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Prayers in Majdanek

Isabel Hoffman and two of her classmates walking through Majdanek. Via Isabel Hoffman.

In my eighteen years of life, I’ve processed the loss of three people: my grandfather, my great-uncle, and a classmate. All three were deeply upsetting in their own ways and I watched as grief fell over my family and community like a thick fog. One of the hardest parts of these experiences for me was the lack of control I felt over my reactions. As my emotions fluctuated unpredictably, I learned that mourning is not a linear process.

Last March, as I prepared to travel to Poland to visit Holocaust sites with 75 of my classmates as part of my high school semester in Israel, I braced myself. The trip is infamously grim, and I counted down the days with dread until I’d have to leave my sunny kibbutz for cold, gloomy Eastern Europe. I didn’t want to experience the uncontrollable reactions that I had encountered three times before, and I had heard the horror stories of what it felt like to visit a concentration camp. My friend Rayna, who visited Auschwitz the previous summer, told me that she felt nauseous, weak, and dizzy the entire time she was there. Even though our school’s staff repeatedly told me and my peers that there was no wrong way to react to the sites we were going to see, I feared being too sad, not sad enough, anxious, or worst of all, laughing.

I didn’t choose to spend a semester in Israel for religious reasons; I’ve never been particularly religious. I loved my Bat Mitzvah process and consistently embraced the cultural aspects of Judaism; however, I have always felt a lack of spirituality, particularly when it came to praying. I was detached while reciting prayers such as the V’ahavta or the Mourner’s Kaddish because I couldn’t understand the Hebrew, and the English translations sounded formal and unnatural. Reading words off of a page made me feel no closer to G-d. Yet, I was told over and over again by Hebrew school teachers and rabbis that prayer was meant to be an expression of one’s heart and soul. For me, it felt like a chore.

Prayer far from my mind, my Jewish history teacher passed out siddurim on our bus ride through the bleak Polish countryside to Majdanek concentration camp, in case anyone wanted to pray during our two-hour tour. I absentmindedly slipped mine into my backpack. As we pulled into the parking lot, I saw the guard towers for the first time. Although I had seen photos of similar towers so many times before, seeing that they actually existed sent a wave of nausea and unease running through me.

As my classmates and I entered the camp, the wind screamed into our ears, whipped at our backs and into our eyes. I couldn’t tell if I was crying because of the wind in my eyes alone or from the overwhelming power of being there, a place that a small part of me hoped was just a terrible, twisted rumor. But it was very real.

We walked. We walked through bunkers, unchanged since Majdanek’s liberation in 1944. The smell of old wood and death lingered. We walked past an endless floor-to-ceiling metal crate filled with 80,000 shoes, torn from their owners’ feet. Now, they lie together, grey and heaped. We walked past the flagpole where Nazis forced prisoners to “Heil Hitler” every morning. My teacher told me that one brave prisoner secretly buried the ashes of a friend near the pole, giving prisoners of Majdanek the chance to honor the camp’s victims instead of their oppressor during the daily forced salute.

By the time we made it across the camp to the crematorium, I was at a loss. I couldn’t speak anymore, cry anymore; I couldn’t process anymore death. I could no longer even attempt to remember each victim as a human, not a statistic. My classmates and I stepped into the crematorium, our last stop of the day, and I had no idea what to do with myself. But I knew I needed to do something.

Inside, my friend Avi stood in a corner, hunched over his purple siddur. Without a second thought, I pulled mine out and joined him. We chanted the Mourner’s Kaddish. I read the English poems aloud. And for what felt like the first time, I was truly praying. The prayers expressed the feelings and sentiments I felt but couldn't make sense of or put into words. It was the perfect thing to do in that moment; I was returning the words and dignity to those people who were robbed of it. It also gave me a great sense of comfort and pride in our continuation of the Jewish tradition, despite the monstrosities we’ve faced as a people.

I now understand that prayer is not passive. It’s not something I can mumble along to and expect to feel moved. For me, prayer is a feeling, a moment where I reach out and find strength in something bigger than myself. I haven’t prayed to the extent that I did at Majdanek since I left Poland. But I know that I have prayer in my back pocket, and there will come a time that I need to use it again. When that time comes, prayer will carry me through periods of grief, and as it has for generations of Jews before me, offer comfort in the face of deep uncertainty.

This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.

Topics: Holocaust, Prayer
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This is such a great way to look at prayer. It is so special to hear about ways people connect to it.

What a powerful experience! Thank you for sharing this, Isabel.

Wow! Isabel is beautiful person! So proud of her!’

How to cite this page

Hoffman, Isabel. "Prayers in Majdanek." 16 October 2019. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 7, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/prayers-majdanek>.

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