Navigate to Community section

Life and Death, Side by Side

How does it feel to live next to a concentration camp? I visited the Polish village next to Majdanek—where my great-grandfather was murdered, and my grandparents were imprisoned—to find out.

Noah Lederman
January 27, 2017
Photo: Noah Lederman
Photo: Noah Lederman
Photo: Noah Lederman
Photo: Noah Lederman

I grew up in a family with secrets; most of the mysteries were centered around the Holocaust. While stories of Auschwitz and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising occasionally slipped through tight lips, my grandparents kept the lid on Majdanek. It was one of the two concentration camps where they had both been imprisoned and survived. But in comparison to Auschwitz (their other shared prison) and Treblinka (the camp that had turned 8,000 of their neighbors into human smoke), Majdanek haunted them most. They told me nothing of the camp when I was a kid.

But when I was in my 20s, after I had visited my grandparents’ hometown in Poland, proving (I guess) that I was ready for the stories, Grandma started talking. Both of my grandparents—Grandma through the interviews that I conducted, and Poppy via video testimony recorded by the Shoah Foundation a few years before his death—had described Majdanek as the worst camp. It was the site where Nazis forced Jews into pointless and torturous labor. My grandparents recounted stories of digging up boulders and carrying them from one side of the camp only to have to move them back to the other side of the camp the next day. Grandma told me about how the Germans forced women to use these outdoor pits as latrines, and how the Nazis in the lookout towers used these women as target practice, shooting them into pools of piss and shit. In Auschwitz, the infamous lie was that “work will set you free,” but in Majdanek, Poppy claimed, the ability to work guaranteed you nothing.

In 2010, I decided to visit the camp. I was in a group of mostly 20-somethings and a Holocaust survivor. Our guide recited a litany of facts and statistics. During the three years that the camp had operated, about 100,000 people were killed in Majdanek; at the end of the war, the Soviet liberators found fewer than 500 prisoners alive in the camp. But the number 18,000 loomed as we walked Majdanek: That was the number of Jewish prisoners shot to death in the fields at the back of the camp Nov. 3, 1943, in what would be the largest one-day, single-location massacre during the Holocaust.

The number 18,000 enraged the survivor in our group, because, as he argued, it was more likely that there were probably 18,001 or 18,002 Jews murdered that day. Why were these Holocaust statistics always packaged so neatly?

The gate between Bronowice and Majdanek. (Photo: Noah Lederman)
The gate between Bronowice and Majdanek. (Photo: Noah Lederman)

We walked to Majdanek’s killing fields, which stretched out beyond the crematorium. I wondered about the people in my family I had lost there. Where had my great-grandfather and great-uncle been standing on Nov. 3, 1943? Were they murdered by bullets, or had they suffocated beneath the other Jews and the dirt that filled the hole?

My group recited the Kaddish and stared at the ashes of the 18,000, or 18,001, or 18,002. (While the Jews had been murdered and buried in the field, they were later exhumed and incinerated and piled beneath an open-air mausoleum with a UFO-shaped roof.) I mumbled my futile wish to the ashes: I hoped that my great-grandfather was murdered before his son. At the very least, no father should ever have to witness that.

I looked up from the ashes. On the other side of the barbed wire, a mother pushed a stroller outside the camp. Where was she walking to? Where had she come from?

Everything in Majdanek had tugged on my emotions: the field where the mass murder took place, the pile of ashes, the crematorium, the gas chamber, the cages filled with shoes. But watching this mother walk with her baby along the perimeter of the camp troubled me, too. I looked across Majdanek in the direction where she had come from. There was a neighborhood. Three- and four-story buildings, 100 or so meters from the gas chambers, sat beneath a sea of red and brown rooftops. Most of the residences had terraces covered with flowerpots or crowded with patio furniture. Farther into the distance, 10-story apartment towers aimed at the sky.

On the path that ran from the apartments to the camp, there was another mother pushing another stroller, this time past the gas chamber.

How could this village—something so normal—exist beside this place of mass murder? Who were these people who began each morning with the daily paper, a cup of coffee, and Majdanek set before them?

For the next six years, every time that I researched the camp for a book that I wrote about my grandparents’ lives during the Holocaust, I thought about those homes beside Majdanek. And I thought about my questions from that day, which remained unanswered.

