A while ago I was invited to spend two weeks in the Polish city of Lublin. The stay was kind of like a residency, but I didn’t have to teach. All I had to do was go to Lublin, and at the end of the residency I would write a short text, either fiction or nonfiction, about my time there.
I liked the idea, especially because I have a weak spot for Poland. When I was growing up in Amsterdam, some of my best friends were of Polish origin, and to this day I have a good friend who is a literary translator from Polish into Dutch. We don’t meet that often but when we do, we drink vodka and eat herring, which according to my friend is a Polish tradition.
On Wednesday, February 15, I arrived in Lublin by train from Warsaw. A woman from the cultural office in Lublin—the organization responsible for my stay—was waiting for me at the station. She drove me to my hotel, where she handed me a few bags filled with goodies. One of the bags even contained a few bottles of beer.
She also handed me a list of “Places of Inspiration,” which were places in and around the city that I could visit.
One of them was the State Museum at Majdanek, which is the former Majdanek concentration camp. Approximately eighty thousand people died in this camp, among them sixty thousand Jews.
The camp is on the outskirts of the city. One could even say the camp is in the city.
There are trolley busses that go to Majdanek, but I decided to take a taxi.
The driver asked me a few questions in Polish—I don’t speak Polish—and then he drove me to the entrance of the camp.
It was a wintry Saturday afternoon. The gate was open, but there was no guard, no booth for visitors to buy tickets, and just a sign with a few instructions on how to behave in the camp.
I walked inside. The barracks were well kept. Some of them were open; others were closed with simple locks.
It seemed that there were no other visitors, which gave me an eerie feeling. Was I trespassing? What had the taxi driver told me? Finally I saw three other people. We looked at each other suspiciously, but we didn’t say a word.
I reached the place where eighteen thousand Jews were killed by firing squad on November 3, 1943. I tried to imagine how this could be done in one day.
Nearby was a mausoleum, and next to it, a parking lot.
An inhabitant of Lublin had told me, “In the summertime it’s quite busy in Majdanek.” It got darker and colder. At 16:00, Majdanek would close for winter hours. I started walking back.