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Schoolboy walking home, taking a short-cut through Majdanek. The most chilling thing about it is how close to the ordinary world it is

We had breakfast in the small room at the front of the hotel. The weather had cleared, not totally, but at least it was no longer raining. In the morning we drove out Majdanek, one of the most notorious of the Nazi death camps, situated only a short distance out of town. That proximity was the most incredible thing about it. In fact, it was almost in the town itself rather than on its outskirts. Driving along on an ordinary main road, rutted of course, through a suburb. and suddenly there it was, a large expanse of green on our right hand side, by a bus stop and now overlooked by apartment blocks and houses. We could hardly believe it and were reminded strongly of the Khmer Rouge and their prison / execution centre of S-21 or Tluol Sleng right in the centre of Phnom Penh. This was much, much bigger though, and most of it now consisted of green fields, with only a perimeter of barbed wire fences and watchtowers indicating the extent of the former concentration camp, and then you had to realise that it still covered only about twenty percent of what had been planned by the Nazi’s. Along one side stood a massive concrete Soviet memorial. We drove in along the paths, paid attention to the attendant(ess) who came out and gabbled in Polish, and returned to the entrance, parked and went to the visitor’s centre. By now the poor lady must have been wondering what we were up to with our to’ and fro’ing.

Inside the rather basic visitors centre we watched the film/slide show. It was pretty sobre. The facts are just so incredible and gruesome that superlatives seem out of place and it is better to just present the facts as they are and let the enormity of it sink in. We commented to each other that we felt rather ghoulish coming here. We walked up to the massive Soviet memorial which looked like a word that had been written in gargantuan concrete letters which had been raised a couple of metres above the ground, on a platform, a raised hill which overlooked the site. Crows had now made it their playground. I stood under it and felt the mass of concrete pressing down on me. I really do wonder about the Soviet taste for the monumental. Next we drove to the car park at the entrance to the fenced area. A few wooden sheds stood along the outside of the barbed wire perimeter. The first one was identified as Bad und Desinfektionszimmer I – bang, straight in the deep end, the gas chambers, which were also used as baths. The baths served as a prelude, to calm the prisoners down before they were led into the next area where they were gassed. It was like walking into a tomb, no, not that – it was a curious mixed feeling, a place of such intense evil and at the same time it was just a plain shed, recently varnished by the smell of it. It was now over sixty years ago and I have no personal connection with it whatsoever and it still felt wrong, bad, horrible, a production line of death. We toured the rest of the site with exhibitions and lots of stuff about how the camp was organised, and a section of prisoners barracks, just simple wooden sheds, which had originally been designed to hold cattle. At the far end of the massive site there was a large tomb+memorial, a curious dome shape underneath which there was a large mound, a “hill” of earth and ashes. Next to this were the crematorium ovens in a separate shed.

We completed the circuit and returned to the car, in need of more light-hearted sightseeing, and drove to the centre of town where we parked Eddie in the hotel car park. We strolled around the compact little Old Town with its narrow cobbled higgledy-piggledy streets, just ambling through, and stopped at the small Rynek, with the town hall in the centre of the square, and had a bowl of soup and glass of berry juice. Next we walked to the castle, just outside the section of the Old Town and reached by a pedestrian road. By now I had begun to get worried I might not be able to find “something” for Nessie’s birthday and it struck me that I really had left it far too late this time. We visited the castle, an 1820’s neo-gothic job built on the site of Kazimierz the Great’s original 14th century castle. It housed a range of “attractions” to visit. The main one among these was the stunning Chapel of the Holy Trinity with fantastic medieval frescoes covering every inch of the walls and vaulted ceilings, consisting of a mixture of original and sympathetic restoration. No photography permitted unfortunately. We also visited the castle museum with a range of interesting galleries with collections of porcelain and glass, folk costumes, and a small but very worthwhile art gallery. I rushed back to get a photo permit to take some snaps.

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Atmospheric streets of Lublin's old town

By now it really was last-last-minute for any pressie shopping and I told Ness I needed to disappear for a little while. Ness, understandably, found it hard to believe that I had left it so late. In a bit of a panic I managed to find a stall selling flowers – actually, it was a whole series of covered stalls, most of which were shut, but quite a few were luckily still open. Well, that was one thing at least. I had no luck trying to find a card and the supermarket next to the flower stalls had just closed (minutes earlier I had been in it looking for a card but now had come up with the idea of a bottle of bubbly, now not possible). Damn, now what? Maybe I could get back to the hotel before Ness and put the flowers in the room, I thought, but Ness saw me coming across the square with the flowers and we just walked back to the hotel together, getting a brass vase to put the roses in from the reception. But – phew – I spotted a decent-looking gift shop under the gateway/archway just down from our hotel. Again I said to Ness I just had to pop out. The shop did have some nice things and I bought a scented candle and a carved wooden box for Ness, and left these with the hotel reception, to “surprise” Ness tomorrow morning at breakfast. Panic over but unfortunately in the process I had had to reveal to Ness what last-minute job it had been. We relaxed in our room for a while and I read my book, “Yemen” by Tim Mackintosh-Smith, snoozed for a few minutes and we played a game of cards on the bed.

Later we went out for dinner at the Jewish restaurant on a corner of the Rynek. Most of the dishes we fancied weren’t available – “only on the Sabbath” – but we did end up with a tasty filling dish of potato latkes, Ness had meatballs, I had something else. A lovely little find, and there were people out on the various other cafés and restaurants around the square, a pleasant summer evening atmosphere.