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'This Silent Place'

Gates of a Death Camp

A police substation sits next to the Nozyk Synagogue in Warsaw, and officers continually circle the building. Visitors must be buzzed through two sets of doors by a civilian guard. The security is needed to prevent anti-Semitic violence in a place with only a handful of Jews.

Perhaps that should not be so surprising: Jews were less than 1 percent of the German population when the Nazis decided to exterminate them.


Tour participant Lawrence Shuman of Fairfax reads -- and reacts to -- displays at Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. (Czarek Sokolowski/AP/special For The Washington Post)

My fellow travelers hold an impromptu prayer service in this dusty, otherwise empty place. Seeing the remains of Jewish life in Poland reminds me of visiting the ruins of great Mayan civilizations, except there is no mystery about what happened to the people.

From Warsaw, we travel an hour to the ancient town of Kazimierz, one of the most popular travel destinations for Poles. Art students from all over Poland come to sketch the graceful old buildings built centuries ago by prosperous Jews. Jewish artists and writers flourished here beginning in the early 1300s.

We visit a synagogue turned into a movie theater, but mainly stroll streets filled with art galleries and shops.

Soon we're on our way to the city of Lublin. For more than 500 years, Poland was to Jewish civilization what Greece was to Western civilization, and Lublin was the center of Jewish learning for all of Europe.

Numerous synagogues and buildings that housed yeshivas and institutions of secular studies remain but are empty. Only 20 Jews are left in Lublin. Most are elderly, impoverished survivors who eat in soup kitchens.

Majdanek is only a few miles from the city. We enter the gates of the death camp and walk into a shower room with a floor of crisscrossed slates. The shower heads are real. Naked prisoners were ordered to wash, then were sent dripping wet through a door into the low-ceiling, concrete-walled room. Showers were given, Simmons tells us, because poison gas worked better when the victims' bodies were moist.

Cyclone B, the poison of choice, had a shelf life of only three months, so endless stores had to be shipped regularly to Majdanek. When the Germans ran out of Cyclone B, which took 10 minutes to kill, they used carbon oxide. That took 40 minutes.

Gas was dropped from a chute in the ceiling. From a small, airtight booth next to the chamber, an SS man could watch, making sure the work was done before he ordered the doors opened and the bodies removed to make room for the next group.

"Our people were here alone in this silent place," Simmons says. "There was no press. They had no lobbyists. They didn't have a seat at the U.N. They had no prime minister to represent them. No one heard us. Nobody cared."

It smells as if some residue of poison lingers in the air. It feels lodged in my nose even after I walk outside on a fine spring morning.

Giant warehouses in Majdanek are filled with the sorted belongings of prisoners. Although there are tens of thousands of pairs of shoes, some stand out. The tiny pair of Mary Janes. The sexy white high heels. Did the owner suddenly get pulled away from a party, or did she pack the fancy heels, hoping beyond all evidence that she might again have occasion to wear them?

On the bus, Simmons reads from scholarly texts. One quote especially resonates in its description of a death camp: "The ground is cursed. But the heavens are holy because they hold the voices, the shrieks, the prayers of our people."


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