„The Primer” Exhibition. Children in Majdanek Camp
The history of the Second World War is also the history of children. Thousands of them were tortured to death and murdered in concentration camps. One of those places was Majdanek. It is here where the fate of Jewish, Byelorussian and Polish children intersected. On September 1, 1939, many of them were supposed to start their school year with a primer in their school bags.
A primer instructs us how to organize and describe the world around us. It contains the simplest social categories which are the very base for the relationship between man and the surrounding world. The distinctive feature of every primer is that the world presented in it, is free of cruelty and evil. The children imprisoned in the camp were violently pulled out of the simple and naive world of “The Primer”. The camp reality was a complete contradiction of the world presented in their text books. From then on, life was to bring death and evil on a daily basis.
The exhibition tells the story of four small inmates kept imprisoned in Majdanek. Those children of Jewish origin were Halina Birenbaum and Henryk Żytomirski, Piotr Kiriszczenko was Byelorussian, and Janina Buczek-Różańska was Polish. One of them died in the camp; it was Henio Żytomirski.
"THE PRIMER" EXHIBITION
The exhibition is situated in the barracks, and is divided into two parts separated by a partition wall:
I - “The Primer World” (Childhood and School Years). Two diverse rooms presenting information about the camp and children’s fate inside it are in this part of the barracks. One room involves the Jewish children's fate, the second one, the fate endured by Polish and Byelorussian children. It shows clearly the difference between their history, since Jewish children were condemned to death from the very beginning.
II - “The Camp World”
DESCRIPTION OF THE EXHIBITION
THE INFORMATIONAL PART
Before entering the exhibition, in two small barrack rooms, there is basic information concerning Majdanek and the children imprisoned in it. In one of the rooms, there are documents regarding Jewish children who, from the very beginning were destined to be annihilated. In the second room, there is information about Polish and Byelorussian children.
In the windows, there are boxes with slots, in which one can see slides showing children’s faces. These pictures had been taken before children got into the camp. The slides are visible thanks to the light coming from the window.
FURNITURE/ CHESTS OF DRAWERS
The arrangement of the rooms (furniture used there) resembles interiors of libraries and archives. In each room there are four chests of drawers.
First display - accounts regarding camp life
In the drawers one can find fragments of life-histories of both child and adult inmates. The accounts are organized in such a way that they describe subsequent stages from prisoners’ lives: transportation, the road leading to the camp, entering the camp gate, tattooing of an identification number, life in Majdanek.
Additionally, the Jewish children’s accounts contain descriptions of the gas chambers and selection.
Former prisoners’ testimonies (Jewish children)
HALINA BIRENBAUM: It was so cramped that there was no place to stand in. It was terribly hot. People were passing out, falling down, others were drooping on those which were already lying, pressing upon one another. When I became totally powerless, I fell down also. I started to choke. I felt I was dying (…) By screams and beatings, we were driven out of cargo vans. We started marching. We were carefully guarded from all the sides. On the way, when someone was weak or someone did not follow fast enough, he or she was shot dead. There were many dead bodies along the way (…) We came to the place where men where separated from women. A terrible place. People were trying to stay together with their husbands, their sons as long as possible. Just not to part for a second or two longer. The Germans were whipping us, they were shooting. They separated us and brought us to the assembly area where only women stood, an ocean of women
JERZY PFEFFER: When we took our clothes off, we were hurried completely naked to the bath. There, a very first selection took place. The old and ill-looking, together with the feeble ones, were immediately taken aside. This meant death.
HENIO ŻYTOMIRSKI: -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
HALINA BIRENBAUM: We were driven to the barracks. One thousand, one thousand five hundred inmates in each barrack. We had to fight for everything: for every single item, for a small space on the ground, for a little air to breath in, for a small amount of water to drink. I saw women who were packed around a cauldron filled with soup. They fought for it. The women were snatching bowls from each other like hungry animals.
REGINA FINGIER: I lost my son in this concentration camp and together with him I lost the sense of my life. Here, in this death camp, SS men exterminated us and Kapos tormented us. Here, in this concentration camp, we were robbed not only of everything that had any meaning to us, but also of our names.
