One Red Shoe

Majdanek, pronounced Mydanek, is the concentration camp on the very outskirts of Lublin, in east Poland. The fact that it’s so near a city makes it unique, all the other such camps were in remote locations. You can look this place up on Wiki, and learn much more than this account, but I’m just going to relate what I learned on the day, faulty and sketchy as it may be. It was a day off in the middle of an orchestra Course, and with the camp being so nearby, and never having been somewhere like that, it was just something we couldn’t not do, couldn’t. There were about 15 of us, tutors on the Course.

A guide takes you round, I forget her name. The first thing we came to was the huge sculpture, surrounded by small rocks which represent prisoners. Then there was a track leading to the camp. This was known as the ‘black road’, dark in the surrounding grass, and now I think about it, ashy. On the right we passed a white house, which was firstly the SS doctor’s accommodation, and later the commandant’s. The guide told us that female non-Jewish servants were employed there, the implication was very much that they didn’t just wash and clean. I thought ‘I’m looking at a house people were raped in’. 

The first place past the gate to the camp is immediately the darkest section, the gas chambers.  When prisoners arrived here, they were immediately herded into an area named The Rose Garden. Here they were separated, the weaker men and women, and the children, all ‘non-workers’, taken from the rest and sent immediately into the large shed next door. We went up the muddy path and into the first room, which was a de-lousing room. There were blue stains on the walls and ceiling from the gas which was used for this process. A couple of rooms further down and you came to the large one at the end. You can’t go in there.  You can look in through a window though, if you want to. There was a small booth next to this, also with a window, a small one. This was for SS guards to watch what was going on.  I can hardly bear to write this.

Back outside in the sun, we were led up the path past about 30 large sheds, where prisoners were kept. We were shown into one, I think most of the rest aren’t used for anything now. Before we went in, the guide said ‘Now you are going to see 58,000 shoes’. Inside were cages, 10 feet tall, all down the middle of the shed, and knee-high ones round the sides. They were all crammed with old shoes, belonging to ex-prisoners, a stunning portrayal of the numbers involved. But more than that, not just the numbers, you felt their personalities. Walking down the sides, I instinctively reached down and started touching some of the shoes through the mesh, and looking up, I saw that other visitors were doing the same. I think I wanted to touch what the prisoners had touched, but then I suddenly stopped and drew back, I think because I couldn’t help them. There was one red shoe among the mostly flaky grey ones, and this implied character; a character; what sort of person wore this shoe?

Another shed had artifacts, possessions of prisoners, old convict-type clothes, newspapers from the time, maps and so on. There was a display of triangles, badges of different colours which denoted what sort of prisoner you were, sewn onto your uniform. I forget what colour meant what, but there were a lot of distinctions. I do remember the badge for Jehovah’s Witnesses being the same vague pink as that for homosexuals, which just re-underlined the pointlessness for me.

We moved square to another long path with the same sheds on either side, all more barracks. Between the rows of sheds there used to be a gallows. All around were double sets of what used to be electrified barbed wire fences. Inside the sheds it was quite warm, close, and the place was full of bunks. But we were told that in use, the sheds were so overcrowded that people also slept under bunks and all across the bare floor. There was no toilet. But there was a large drum near the door, so if you were sleeping at the back of the shed, you’d have to clamber over all of the people to get to it, so there were often ‘little problems’ left in the middle of the room.

Further on, we came to the crematorium, with a tall funnel. There were a lot of boilers inside, stoking up heat to burn bodies. There was a small square room with a single bath in it. Here, the commandant used to take baths, his water heated by the boilers which were firing the furnaces. He bathed while the bodies burnt.

Having come round most of a circle, we came to the monument at the end, on high ground, where the path then led back to the entrance to the camp. The monument is a large circular pit, filled with the ashes of some of the prisoners killed here. The ashes used to blow away in the wind so they’re held down with stones now, small ones like the ones at the first sculpture, representing individuals. Watch Schindler’s List.

But behind this last monument, the end of the tour, were huge trenches, overgrown and grassy now, but still big U-shapes in the field. This was an execution area, near the crematorium, and this was where the Harvest Festival took place. Sounds bucolic, doesn’t it?  The Harvest Festival took place on November 3rd, 1943, and 18,000 prisoners were executed at Majdanek that day, and piled into these ditches. It was a Nazi reaction to an escape which had recently taken place at another Polish camp, Sobibor. At another camp they killed 43,000, on the same day. It’s incomprehensible. When prisoners saw and realised what was happening, they swallowed their valuables, gold rings, whatever they could. But after they were killed the Nazis disembowelled them to recover the valuables.

We set off down the path back to the entrance, but I said I’d catch people up. On the path by the red shoe shed I’d heard music coming out of another shed, not music but more of a drone. I’d asked the guide what it was and she told me it was a modern exhibit, so I went back to have a look. Inside it was dark, as it was in all the sheds, and the whole place was a modern art installation called ‘Shrine’. On one level were 13 rows of 4 stone balls, with lit candles on them, at a slightly lower level were 17 rows, without candles. These represented the proportion of survivors to non-survivors of the Majdanek camp. The drone I’d heard was a low, constant semitone-clash pedal. From other speakers came the voices of some of the survivors, reciting prayers or recalling memories of their time there.

Dan Jenkins, 2012

Despite the tone of the above piece, which is inevitable, on the day we all felt less affected than we thought we would. I put that down to the fact that, if you’re going to visit a concentration camp, you must know something about what you’re visiting already; nobody ever goes to somewhere like that thinking it’s going to be Disneyland. So while we were there, we were just soaking up the atmosphere, and whatever the guide could tell us. But writing about it was a different thing.

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