THE LAST DITCH An Englishman returned after twenty years abroad blogs about liberty in Britain
The road of life
An icon of genocide

To Krakow, via beauty and horror

Museum-Memorial Site in Bełżec.

We started our day in Zamość, visiting the synagogue there restored by the Foundation organising my tour. The Polish state has handed back such sites in the 1,200 places where there were Jewish communities in Poland before the Holocaust. There are now 10 places where Jews live in Poland. They number, not the pre-war millions, but only 5,000 souls. These few people now have the responsibility of maintaining the sites. 
There has been no restitution of the private property of the millions murdered by the Nazis nor even of the few survivors or their heirs. The buildings are generally in poor shape and require expensive work if they are to be preserved. As to the cemeteries this is a religious duty that falls on the small community. If the Foundation visited the cemeteries alone, at the rate of one a day, it would take three years. Security (the sites are sadly sometimes desecrated again when restored) is a problem.
After a stroll in the pretty market square of Zamość, we moved on Bełżec. This was perhaps even more disturbing than the concentration camps I have visited before. There were never any huts here. It was simply a railway siding in the countryside, far from view, where Poland's Jews - and a few from Germany and other countries - were shipped to be killed. There were three such sites in Nazi-occupied Poland. Most of Poland's Jews died there before the infamous camps like Auschwitz were even built. When victims from elsewhere in Europe were being worked to death or murdered, Poland's Jews were already no more. Bełżec was the place where the first stationary gas chamber was used.
After they finished "Operation Reinhard", the Nazis cleared the sites. Bełżec, where it's estimated that 600,000 died, was reclaimed by nature. For years the only attention paid to it was by successive generations of local school children who kept it clean. In the 1960's the first monument was erected in the forest. In 2004 the present starkly-modern memorial was opened - the site having been cleared again for the purpose. No records were kept of the people murdered here so the monument simply features typical first names.
From this horror we moved on to the synagogue in the town of  Łańcut. The legend is that it survives because the Polish nobleman who owned the town faced down the German soldiers; telling them they could not destroy his property. The most famous rabbi here was a mystic known (as he was later a rabbi in Lublin) as "the seer of Lublin".
At the end of a long day we came to a much-needed rest in Krakow. 
Bełżec Memorial
Inside the Łańcut Synagogue
The Seer of Lublin's desk

The updated map of my route can be seen here. More pictures can be seen here.