ESTERA RUBISTEIN: Mothers were bidding farewell to their children, everyone knew that they were going to die and there was no other way. Everyone was striding proudly, no one cried. They were striding to the melody set up by the Germans. There was a lot of commotion. It seemed that this was the end of the world.
ZACHEUSZ PAWLAK: After gassing, Jewish corpses were transported on truck trailers a few hundreds meters away behind the baths. The trucks were working all day long and they were going around gas chambers and grates. These grates looked as follows: iron bars were spread over a cement foundation. Sometimes, instead of iron bars a truck chassis or pieces of rails were used. Wood, coal and coke was placed beneath such a construction. Corpses were laid on the frame in a few layers. Later on, these dead bodies were poured with flammable liquid and fire was set to them.
Former prisoners’ testimonies (Polish and Byelorussian children)
PIOTR KIRISZCZENKO: We were packed into goods vans. We sat down tightly one against another. The train moved. If someone died on the way to the camp, they were buried away from the rails at the next railway station.
JANINA BUCZEK-RÓŻAŃSKA: We were unloaded like cattle at a railway station. We were lined up and hurried along the way. It was extremely hot, people were drained and starving. First dead ones. People voluntarily sat down in ditches and passed away. The Germans only finished them off. It was a terrible transport.
EDWARD KARABANIK: Every time the entrance gate clanked behind someone in the Majdanek Extermination Camp, he or she ceased to be a human - they became a mere number. The hopeless vegetative life began. Death was lying in wait in every corner of the camp. Everything that was invented in the camp was created to annihilate, to break down, to destroy - both in a biological and psychological sense.
ZOFIA PAWŁOWSKA: One day, the transport of Byelorussian women was brought to the camp together with children. All the children were famished and weak. They had been through a terrible ordeal. The way to the camp was marked with children’s corpses and despair regarding those, who were taken away by force by the Germans. Quite often women, who started their way to the camp with more than one child, were brought to the camp with only one or no children at all. The children, who arrived alive, were an example of extreme poverty.
JANINA BUCZEK-RÓŻAŃSKA: Everyday-life at the camp: turning out for roll-calls, being robbed of everything, branding of a number. We were hounded to death but at the very same time we were happy that we managed to survive another hour. The worst of all was starvation and beating. Do you know what hell is? It is Majdanek.
PIOTR KIRISZCZENKO: We were told that our mother was dead. Shedding tears all the way, we dashed to the barrack where she lived. We found out that all the dead bodies were covered with blankets and were gathered at the corner of the barrack. We took the blanket off and saw lots of dead women. We started to turn the corpses over. Finally we found our mother. It was extremely difficult to identify her but we were positive that it was my, our, mother. Her complexion was yellow. The more we looked at her the more tears we shed. We kissed our mother on a forehead a few times and we walked away.
PIOTR KIRISZCZENKO: After spending two months at the camp, I became a completely different person. I had run out of tears. You wake up in the morning, you try to wake your friend and you learn that he is dead. You are not afraid of dead bodies any more. If your friend had a bread crumb and a bit of potato in his pocket, you take them fearlessly and eat, looking still at his face.
KAZIMIERZ WDZIĘCZNY: At night, amongst moans of the dying, I am groping for the living ones just to warm my shivering, cold body. Not a word of prayer escapes my lips. Cries of the dying are insufferable. I am clinging close to three fellow inmates, but after a short while, each of them expires.
KAZIMIERZ WDZIĘCZNY: We saw how wretched inmates were driving up with huge wagons on which respectively, dead and alive people were piled up. Awful things took place. Some of those people clung to the edge of the truck or put their heads out from the pile of the corpses. All were begging for mercy or screaming something unintelligible in different languages.
Second display - children belongings
In the drawers, one can find reproduced museum cards with a description of everyday objects related to the most private sphere of each small inmate’s life. The following things are described: children’s clothes (shoes, jackets, caps) and other items: glasses, children’s books, dolls. Where the Jewish children are concerned, there is also a description of the Star of David which was sewn on to their clothes.
