I Have Returned From Belzec / Yuval Avidar

Belzec extermination camp is situated at the Poland-Ukraine border, next to a railroad station.
The camp was operated for only 9 months, from March 1942 until November of that year.
During that short period of time about 500,000 Jews were murdered in Belzec, including 26,000 of Lublin Jews.
It was merely an extermination camp. There were no selections. Jews who arrived to the railroad station were killed at that day.

March 2012.
70 years after the extermination of Lublin's Jewish community, I return.
I return with a group of children and grandchildren of that winter's remnants.
March 1942.

I return to places in which I have never been.
I return to Lublin. My grandfather's, Yehuda, childhood place.
I return to Majdanek. The place where nine years old Heniush lost his childhood.
I return to Poland. Land of the lives that were.
I return to Belzec. Land of death.

It is the last day of the group in Poland.
Lublin. Majdanek. Krepiec.
Last stop Belzec.
The travel time from Lublin to Belzec is four hours.
One direction.

Belzec.
The place where nobody has yet returned alive from.
Except Chaim Hirschmann and Rudolf Reder.
Two came back.
Half a million didn't.

We travel on a road which is parallel to the railroad track.
On the left a football pitch. Goals with no nets.
When I see a football pitch and goals, I forget everything.
Childhood illness which I still have.

Here is the railway platform.
Exactly here my grandfather's mother and her daughters were ordered to remove their clothes, to leave it on the platform and set off to their final road.
Never say.
Exactly now someone on the bus is saying that in a minute we will arrive, so we should put on our coats; later we would put it off and leave the coats in the museum.
I shiver.

We arrived in Belzec.
Stepping out of the bus. The memorial ceremony will start in an hour, and the preparations are underway.
Over the land a museum was built. Thousands of stones were laid uphill. People's names were written. Names of perished communities were engraved.
Under the land lives were ruined. Whole families were destroyed. A rich culture was plucked. Children's laughter was erased.

This journey approaches its end.
Until now the black humor eased the burden for me.
I try to think of another stupid black joke in the spirit of the last days.
Old times soap, dead and no breakfast, I'll call you after I get out of the gas chambers.
I can't.
In the entrance to Belzec I lose the black humor.

Robert Kuwalek is our guide.
Robert is a historian.
Over the last few days he accompanies us.
A living holocaust encyclopedia.
Cemented cistern who never loses a drop.
He knows every slaughter pit, every mass grave, every concentration camp.
Robert remembers dates, places, transports.
He tells us about Belzec.
The year the camp was built. The number of months it was operating. The amount of people who were killed.
He specifies their final road course.
Here they were taken down from the train.
Here they left their clothes.
To there they were taken.
And here, where you see the grass, were the gas chambers.
Robert describes dry facts, but his eyes are wet.
He stops for a moment his fluent speech, the facts sequence.
He inhales air. Looks at us. Waits for questions.
Are there any questions?
No. There are no questions. Everything is clear.
Five-hundred thousand victims.
Twenty-six thousand Jews from Lublin.
Nine months of extermination.
Two survivors.
One is our God.

The memorial ceremony is about to begin.
We stand around.
The ceremony begins.
People who are well dressed and seem to be very important make long speeches in a language I don't understand.
The ceremony over the land is too vague and general, "milky".
The meat and the blood are under the ground.
Seventy years have passed. The milk and the meat are still not mixing.
The milkiness of the ceremony with the flash of the victims.
A kosher ceremony.
No connection.
I have no patience.

I go back to the museum which was built nearby. I want to complete there the tour I have started before the ceremony.
I see the thousands of home keys which the Jews had taken from their houses in the ghetto, in order to get in when the war will be over.
I read the story about the only two who survived Belzec: Chaim Hirschmann and Rudolf Reder.
After the war Chaim Hirschmann testified in front of the Central Jewish Historical Commission (CJHC) in Lublin.
At the end of the first day of his testimony he returned home.
At that night two people knocked at his door. When he opened it, they had shot him to death.
His wife didn't give up, and on the next morning she continued her husband's detailed testimony according to the stories he had told her for a year.
Years later Rudolf Reder had testified.
He remembered everything, but had cataract – clouding that develops in the crystalline lens of the eye and obstructs the passage of light. When he came to the police lineup, he couldn’t identify the commanders of the camp at the required certainty.

I return to the ceremony.
A priest and a rabbi say a prayer.
Sounds like a beginning of a joke.
They say a Christian pray, Kaddish and "El male rachamim" (God, full of mercy).
I recall what my mother had written after her first visit to Belzec:

Grass covers the enormous pits into which our dead brothers' corps were thrown, piled and covered with sand,
and their black blood was bubbling and rising and flowing and wetting the legs of the miserable prisoners who dragged their brothers from the gas chambers, and put them in the ground,
and at night on their bunk were wrapping themselves in a tallit and tefillin they had found at the warehouses of the robbed commodities,
and were praying Kaddish for their brothers' blood which was crying out from the ground,
and knowing that the on the next day they also will be shot at the edge of the same pits and will be gathered to their people.

It's cold. A lying sun is above us. Lightening, but not warming.
My dear mother and my dear brother Shmulik stand beside me, wrapped in coats.
My grandfather's mother Chaya-Devora and his two sisters, Esther and Rachel, stood here 70 years ago. Naked, freezing in the snow.
Surely they had prayed Shema Yisrael, "Hear, Israel". Nobody hears.
They stood here helpless. Nobody answers.

I look up to the sky, wondering from whence shall help come to them.
I look around and see the second and third generation of the survivors stand at the place their fathers stood at.
Yossi Dakar (Zakroichik), Noya and Noam. Without them we wouldn't arrive here.
Shani and her cousin Yoni, the grandchildren of Yocheved Flumenker – one of the last ones from the first generation who are still alive.
Ita Fishberg and her daughter Adi from the enterprising Halbershtat family.
Irit Gevertz-Obligenarz-Kaplan, her husband Steve (the great basketball player) and their children Tom and Sivan, who are living on the line between Tel Aviv and the Big Apple.
Yerucham Shafat, son of David Shtokfish who had learnt with my grandfather at the same class in school, his wife Ruti and his daughter Galit. The son Amir returned to his home yesterday.
Michael Rosenbush, a yungerman with a walking stick. A grown man with curiosity and a soul of a child.
The rest of the group members are standing, spread among all the people who came to the ceremony.
In spite of everything we arrived.

Yossi signals us that it's time to hurry, because there is a flight to Israel in the evening.
One by one, without anyone noticing, we leave quietly the ceremony.
Our step is silent. We were here.
Up on the bus.
Jews returning from Belzec?

I sit down.
My mother is beside me. She takes care of me.
Come, mother. Sit with me till I grow up.
I feel better.

The bus starts moving.
The driver turns on the air conditioning, and I ask: Is it gas?
Hello. Welcome back, stupid black humor. I have missed you a lot.
Suddenly Shani burst out laughing.
She read in a signpost the name Korbanek (in Hebrew, Korban = victim).
She also got back the black humor.

The bus keeps moving.
So are my thoughts.
We are on our way back.
Seventy years ago it wouldn't have happened.
I'm alive. Thank God. Save us, our God. I have returned from Belzec

Translated to English by Shmulik Avidar

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