poles perished or suffered at the hands of the Nazis. Her mother, also Polish, was forced labor on a farm.

    Clayton Smith

  8. Andrew Ujdak

    My grandfather was born in America and traveled at age 7 back to Poland with his parents in 1921after Poland became an independent country once again. He was impressed into labor in German forced labor camps during part of the war and then impressed into service as a butcher.

    A brother was young and active in the Polish underground – he was captured and perished in Dachau.

    Even though I was not born until 21 years passed since the end of the Second
    World War, these memories have been passed down and remain poignant reminders of what human beings are capable of. They have shaped my own thinking about humanity and it’s capacity for both cruelty and kindness.

    Thank you for your account of your own experience. My mother was also born in Poland and came to the United States as a young girl after the war; it has long been my dream to take my children to her native country so that they can not only experience what her native homeland feels like today…. but so that they also can see the grim monument that should always make us say and think……”never again.”

  9. Lloyd

    Thank you Lucy. Clayton, you are absolutely correct. On the register there were many Poles who were selected for killing just because they detested the Nazis.

  10. Jarek

    I’ve checked sources. Author’s suggestion of the local residents inertia in face of the German-run camp is misplaced. >>Poland was the only country where any help provided to a person of Jewish faith or origin was punishable by death. Yet 6,195 men and women (more than from any other country in the world) have been recognized as rescuers by Yad Vashem in Israel.<> the 1992 book Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, is a study of German Ordnungspolizei (Order Police) Reserve Unit 101, used to massacre and round up Jews for deportation to the Nazi death camps in German-occupied Poland in 1942. The conclusion of the book, which was much influenced by the experiments of Stanley Milgram, was that the men of Unit 101 were not demons or Nazi fanatics but ordinary middle-aged men of working-class background from Hamburg. <<.

  11. Greg Knight

    Don’t forget Russia under Stalin (and others), Cambodia under Pol Pot, and even more recent ‘cleansings’ in Africa and Bosnia. Point is this is not just something that happened once in history, or even only in the distant (or not-so-distant) past.

    Good writing, Lloyd.

  12. james Millar

    My father fought in the Royal Artillery in North Africa and Burma for 4 years. He never saw the Polish and other European horrors but he did see some very nasty stuff. If ever a war was justified to combat this craziness it was WWII. Every kid in the US and Europe should be educated about what happened then and the potential for it to happen again.

  13. Don Bentley

    And so I pray:
    Lord, make me fast and accurate. Let my aim be true and my hand faster than those who would seek to destroy me.
    Grant me victory over my foes and those that wish harm to me and mine.
    Let not my last thought be “ If only I had my gun ”; and Lord if today is truly the day that You call me home,
    let me die in a pile of empty brass.

  14. Rick Calhoun

    Thank you Lloyd for this thought provoking, well written piece. I’m sharing it among my friends.

  15. Donna

    Your email brought back many memories, Lloyd. When I was just out of college and in my early 20’s, I spend a summer in Europe and I went to Dachau. My tour guide was a young German man in his late teens. He said his father had been a German guard at Dachau and he claimed his father never knew of all the killing going on inside. I did not believe him and I asked him how could he not know with the thousands of people being brought in, the smell of the bodies burning, the screams he must have heard. I saw the barracks, the ‘gas’ showers, the meat hooks where people were hung up and left for the dogs to eat. I read every poster and account and stared at all the photos on the walls. I spent most of the entire day there, it was haunting and so sad that mankind had let this happen. Now there are some who try and say it never happened, and I know we are doomed to repeat history, lest we forget.

  16. rob klauber

    Most of my grandmother’s family and many of my grandfather’s were rounded up and murdered in concentration camps in what was once the Austria/Hungarian Empire. So to me its not just a number though an enormously large one at that. Greg Knight aptly points out how it has continued to happen when it did not have to at all. As much as Clinton has been heralded for the economic success of his 2 terms, he did allow the genocide in Bosnia and Rwanda to take place when he was well aware what was happening. Instead he chose to question as though he was engaged in a debate over semantics whether it could really be considered “genocide.” And this from a man who comes across genuinely as a force for good. What is the old saying about how evil can take root because good people stand idly by. At the very least, it could happen again because it already has. Thank you Donna for so incisively illustrating that. How can it not make us all sick to witness those denying the holocaust.

    Excellent piece, Lloyd.

  17. Nick Bloom

    And today we hear that “Syria loads chemical weapons into bombs and awaits Assad’s orders.”
    No matter how straight one shoots, or how quick, no gun will stop Assad. The 2nd amendment is our right, but guns are no match whatsoever against today’s gas chamber – chemical weapons that drift down from the sky to quietly snuff out all life. Who are you going to shoot at?

  18. John "Jack" Frost

    What sad commentaries in this time of year where e celebrate Peace and Love. Sad for me because I am a WWII veteran who flew fighters against Japan for almost two years. Sad, because as I look in my mind at the row on row of crosses in our national monuments world wide young men who made the ultimate sacrifice and for whom and what.
    Lloyd, I thought I really had learned about mans inhumanity to man/women, when in recent years I hear once again the insidious rumblings of anti-semitism. Why is this such a virile illness. The key was last week, when a top Hungarian politician requested a list of all the Jews in Hungary because they are a threat to the government.
    For myself, I well remember the Progressives of the 1930 in both government and the labor movement. Many were misguided, unpatriotic Jews (communists) who found it convenient to avoid combat, but did well to document the post war history.
    And for you out there who cherish your 2nd amendment rights, do a little reading about the courage of the Poles, dispossessed and the leading fighters in the War, both on the side of the allies and Russia.

  19. Jim Miller

    Well written Lloyd! I too am worried that this same thing is happening to this country now. Our president and the Democratic Party are splitting us and chastising the “rich” and business owners for their success and the failures of the poor. It has been said that history seems to repeat itself. I fear we are witnessing it here in our own country. First it’ll be the wealthy being tax. Next they’ll be taking our guns away. Then they’ll be taking our 401K retirement. They’ll say that it is all in the name of “Fairness” to every one. What a lie!

  20. Bill Kousens

    I like the way you write. I also like the way you try and hook your readers into clicking into reading further. I have wanted to do that many times but resisted because I have to take actions to keep the work coming in.

    Your visit to Poland pushed me over the edge.

    My dad started my company in 1946. He worked for the Ford Motor Company in Detroit starting at 12 years old (Ford Trade School) and changed his name from Klewzenski (sic) when he was 18 and going to work for Chrysler. His mom and dad were born in Poland.

    Please email me if you are interested in hearing a little about about his take on why he changed his name. I am not sure even now I fully understand. But my late dad and I are the ultimate machine shop guys but I also have many of the same feelings you do about what happened in Europe in WW2. I am always trying to find out “why???”.


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