My stories of Lublin - Part 2: History strikes back!

A wooden hut Quelle: Dunja Kuster

Last winter semester (Oct`15 - Feb´16) I‘ve been in Lublin, Poland for one semester abroad. In this article, I'll tell you about my visit of the former prisoners camp "Majdanek" - and some kind of a "funny" story which happened to me there.

Please note: This text is part of a competition for former Erasmus students, which have been for one semester (or longer) at the John Paul II. Catholic University of Lublin, Poland. One of the requirements is, that the text (article / blog or video) is in English. That‘s the reason why I wrote this text in English and not in German. Enjoy reading!

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For me, there was no doubt, that sooner or later I would have to face this one terrible part of German-Polish history. And you know what? I faced it twice every week. While I was in Lublin, I also had some journalism courses (makes sense, considering the fact I am actually studying Journalism) - and these courses were held at the „Majdanek campus“. Right over the way, on the other side of the street, was the memorial place of the former concentration camp „Majdanek“. So every time I had to go to the campus, I‘ve seen those former buildings - the watchtowers, the barracks - the field and the barbed-wire fence.

I have to admit, that this was the very first time for me I‘ve seen a former concentration camp in „real life“. I‘ve never seen one before - except some pictures in history books, but that doesn‘t count. And everytime I had to go to this campus and I‘ve seen „Majdanek“, I literally felt, how my face muscles froze. Like they wanted to say to me: „Don‘t you dare and show one single emotion!“ It went better the moment, I entered the campus there. There I‘ve seen former guard fences and some dog pounds. Around the campus were some trees and a large field. Probably it looks nice in summer - it lookes also nice at the beginning of the winter semester, while it was still sunny and the trees had green leaves. But in winter the whole setting looked like a creepy horror scenario.

KUL - Majdanek Campus (building)Quelle: Dunja Kuster

One day, I was together with some other students at the Majdanek campus, waiting for the teacher. About 30 minutes later, one of these students went to the porter and asked about the teacher. When she came back, she told us „Well, he has left the building about an hour ago“. Wait, what? Yes, it actually happened. And it happened again a few more times. Obviously, the class has been cancelled for this day and we decided to go home - except for me. I already decided to visit Majdanek, if the class was cancelled. So while my friends and the other students went to the bus station, I crossed the street and entered the memorial place.

"Little white House - Bia?y Domek"Quelle: Memorial Place Majdanek (Info Board)

 ""Little while house - Biały Domek": Pre-war house of the city dog catcher. During the occupation, it housed SS physician andd head of the prisoner camp, Anton Thumann." (Quote: Memorial Place Majdanek - Info Board)

Wooden barracksQuelle: Dunja Kuster

It‘s hard for me to describe, what I thought and how I felt when I was there. Even when I was there, I couldn‘t find „appropiate“ words. It was like all my emotions were vanished. I tried to think about something, tried to create a thought actually. But I couldn‘t. Every thought I tried to think, slipped away and vanished like my emotions. It felt like a big black hole inside of me, absorbing everything and leaving nothing but an eternal silence. Which was also a completely new experience to me, because usually I‘m always thinking about something or anything. I‘m a daydreamer. Sometimes I spend hours creating stories and images in my head - sometimes even a video - or philosophize about some topics. But in Majdanek I couldn‘t think of anything. My face muscles froze even more.

Actually, I tried to do something there: In the beginning, I had this crazy idea to make a video blog about my semester abroad in Lublin. I tried it and recorded some things, but somehow it failed. In the end I think I was too afraid of it or to shy. So I stopped this little project after a while and took the only video I made offline (it was some sort of an „introduction video“ where I was telling about what I want to do. I remember, I was very nervous and afraid when I spoke into the camera for the first time). I also recorded something with my smartphone on Majdanek, and even though I never made a video out of it (I think it‘s too bad to show it to anybody) but I kept the recordings. But because of this recordings, I was always looking around me to make sure, no one could hear me. I kept quite a distance to a bigger group of people making a guided tour across Majdanek. Obviously I also spoke when I recorded something and of course I spoke in German on these recordings. And I was so terrified that someone could hear me talking in German, confront me and say some mean slogans to me (in the „best“ case), I nearly got paranoid. In these moments I was so glad I didn‘t look like a „typical German“ (blue eyes, blonde hair, bright skin,...). But there still were the mimics and the gestures. Can you guess someones origin or nationality by his or hers gestures? The way how someone is moving or behaving? OK, maybe I was able to think (or to worry) about something.