Third display - places - objects
In the drawers, there are reproduced museum cards with descriptions of the camp world (its space). One can find descriptions of barracks, barbed wire, baths, watch towers, lighting, and crematorium. In the case of Jewish children, there are cards of Zyklon B containers and gas chambers.
Fourth display – life-stories of children
The fourth display contains two big drawers with biographies of four children: Jewish – Halina Birenbaum., Henio Żytomirski, Polish – Janina Buczek-Różańska, and Byelorussian – Piotr Kiriszczenko.
There is a box in each room where you can watch single film strips of an animated “camp life film”. This “cartoon” was created by a prisoner for his daughter.
THE WORLD OF THE PRIMER (CHILDHOOD AND SCHOOL YEARS)
There is a wooden music-box at the beginning of the exhibition. If you open it, you can hear a popular pre-war lullaby performed by a little girl: “Z popielnika na Wojtusia...” (A flicker blinked at Wojtuś from a fireplace...) by Janina Porazińska:
A flicker blinked at Wojtuś
From a fireplace,
Come here, I will tell you a story,
The story will be long.
Once upon a time there was a witch,
She had a house of butter.
Wonders happened in the house,
Oops, the flicker is gone.
Once upon a time there was a princess,
She fell for a musician,
The king gave a wedding party,
it is the end of story
THE WORLD OF THE PRIMER
In this part of the exhibition, you will find pre-war primers (Polish, Byelorussian, Yiddish) lying on a desk. On the blackboard hanging on the wall four names of the children, who are subject of this exhibition, are written. Those names are: Janina Buczek-Różańska, Piotr Kiriszczenko, Halina Birenbaum, Henio Żytomirski. In the classroom, you can also hear the commotion which is characteristic of school breaks: loud noises and calling.
THE CAMP WORLD
Entering “The Camp World” part of exhibition, we go past clay tablets with inmates’ accounts carved on them. They are written and burned out on clay tablets to stress the power and importance of those Testimonies. The tablets lie on concrete slabs. The accounts are arranged in such a way that they describe the subsequent stages of inmate’s life at the camp.
(In the very same way, accounts are organized in one of the displays, which is placed in the information point).
In this part of exhibition, each and every account (written or oral) refers to inmates’ recollections. Neither side notes nor historian commentaries are here - only Testimonies.
There is a metal framework of a train carriage (3 meters wide, 10 meters long) put along the metal axis of the barrack at the start of the exhibition named “The Camp World”. The door is the only wooden part left of the carriage. The metal framework of the carriage alternates with the barrack wooden roof framework. A white fabric with names of children-prisoners, coming from a concrete cylinder, is spread along the entire carriage.
Four concrete wells built inside the barrack symbolize the fate of the four children: Janina Buczek - Różańska, Piotr Kiriszczenko, Halina Birenbaum, Henio Żytomirski. The wells are built down in the floor and are put deeply in the ground. When you bend over a well, you can hear a story of a grown-up recalling their childhood years spent in the camp. The story seems to come from the underground. One of the wells does not say anything - it remains silent - in memory of Henio Żytomirski - who did not survive the camp. The barrack lights are arranged in such a way that when you look into the well, you can only see the darkness. You hear the following children’s accounts coming up from the well:
PIOTR KIRISZCZENKO: First, we were driven behind the barbed wire and afterwards we were hurried to the bath. Men were separated and hurried further away. Only women and children were left. The Germans yelled something at us while interpreters interpreted. We had to give away all our precious things and identifications cards. In addition, women and girls were shaved before they entered the bath. For many of them it was painful to get rid of braided hair - but there was no mercy. Later on, by mistake, we were ordered to enter another room where clothes were distributed. The old ones got striped garments, while children were given children’s clothes that were worn by many kids in Europe at that time. When we got out of the bath, it was dark outside. The Germans rushed us to the barrack. There were lights everywhere. We crossed the gate and there was no other way out. In order to find the smallest amount of moldy bread or potato peelings, we often rummaged amongst refuse heaps. There are no words to express how hungry we were.
We often popped in to the barrack where the Poles lived. We shed tears, shared our misfortunes and asked for at least the smallest amount of bread. And when we got a matchbox size piece of bread - how precious and tasty it was!