Were these residents proud of their backdrop, showing the concentration camp off to guests the way a New Yorker might present their view of the bridges spanning the East River? Or was it just that all Polish real estate was connected to some site of mass atrocity, and the people who lived near Majdanek didn’t have the income or luxury to forget?

This past summer, I returned to the concentration camp. I needed to know the people who lived in the neighborhood beside Majdanek. I needed to know the people who called the village of Bronowice home.

Before walking the streets of Bronowice, I visited the camp again. Not much had changed in the better part of a decade (appropriate, since the agenda of the State Museum at Majdanek is to preserve history). Added was a new exhibit; lost was a barrack that had burned to the ground just weeks after my first visit. I stood before the same crime and the same town. New mothers pushed new babies on the other side of the barbed wire, the same wire that Grandma had stood behind in 1943, watching a Nazi club her baby brother to near-death.

Marek Duda, a recent college graduate and now a tour guide in Majdanek, led me through the camp. Duda mentioned that he had once lived in a high-rise, 7 kilometers from Majdanek, and from his childhood apartment he could see the mausoleum containing the ashes.

“It became a somehow normal view when you see it every day,” Duda said.

Normal? How could a word like normal be so shocking? Maybe “normal” was a way to preserve one’s sanity. Or it was the result of our language barrier. Or just the only appropriate word for a country where millions had been murdered during the Holocaust? Perhaps 7 kilometers blunted the impact of Majdanek. Surely, the residents of Bronowice would have a different word to describe their in-your-face panorama.

From inside the barbed wire, I studied the neighborhood. A woman watered the plants on her terrace. Satellites on railings aimed at the camp, as if Majdanek were the answer for better television reception.

Majdanek had always been the most public of concentration camps: Unlike most other camps that were tucked into forests, this one sits along a thoroughfare and was hardly hidden. Though the homes in Bronowice were erected after WWII, a few houses in the small village of Dziesiata—a village that had existed during the war, on the southwest corner of the camp—peeked through the trees. While only a few homes in Dziesiata were visible through the foliage, the nearest one stood a few hundred meters from the killing fields. It was no farther than some of the prisoners’ barracks. The residents of Dziesiata had certainly witnessed the daily atrocities, especially that November 1943 mass murder. Likely, they would have had accounts similar to Mieczyaslaw Michalowicz, a Polish prisoner of Majdanek, who described Nov. 3, 1943, like this: “Suddenly all loudspeakers resounded. We understood that murdering Jewish prisoners in scale, which had never been seen before, started. … Screams and cries of killing people were being deafened by lively melodies,” including polkas and marches, which lasted from 8 that morning until nightfall.

While Dziesiata sat closest to the killing fields and to where human smoke had pumped from the chimneys long before Nov. 3, 1943, few homes had a clear view of Majdanek. But in Bronowice, many residents were forced to face the crime scene.

Outside a private hospital, Zagiel Med, the building closest to Majdanek, I faced the houses across the road. A grandmother sat on her balcony with her grandson, a blond toddler who played with his toy trucks. Stealing a moment away from the 2-year old, the woman plucked a few dead leaves from one of the flowerpots. Perhaps, in this very spot, just at ground-level and 70-plus years earlier, Grandma had stood here, too, tearing up poison ivy for Majdanek’s evening soup. (Majdanek was much larger during the war, and some of the land in Bronowice had been inside the boundary of the camp. And, yes, the prisoners were forced to eat poison ivy.)

Grandma often repeated her stories about Majdanek. Whenever we entered that camp of her memories, she began with the same story: The Kapos in Majdanek, with a rock or a stick, “hit you on the way out to the fields and on the way back in.”

I entered the hospital. A man stood at reception in pain, struggling to fill out a form. After he limped down the hall, I introduced myself to the woman at the desk. I asked to speak to the hospital’s psychiatric team. Besides talking with locals, I wanted clinical answers to my questions about living beside a concentration camp: Were residents admitting themselves to the hospital with post-traumatic stress disorder? Could living beside a place of mass murder cause that in a person?

But the receptionist, Magda Rozwalka, informed me that the hospital—a private facility—didn’t offer that service in this building.

