At the Gates of Hell

The monument at the entrance to the former Nazi concentration camp Majdanek was designed to be reminiscent of Dante’s Gates of Hell.

Into that secret place he led me on.
Here sighs, with lamentations and loud moans,
Resounded through the air pierced by no star,
That e’en I wept at entering.

– Dante

When I first visited this former camp in 2010, I never expected that I would ever return there. At the time, I did not even know where we were on the map. It seemed that we had been brought to the brink of an abyss, and that even our own existence became more tenuous as we stood there.

I will always remember pressing my hand against that massive, imposing monument and praying: “Lord, etch this experience on my memory and engrave this upon my conscience because I don’t want to ever forget the testimony of the survivors that I’ve heard in this place.”

To my surprise, I did return to that site and not just once but dozens and dozens of times.

It was only after I discovered my master’s program at the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin that I realized that I would be studying just a 15-minute bus ride away from Majdanek.

Accordingly, I decided in my first week there to become a regular volunteer at the museum every Friday morning. I figured that if I was going to study in that city, then I certainly needed to return regularly to Majdanek in order to give this history something of its due through my engagement with it.

Part of returning to the museum so regularly (and eventually guiding visitors there) meant that the key dates in the camp’s history became fixed in my memory and spiritual imagination in parallel to the liturgical calendar of Jewish and Catholic holidays.

Among the most memorable and solemn dates is November 3rd.

Right after the feasts of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, there is the devastating anniversary of “Aktion Erntefest” (so-called Operation Harvest Festival).

Here’s the description from the US Holocaust Museum:

Uprisings at the Treblinka and Sobibor killing centers and the Warsaw, Bialystok, and Vilna ghettos had led to increased concerns about Jewish resistance. To prevent further resistance, SS chief Heinrich Himmler ordered the killing of surviving Jews in the Lublin District of German-occupied Poland. Most of the remaining Jews were employed in forced-labor projects and were concentrated in the Trawniki (at least 4,000), Poniatowa (at least 11,000), and Majdanek (about 18,000) camps. They were killed on November 3 and 4. At Majdanek, near Lublin, the SS shot them in large prepared ditches outside the camp fence near the crematorium. Jews from other labor camps in the Lublin area were also taken to Majdanek and shot. Music was played through loudspeakers at both Majdanek and Trawniki to drown out the noise of the mass shootings. Approximately 42,000 Jews were killed during “Operation Harvest Festival,” the largest German-perpetrated massacre of the Holocaust.

And so, after spending time in the cemeteries on the Catholic feasts, I would enter through the Gates of Hell and walk along the camp road that led me to the ditches of unmarked graves next to the mausoleum containing so many ashes.

Some might wonder why I bothered. Why did I continually descend into this darkness? Why do the Holocaust anniversaries come to mind as readily as feast days?

Some of the Holocaust theology I am studying now suggests, perhaps unsatisfactorily, that it simply cannot be otherwise.

It might be sad to dwell in the hellish spaces but it would be more sad if we deserted them, particularly given how many righteous victims were in that hell.

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