TRAVEL / Testimony spoken in silence: In a Remembrance Sunday review of memorials to war, Marion Milne visits a death camp in Poland frozen in the eerie stillness its liberators found half a century ago

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The Independent Culture
IN A QUIET corner of a Jewish cemetery in New York a gravestone reads: 'Zoftna Eisner, died 1979. Here comes to rest in the land of the free, a proud mother of the Warsaw ghetto and the death camp Majdanek. She outlived the evil Nazi empire by 34 years.'

You won't find many such gravestones for the inmates of Majdanek. Sited by the Germans in the far reaches of occupied Poland, it had one of the lowest survival rates of all the Second World War concentration camps. When it was liberated by the Red Army in 1944 only a few hundred prisoners were still alive.

The rest, 350,000 Poles, Jews, Russians and Gypsies had been gassed and incinerated, or shot in the nearby forests and buried in mass graves. Such was the haste with which the Germans fled the advancing Russians that they didn't even stop to cover up evidence of their crimes. The Red Army found an empty death camp with the paraphernalia of murder intact.

Initially, Poland's post-war Soviet-sponsored government didn't know what to do with the place. Many thought it better to obliterate Majdanek rather than allow it to remain for posterity. But as the Poles struggled to reconcile themselves with the aftermath of occupation it was decided that Majdanek was as apt a means as any of keeping memories alive. An enormous arch was constructed in granite over the main gate and, in 1947, the doors were opened to the public.

At first, most of the visitors came from Eastern bloc countries, often on compulsory school trips, to learn about the evils of Fascism. Now, the school parties no longer come and Westerners find the thought of seeking out the site of unbridled mass murder sits uneasily with any idea of travel for recreation. Those who look for the 'concentration camp experience' tend to go to Auschwitz, where they are bolstered by the presence of other tourists and the knowledge that they are visiting the most notorious death camp of all.

Majdanek, in contrast, is visited rarely. There, history has not been domesticated by tourism. Visitors find the camp almost unbearably disturbing, describing it as a place of martyrdom, speaking in terms of a pilgrimage.

And it is possible to see why. If you go to Majdanek you will discover that the sense of emptiness first witnessed by the Red Army still pervades. It is a sorrowful, contemplative place where, if you pause, you can still hear the sounds of human suffering. A visit to Majdanek is anything but an easy experience but one which Andrzej Puchacz, a guide specialising in wartime history, believes to be essential for anyone who comes to Poland with a serious interest in its past.

'You sit at home in your nice armchair with your television and your stereo. And you read about what happened and you feel bad about it. But when you go there it touches you in a different way. Of course it's not like it was

for the prisoners. For a start it is always so quiet: no dogs and guns and screams. It is a time to think your own thoughts. To appreciate what you have.'

The first shock is how close Majdanek is to city of Lublin in eastern Poland. 'Just take the road to Russia,' the locals tell you. But any preconceptions that a death camp would be secretly located in the middle of nowhere prove unfounded. The smokestack of the crematorium is visible from the town. Its wartime population could have had no illusions about the camp: 50 years ago, on a single November day, 200 SS men machine-gunned 43,000 Jews from the Lublin area. And unlike the other big camps, Majdanek did not have its own railway line. Prisoners were taken by train, in cattle trucks, to Lublin station, then walked in guarded groups to the camp.

Solomon Radasky, a Polish Jew now living in America, was marched from the station to Majdanek 50 years ago. 'I was captured during the Warsaw ghetto uprising,' he told me. 'I was being taken to Treblinka. But no one ever came back from Treblinka. Then the train stopped. It changed direction for no reason. We were on our way to Majdanek.'

Those who were very young, very old, or infirm and considered incapable of slave labour, were killed on arrival. Radasky, strong, fit and in his thirties, was a more prized commodity. Even so he experienced constant brutality and terror. 'We never felt safe at Majdanek. It was even worse than Auschwitz.'

Radasky revisited the camp for the first time last year. He took his family and was escorted by Andrzej Puchacz. Radasky said it had hardly changed. 'You saw those barracks? You saw those terrible bunks? You saw the gallows and the gas chambers and the ovens? Then you know what life at Majdanek was like.'

To enter Majdanek you make your way through a narrow avenue of broken stones before climbing the steep steps leading up and under the martyrs' arch. It is a theatrical experience, like threading through grotesquely oversized barbed wire, that begins to prepare you, intellectually at least, for what is to come.