“How does it feel working here?” I asked Rozwalka. I didn’t mention the camp, but the way she wriggled in her seat, I think she knew what I was after.

“It’s no problem,” she said.

We were both quiet for a moment.

“It’s a hard question,” Rozwalka added. “I think this is normal.” That word again. “It’s like a cemetery.” She stumbled over what she wanted to say next, perhaps trying to find the right words to express her feelings or just struggling with English. “I felt sad and depressed when I read the story” of Majdanek.

I left the hospital. The grandmother and her toddler were still on the terrace. Through an interpreter, I shouted up a question, but she couldn’t hear correctly. She came down to the gate. I asked about the neighborhood.

A block of apartments in Bronowice. (Photo: Noah Lederman)
A block of apartments in Bronowice. (Photo: Noah Lederman)

“It’s a good place for the silence,” said the woman, who did not want to give her name. “I know Majdanek is close”—she could see the black barracks from her balcony—“but it’s no problem for me.”

For 35 years, she has lived next to the camp.

“Were homes more affordable here?” I asked, figuring that would be the appeal of Bronowice.

In fact, she explained, the homes were “not cheap to buy.”

Our conversation was cut short when her son returned home and the neighbor’s cat escaped the house and climbed into the tree.

I walked to the park, a block from the camp. Kids played soccer under lamps equipped with solar panels. First, I spoke with Kryzstof, a father or grandfather, who played with his disabled little girl. He lived in the yellow apartment building nearest to the camp. Beneath his balcony was a small playground with a sun-bleached swingset, a catawampus slide, and a view of Majdanek.

“For some people, it is not a nice place to live,” he said, shrugging, “but it’s a good neighborhood.” He jogged off after the child.

A pair of teenage lovers, Sandra and Kuba, sat on a bench at the other end of the park. They had learned about Majdanek in school, they told me, and had visited the camp with their teachers, but also on their own. Sandra had been most affected by the gas chambers. Kuba, a guitarist who wore leather wristbands, had a difficult time inside the barrack where prisoners’ voices echoed in the darkness.

An elderly woman in the park refused to speak with me, which was the trend among that generation in Bronowice. I encountered eight elderly people, all of whom appeared old enough to have lived through the war. They consistently waved me off. They ambled away from benches, quickened their pace up roads, abandoned their cigarettes and locked themselves in cars, jumped on bicycles that they had previously been pushing, and pulled shut the gate to the community gardens—which grew beside Majdanek—jiggling the gate’s handle to ensure that I would not follow them to their peaceful plots.

I walked over to another gate, about 50 meters from the community-garden entrance. It led to the path that connected Bronowice to Majdanek. A sign reminded visitors to be serious and it listed all the prohibitions, including one on fires. I wondered if the barrack that had burned down after my first visit to the camp had been an accident or arson, courtesy of some Bronowice resident tired of the reminder.

On the walk back to the car, I came upon a man walking with his two daughters. He steered his youngest’s bicycle by a handle that connected to the seat. The girls licked ice cream cones. His name was Karol Warowny, an IT programmer. “We don’t think about [living next to the camp],” he told me. “I don’t know if it’s good or wrong.” He bit his lip. Warowny had moved to the neighborhood 10 years earlier because he had found an affordable flat in Bronowice near to his parents’ home. In the decade that he has lived in Bronowice, his father died and is now buried in the cemetery on the other side of Majdanek.

“We sometimes walk” to the cemetery, Warowny said, which inevitably takes him through the gate and down the path past Majdanek. His daughters, ages 9 and 5, have asked him about the camp. Warowny decided to visit Majdanek last year with his eldest.

“I just wanted to tell her that war is terrible and that people can be terrible also.” Warowny looked at his innocent children, who worked hard to catch the drips from their cones. “It’s not that easy with such a young child.”

When I asked his eldest about the camp, with Warowny translating, she said, “I only know that many people died there and I feel sorry for that.”

Something, however, irked me about the Poles living beside the camp. Did anyone feel a sense of guilt for the past? Were they even meant to? Some Poles had collaborated with the Nazis; others had denounced Jews and waited outside Jewish homes with their looting sacks. What had these people done? What about all of the elderly who refused to answer my questions?

