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The inscription, in Polish, read, "Let our fate be a warning."
It was one of several unforgettable scenes University of Tennessee English Professor Marilyn Kallet recalls from her summer trip to Poland and Latvia to celebrate Jewish culture and visit the site where several of her relatives were murdered during the Holocaust.
In Lublin, Poland, about two hours south of Warsaw, Kallet and her traveling companion, Temple Beth El's Rabbi Beth Schwartz, visited Majdanek concentration camp. There, a memorial includes a huge circular mausoleum that stands on pillars above a gigantic open urn filled with human bones and ashes, weighing more than a ton.
"These had been dug up from pits around the camp," Kallet said. "Although the wind blew, the ashes were so compressed they didn't move. "Above them, on the face of the mausoleum, is the inscription, 'Let our fate be a warning.'"
Lublin was once a Jewish hub of scholarship and society. Before the war, about 40,000 Jews lived there. Today, less than two dozen Jews live in Lublin. The Nazis built Majdanek concentration camp in 1941 and killed the city's Jews there, as well as thousands from other parts of Europe.
While touring Majdanek, Kallet and Schwartz saw former gas chambers and storage rooms of Zyklon B pellets, glass cases of human hair, cages of shoes, and portraits of the children, artists, and philosophers killed there.
But the mound of ash and bone was a sight Kallet will never forget. "That mound defined at least one difference between the American view of history and the European view. The palpable remains of the Holocaust confront the ordinary citizens of Lublin every day.
"Before my visit to Poland, the Holocaust was still a concept," Kallet said. "But as I walked away from the mountain of ashes at Majdanek, I tasted grit."
When she began planning her trip, Kallet at first thought she'd travel only to Riga, Latvia, where several of her German Jewish family members had been murdered during the Holocaust. Before leaving, though, she contacted former U.S. Ambassador to Poland Victor Ashe, former Knoxville mayor. She asked him if he would host her in reading some of her poetry in Poland. Ashe responded with an embassy invitation.
The trip -- a whirlwind of Kallet's poetry readings, Jewish services led by Schwartz, get-togethers and tours -- gave the women great insight into the Holocaust and how it's remembered.
"We learned that the communists in Poland had long suppressed talk of the Holocaust," Kallet said. "While some of the older people were tired of talking about it, many of the younger people craved discussion."
At a luncheon hosted by the Ashes at their Warsaw residence, Kallet and Schwartz got to meet the Israeli Ambassador to Poland, David Peleg, as well as Jersy Halbersztadt, director of the new Museum of Jewish Life in Poland. Those men, along with Ashe, told the women they're concerned because the Polish Minister of Education, a member of the right wing League of Polish Families, is trying to dismantle Polish public education on the Holocaust. Currently, Polish school children are required to visit a concentration camp.
Before leaving Europe, the women toured Krakow, Poland, pristine city that was not destroyed by the Nazis, and visited the Jewish memorials in Riga, Latvia.
At Bikernieki Forest, where 40,000 Jews from throughout Europe were murdered and buried, the women saw the awesome memorial. Fields of stones represent the cities from which people were rounded up and brought there for slaughter.
"The artistry of the monument at Bikernieki almost distracts one from the fact of mass graves," Kallet said. "Though the Latvian records are not specific like German records, it seemed likely from the reports on transports from Stuttgart that some of my family were killed in Bikernieki Forest, some died in Kaiserwald concentration camp," Kallet said. "Rabbi Schwartz helped me to say Kaddish for my relatives at each memorial. We had a list of other names to pray for as well."
Marilyn Kallet is the author of 12 books and holds the Hodges Chair for Distinguished Teaching at the University of Tennessee.