But nothing can fully prepare you to enter a death camp as eerily well-preserved as this one. Andrzej Puchacz is right: the first thing that hits you is the silence. Rooks and crows gather in melancholy groups on the grass. They barely move and make no sound. On the brow of the shallow hill is a vast, circular edifice, perhaps half a mile away. You walk towards it but have no idea of what you will find.

As you walk, no one speaks. It feels like the silence and the despair are seeping inside you. On either side are watch towers, their shapes familiar from war films and television series. You have to pinch yourself to remember these ones are real. On you go, almost reluctantly, until you realise what is at the top. An enormous, circular mausoleum chiselled with stark words: 'Let our fate be a warning for you.'

Inside is an immense concrete saucer. At least 30 yards across and several fathoms deep, it is filled, to the brim, with ash. Bones are discernible among this human debris. The sight of it sickens and compels; an eloquent, horrifying testimony to those who died.

From the mausoleum you go inside the crematorium, with its tall, hideous smokestack. Next to the gas chamber is the table for removing victims' gold teeth and beyond that the ovens, with shovels large enough to insert human bodies. Next to the ovens is the bathroom for the crematorium attendant.

'That bathroom,' says Andrzej Puchacz. 'On my tenth or twelfth visit, I don't remember, when I thought I had come to terms with the place, I suddenly became fixated by the bathroom. How could that man, whoever he was, do his evil work all day then bathe and change and go home to his family?'

The crematorium, unsurprisingly, is set apart from the camp's living quarters. Row upon row of barrack blocks. Wooden built, long, dark and narrow. At times their atmosphere threatens to overwhelm until, with relief, the eye catches gestures of human kindness: flowers, lighted candles, tributes to the dead. Between the blocks are the open spaces where the roll calls were held and the gallows still stand. 'They nearly managed to hang me,' says Radasky. 'Someone had a cigarette during roll call. The officer said 'Who is smoking?' He told us that if no one stepped forward he would take 10 men and hang them, as a warning. I was one of those men. The noose was around my neck. They were about to kick away the stool when a second officer appeared. He said 'I need those prisoners. They are strong men. I need them for Auschwitz'.' Radasky was one of 350 transferred to hard labour at Auschwitz. 'I tell you: I was lucky to get out.'

Radasky was the first survivor Andrzej Puchacz had escorted to Majdanek. 'When you take a survivor you don't feel quite so bad. You had to be very strong to live through all that. Mr Radasky is very strong, very courageous. He survived Majdanek, then Auschwitz and Dachau. In a strange way he had something to celebrate when he came back here.'

It is hard for the ordinary visitor to find anything to celebrate at Majdanek. It is a relief to enter the museum area, look at photographs, read statistics, distance yourself from what you have just seen. But even there you are not protected from tangible evidence of those who died: shoes, thousands of them, once belonging to victims, are stowed behind wire netting. Fifty years on the place still smells of feet.

Before 1989 the concentration camps in Poland were preserved by the regime to commemorate the great victory of Communism over Fascism. Now, facts conveniently covered up by the Communists have been exposed. Several months after Majdanek's liberation, for example, it was still being used as a prison camp. Not, of course, by the Germans but by the Russians as a useful detention centre for Polish Home Army partisans.

Under Communism the camps were perceived as museums rather than tourist attractions, but this perception is difficult to maintain as Poland embraces capitalist culture. While visitors to Auschwitz, with its coaches, tour leaders, film show and hotel, describe a bizarre sense of conviviality, those who go to Majdanek will, for the time being at least, almost certainly find themselves alone.

Sometimes, Majdanek's infrequent visitors find it too much for them. They pose for photographs in the shovels outside the gas ovens and try out the bunks for size. It is a way of dealing with something from which the West has been sheltered, the reality of German war crimes preserved behind the Iron Curtain.

When he went back to Majdanek, Solomon Radasky collected earth. It will be kept in a commemorative urn in the museum of the Holocaust opened by President Clinton in Washington. 'Everyone must remember what happened,' says Radasky, now aged 83. 'The campaign to remember must never end.' -

Flights to Poland can be booked via Fregata, 100 Dean Street, London Wl, tel: 071 734 5101. In Warsaw Weco Travel, tel: 010 48 2 658 1759/ 1760; and First Class Travel, tel: 010 48 2 55484/485 specialise in incoming tourism. Weco Travel can arrange guided tours of Majdanek.

(Photographs omitted)