Also troubling, I couldn’t tell if the Poles thought of Majdanek as a site of persecution for the Jews, or if they felt that they had been its most unfortunate prisoners.

I never got a straight answer. Some residents seemed to talk around those types of questions, and sometimes I just didn’t ask because it seemed insensitive.

“Everybody kept telling me about Russian soldiers and how they stole everything” from the Poles, Warowny said. “Even Germans were better.”

Warowny recalled his teacher remembering Germans as “kind,” even though the man was a prisoner in Majdanek. (Polish prisoners were treated far better than Jews in the camp.) The Germans had even killed Warowny’s grandfather during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944—different from the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943—and still he believed the Russians were worse.

How could the Nazis have been seen as mild—as better—in comparison to the armies of any other nation?

Even Marek Duda, the educated guide at Majdanek, confounded me. When I had asked about the most shocking thing he had ever heard from a visitor, Duda said it was when a Danish student thought the Poles were the SS. It breathed of a jingoism that suffocates Poland today. The country’s radical right-wing government, in fact, is pushing through a law that will punish anyone with prison time for accusing Poland of taking part in the Holocaust.

I wanted to hear someone say, “I can’t believe what happened to the Jews here in Poland.” But it was silly of me to think this way. On my last visit to Lublin, the city Majdanek is situated in, I encountered a swastika painted in the square, and after dinner at the synagogue, I had anti-Semitic obscenities shouted at me and the group of Jews that I was walking with back to the hotel.

The Poles that I met seemed to want to put a new spin on the past. Perhaps that was the only way a person could live beside a concentration camp.

I wondered if I could point fingers. In America, we live in places where Native Americans were slaughtered en masse, where slaves were massacred, and where countless other hate crimes were committed. Maybe the descendants of those victims wonder about the people choosing to live beside those mass graves. Yet none of the sites that I had visited in the States, which spoke of my country’s misdeeds, were as present as the still-standing Majdanek.

“It’s like cemeteries,” my translator tried to explain as we left Bronowice. “Sometimes you go through cemeteries and you don’t think where you are.”

But it wasn’t like cemeteries, because cemeteries are filled with stones that have stories of mostly completed lives. Majdanek was a mass-murder site with dead babies and children and young adults thrown into pits. The cemetery to the east, which could not be clearly seen from Bronowice—where Warowny’s father had been buried ceremonially—had individual tombstones for each of the dead. That was a sharp contrast to the pit of ashes belonging to the murdered and mingled 18,000.

Earlier that day, when I had stood at the backside of the mausoleum, I could hear a service at the communal cemetery.

I looked down at the ashes of the murdered Jews and then out through the gap between the giant urn and its UFO-shaped roof. Through the space I could see the dark barracks of Majdanek. Through the opening, I could view Bronowice’s sea of red roofs and festooned terraces. Eighteen-thousand is a number too big to digest; a number hard to be haunted by.

But selfishly, I wanted the residents of Bronowice to be haunted by just two: my great-grandfather, David Zylberberg, and his son, Shama. The boy was maybe a teenager when he was shot into the pits with his father.

Years earlier, I had seen an image of Majdanek’s killing fields. In the photograph were two bodies lying dead in a pit. A man and a boy. Perhaps my relatives. Most likely not. Their corpses begged to be remembered. I studied Bronowice from the worst place in Majdanek.

I took out my phone to snap a photograph of the village, framing it with the columns of the mausoleum. When I illuminated my screen, I was presented with an image of my daughters. The baby was just an infant, the older one a toddler. They were smiling. They were innocent and new to this world, luckily removed from the horrors surrounding me, thankfully unaware of the terrors that my grandparents had lived through. In that moment, I knew what I wanted for them more than anything else: happiness. But we lived in a world that can be so brutal, so unpredictable. I amended my wish. I’d take normal. I wished for normal.

Noah Lederman is the author of the memoirA World Erased: A Grandson’s Search for His Family’s Holocaust Secrets. His articles have been featured in The Economist, The Boston Globe, The Miami Herald, Slate, Salon, The New Republic, The Jerusalem Post Magazine, and elsewhere. He writes the blog Somewhere Or Bust.