International Holocaust Remembrance Day - Felicity's story
‘To Remember’: a volunteer’s experience of the SCI-Poland workcamp at Chełmno, August 2015 - Europe North America Australia & Japan
I thought I was well prepared for the Chełmno camp: I had read innumerable academic and survivor studies of Nazi extermination camps, and had paid close attention to the depictions of the former Kulmhof camp in Shoah, Claude Lanzmann’s nine-hour documentary film. After a fifteen-hour cycle ride the previous day across central Poland, taking an unintentional scenic route, I’d spent the night on the outskirts of Koło, the end-of-the line on the long railway journey for the deportees. But none of this prepared me for the shock of recognition when I looked up and saw the familiar bunker-like form of the Soviet-era monument. I had not realised just how close the forest camp, the site of the mass graves, is to the main road. Even more striking, the main camp, from where the lethal gas vans departed with their human freight, is situated right beside the village church. How could anyone in the area have failed to notice what was happening?
The SCI project was based in the small museum of the main camp, where thousands of artefacts excavated in recent years remain in storage, awaiting cleaning and documentation for display purposes. Apart from some maintenance work on the surrounding parkland and commemorative monuments, and a visit to the site of the Łódz ghetto, the volunteers’ days were spent carefully coaxing clay and mineral deposits from the huge cache of tin mugs, bowls, spoons, keys, coins, combs, rings, brooches, small toys and other remnants of the lives once led by their dispossessed owners. None of us found the work physically demanding, but all of us were affected in various ways by the emotional intensity, and unfailingly supportive of those who were sometimes distressed. The ten of us ranged in age from late teens to early sixties; we came from eight different countries in three continents. Some had a personal connection with the Holocaust; others professed a commitment to working for peace; none had come for a sun holiday. If this sounds unduly sombre, there was no lack of laughter and entertaining exchanges during and after work. Strangely perhaps, it was one of the most enjoyable and rewarding camps I have ever attended. I took no photos, but came away with a lasting impression. This confrontation with genocide and the historical roles of perpetrators and bystanders encouraged us all to examine our own behaviour in current and potential conflicts. What are we doing now to promote peace and justice?