Watchtower in Majdanek

It may sound strange, but it was also an „interesting“ experience being there. As I walked through I also read the information boards of course, and I learned about stories from former prisoners I never heard about in any history book in school. For example, there was one story about a female campus guard, who loved to break the spirit of the prisoners - especially female ones with quite a strong spirit and will. But this female guard was also known to be one of the most brutal guards in Majdanek. According to the story of this former prisoner, she loved to beat the people and she never stopped until blood appeared and while she was beating and hurting people, you could‘ve seen the insanity and the joy in her eyes.

Another board told about how the prisoners had to build their beds by themselves. They had to pick up some straw, some coating material and make themselves. Besides of that, they got nothing more than their thin clothes and a thin blanket. As I read this I started shivering - and I was already wearing a sweater and a winter jacket. I tried to imagine, how did they survive? Considering the fact, it was „just“ the middle or the end of October and it was about getting way colder than that. How could anyone survive under this conditions?

A terrible and sad story on a board told the story of a project called „Aktion Erntefest“ („Mission Harvest Home“): The prisoners had to dig several pits by themself under an assumed reason to celebrate the upcoming harvest festival. But the prisoners already knew (or at least they could imagine) the „true“ reason, why they were digging these pits. As soon as they finished their work, they had to kneel in front of these pits and got shot.

But what made me really angry, stunned and nearly made me want to throw up was the story, linked to the crematorium. The guards made them use the ashes of burned people to fertilize their fields. I was imaging, how they put these ashes over heads of lettuces, carrots and other things and I nearly yelled: „That‘s so disgusting! How sick were those people?!“ To make things worse: Right in front of this board was a memorial. I walked up the stairs and saw a huge pit with a big pile of ashes. I was completely shocked and thought: „This can‘t be only the ashes of burned people. This can‘t be!“ But what else could it be?

Stone Monument and CrematoriumQuelle: Dunja Kuster

While I was walking across the area, I completely forgot about the time. I didn‘t even notice, that the sunlight slowly dimmed. Only after I stepped out of the crematorium (which was really creepy, because it was so dark inside there you could hardly see, where you were going), I noticed the sunset. I was wondering how late it might be, when a security guard turned on the lights in the crematorium and stepped out. I asked him, when the place does close? In a very angrily voice he just said „Now!“.

„Oh! OK.“ I turned immediately, a little scared by that answer, and walked back to the entrance. After a while, this guy drove by with a bicycle back to the entrance, I thought. I walked as fast as possible, so he didn‘t have to wait much long for me (which probably would‘ve made him even more angry). It was getting dark pretty fast and the sunlight was barely there, when I finally reached the main entrance. I wanted to open the door - but I couldn‘t. It was locked. I slightly panicked and looked around, if this security guard guy was somewhere. But where ever he was, he wasn‘t somewhere around the main entrance. „Shit, I‘m trapped!“ I panicked. But he MUST know, I was still there! he just couldn‘t lock up this place when he knows, there is still someone inside. Like that wasn‘t worse enough, now it was really getting dark. And this place was scary enough during daylight. Now I was terrified!

I was looking at the main entrance - no chance to climb over that one.

Cut the barbed-wire. First, with what? Second, I‘m pretty sure, there are surveillance cameras here. And they‘ll definitely see me, cutting and destroying the fence. I‘ll get some serious problems, if I would‘ve done this.

But there must be a way out! Slip through the fence? Definitely not - at least not without getting injured and damaging the fence and my clothes. As I was looking at the barbed-wire fence, trying to figure out, how to get out of here, the probably most cynical thought I could remember so far came up to my mind:


I am a German, actually trying to „break out“ of a former concentration camp!

Irony in it‘s pure form. Could be the headline of a boulevard paper, I thought. Even though this might sound funny, but I still needed to get out of there. And I definitely didn‘t want to wait for this security guy to come. If he would come back.... But then I‘ve seen this giant stone monument close to the entrance and I remembered, that there was a more stable fence - made out of solid metal and only imitating a barbed wire. I ran over to the fence and fortunately it wasn‘t too high! So I threw my bag on the other side and climbed over the fence.

"Gate to Hell"Quelle: Dunja Kuster

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This article is one of three articles I wrote for a contest. Here you can find the links to the other two articles. Enjoy reading!

Story Nr. 1) „Living in a flat“

Story Nr. 2) „History strikes back!“

Story Nr. 3) „Strangers in a bar“