JANINA BUCZEK-RÓŻAŃSKA: At midday, around 2 or 3 p.m., we were brought to Majdanek. In front of us stood a gigantic entrance gate and watch towers. I was fully aware of the situation and still I carried my bundles. My mum carried my brother Maniuś, while my father also carried some bundles. Later on, people were getting rid of everything, they were getting rid of suitcases. It was a huge transport. There were the first dead ones. Some of us sat down in ditches and died while the Germans finished them off. It was a terrible transport. It could take place on July 6 or 7, 1943, in a heat-wave. Block of barracks number one. Many men fainted because there was no air to breathe in. The roof was torn away from the building. A terrible reek. And after all of this, everyday life at the camp began: turning out for roll-calls, being robbed of everything, branding of a number. My father was not together with us. Only my mum stayed with us, her children. Once we noticed our father who stood on the other side of barbed wire. My mum noticed him first, and she showed him to us. She started waving, calling… He did not recognize us! How miserable we must have looked! My dad did not recognize us! It was only when my mum lifted my brother Maniuś up, that my dad realized it was us.
HALINA BIRENBAUM: We were driven out of this place by beatings and yelling. We were hurried to a huge hall. It was terribly chilly there. There was a draught because all the windows stayed open. There was nothing to dry your wet body with. Clothes were thrown to us. They were weird. Tall women were given undersized clothes and the other way round. I was given a black ball dress with laces all around. The dress was feet-long. I did not exactly know what to do with myself because I was so scared and all I was thinking about was my mum. My sister-in-law quickly put the ball dress on me. She found a rope for the dress. She tied it up, bound it up and made the ball dress shorter so that I would not trip over it. I entered the camp. All of us were brought in. I was in a state of shock. Open space. There was an electrified barbed wire all around us, watch towers with SS men inside with machine guns aimed at us. Through all those years I learned how to run away at the very sight of SS men; we were lying in hiding in cellars, attics - there was always a place to hide in - and now there was nowhere to hide. We were standing in an open space watched by SS men and they could do whatever they wanted with each of us. I could not understand a situation like that. We were hurried to the barracks. One thousand, one thousand five hundred of inmates in each barrack. There was not even enough space on the floor - it was fully packed with people. We had to fight for everything: for every single item, for a small space on the ground, for little air to breathe in, for a small amount of water to drink. We were forced to struggle for a metal, jagged and rusty bowl just to drink nettle soup which was full of sand. At first, I was not able to struggle for every single thing. At the beginning, I was completely unable to do it.”
The fate of the fifth child – most likely a Jewish girl named Elżunia - is depicted in a symbolic way. All we know about her comes down to what she wrote on a slip of paper in her poem:
Once there was a girl Elżunia
who was dying all alone,
In Majdanek was her father,
And in Auschwitz was her mum.
The slip of paper with the poem was hidden in a shoe found in Majdanek. The girl wrote that she was nine years old, and she sang this song to the melody of Z popielnika ... (a lullaby).
At the beginning of the exhibition, we hear Z popielnika na Wojtusia iskiereczka mruga song (A flicker blinked at Wojtuś from a fireplace) while in “The Camp World” part of the exhibition, after opening a music-box standing next to the fifth well, we hear Elżunia's song.
The Camp Primer
At the very end of the exhibition, you will find a symbolic “camp primer”. Inside the book, you can find the following words: ROLL CALL, BLOCK OF BARRACKS, GAS CHAMBER, CREMATORIUM, NUMBER, CAMP, SELECTION, TRANSPORT. All those words are defined and explained by inmate’s recollections.
The last barrack’s wall - Display boxes
On the last barrack’s wall, you will find two displays - the size of them is identical with the size of the displays containing slides (the display boxes which are in the information part of the barrack). Instead of pictures showing children’s faces through the holes in the wall, we can see the world outside: trees, distant houses, sky. You will feel a gentle gust of wind on your face. The slots of those boxes are closed with tiny doors on which small mirrors are fasted. At sunset, when you open these tiny doors, you will see gentle rays of lights which are reflected from the mirrors.