Following the Traces of “Operation Reinhard”. Grieving
On March 16, 2022, exactly 80 years after the first transport with Jews had left Lublin for the death camp in Bełżec as part of the so-called “Operation Reinhard”, we will set off on a virtual journey through time to the sites connected with this operation. Our journey will last for an uninterrupted 19 months (as long as the operation itself had lasted). We will finish on November 3–4, 2023 – 80 years after the perpetrators of the Holocaust shot 42,000 Jews in a mass execution referred to as “Operation Erntefest”. Our journey will also serve as a symbolic Mystery of Memory – grieving the Jews murdered during the Nazi operation. We will visit the places where soil – in the words of Czesław Miłosz – has been “sullied, blood-stained, desecrated”. It is in reference to this image that Jan Błoński insists that:
[…] memory, collective consciousness – cannot forget this bloody and hideous defilement. It cannot pretend that it never occurred. […] The desecration of Polish soil occurred and we have not yet discharged our duty of seeking expiation. In this graveyard, the only way to achieve this is to face up to our duty of viewing our past truthfully.
The crucial and most evocative testimony of the Holocaust is derived from the accounts of its witnesses recorded while the Shoah was still taking place. The Word has become the Ark salvaging the memory of the murdered Jews.
The decision to put things down on paper, made by the authors writing in the times of the Holocaust, can be interpreted in the categories of the Biblical formula to bear witness. […] Thus, a text created in the face of the Holocaust, testifying to it, inevitably adheres to the Biblical paradigm. […] The act of writing, irrespective of the catastrophic awareness many of the authors had, would become a form of resistance to the Holocaust, an act of faith in a better future world, an act of hope in the next generations' finding out about it, understanding it, judging it and providing redress. Therefore, not only the content of their writing is significant, but also the very fact that they have decided to write in the first place.
This is precisely why – in a sense – we will take a journey through the depths of the witnesses' words. Using these words to recount the events which took place during the murderous “Operation Reinhard” – including remembering the names and lives of the victims – will give form to the Mystery of Memory – being the act of Grieving over their fate. One of the Holocaust survivors, Ida Glickstein, puts it in the following way:
I list names of the murdered, because maybe it is the only gravestone they will get, because there is no one left of their families who would mourn their premature deaths.
We will “weave” the story of “Operation Reinhard” with the symbolic “threads” of the fates of individual people – those who were murdered and those who survived. Every now and then each “thread” will appear on the surface of ongoing events. Most of the “threads” break off at a certain point (usually in a death camp); others lead us to the very end of the war when a particular Survivor shares their story.
Various archival sources and survivor accounts allow us to get to know many of the Holocaust victims' names. Still, most of them remain anonymous – we know nothing about their fate.
A haunting question always lingers – who were the people buried here, on this meadow, in that forest and whose remains were only found so many years later. What was their story? Where did they come from? Were they alone in the moment of their cruel death or were they accompanied by their relatives, their loved ones, parents, siblings, friends, other inhabitants of their villages or shtetls. […] Most often […] we are only in possession of an inaccurate number of victims and in many cases even that remains a mystery. A hundred, two hundred, a thousand, several thousand […] 'And it will never change – when writing of the Holocaust we will be forever forced to repeat huge numbers, never able to lay each individual victim to their rest.
This is why it is of such great importance to keep searching for the most minute traces of someone's existence. It sometimes happens that witness accounts (apart from every victim mentioned by name) contain fragments of particular significance – brief references to unnamed people (NN) and isolated events connected with their lives. They never form a complete story. They are a barely visible trace of someone's existence. Often the only remaining one.
Nameless stories bear a certain degree of vulnerability. They are most prone to being forgotten. Since they are barely visible – almost unnoticeable – they call on us for particular attention.
The Mystery Following the Traces of “Operation Reinhard” will also be designed as a symbolic continuation of the mission undertaken by the founders of the Ringelblum Archive, which was created during the war with a view to conveying to the world both the description of the Holocaust, as well as preserving the memory of the murdered people. In spite of the years dividing us from the Shoah, despite all the available information on what had taken place, there are still plenty of people who do not know much about the Holocaust.
Let us remember that the Ringelblum Archive survived because it was buried in the ground. One of the people hiding it also enclosed their last will, stating among other things:
We have buried in the ground the things we were not able to shout out to the world […] May this treasure end up in the right hands, may it see better times, may it alert the world which got lost in the 20th century [...]
Our Mystery will thus be an attempt at reminding everyone of our duty to execute this will.
In the course of the Mystery's duration we will regularly update a particular kind of “Journey log”. Every day a new entry will be published on our website, disclosing consecutive installments of the story recounted by witnesses. These will cover the events which took place on the exact day and in the exact location 80 years ago – while “Operation Reinhard” was still underway. In this manner, the “Journey log” will gradually compose a story of the Holocaust of Polish Jews. It will be accompanied by contemporary accounts referring to how – and even whether – the events are still remembered by the present-day inhabitants of the towns and villages affected by “Operation Reinhard” and what they mean to them today.
In the course of the Mystery of Memory the “Journey log” is to be created in the Grodzka Gate. After all, its location within the space of the city is of great symbolic importance to the Mystery itself. The Gate is situated between two significant sites – the first being the gathering point from which groups of Jews were escorted to the railway platform near the municipal slaughterhouse in order to be transported to the death camp. The second location is where the first testimonies of Holocaust survivors were recorded after the liberation of Lublin in July 1944.
The Mystery Following the Traces of “Operation Reinhard”. Grieving is to be a symbolic event leading to the creation of the Museum of the Holocaust of Polish Jews (located in Lublin).