More than 70 years after the Holocaust, the Treblinka death camp raises questions whether today’s world leaders have learned the lessons of history.
Treblinka Death camp, Poland. We stand in a circle, arms linked in front of a massive headstone more than two stories high. 17,000 pieces of jagged granite rise from the earth, markers of towns and villages where Jewish life ended during the Holocaust.
The October sun rises, stretching our silhouettes across hallowed ground. Six small memorial candles flicker bravely as mothers and daughters, sisters and aunts, step forward, one by one. As if reciting a solemn prayer, they speak the names of family members, they’ve never met, murdered in cold blood. It is defiant and powerful. Tears burn our faces.
A chilly wind courses through the pines and shakes the yellow leaves which drift to earth. Whispers of life covering soil still mixed with bone and ash. These are the forests that hid Nazi atrocities from the outside world. These are the sentinels that stand guard over the Treblinka killing fields.
Near the entrance, in several languages, stone markers explain: “There was here a Nazi extermination camp…More than 800,000 Jews from Poland, USSR, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Austria, France, Belgium, Germany and Greece were murdered.”
“In the world of the Death Factories, this was the biggest,” says guide Thorsten Wagner, a history professor who estimates the number of dead at Treblinka is closer to one million. “We think of Camps as places of selection,” he says. “Here, there was no selection. Only 1% had a chance to live.”
Treblinka, which operated from July 1942 to August 1943, was not on any official maps. Trains packed to capacity arrived once in the morning and once at night. Nearly 15,000 Jews were murdered here each day. Towns, villages, families and the lives they lived vanished virtually overnight: rabbis, politicians, professors, scholars, merchants, engineers, economists, activists, businessmen, paupers, journalists, artists, athletes, publishers, lawyers, doctors, nurses, dreamers, citizens, souls. All of them turned to ash in the place where we stand.
“In Hebrew there is no word for History,” says Uri Feinberg, another guide. “The closest thing is Zohar, Remember.” That is why we are here.
My mind tries to fill in the pieces as it will do many times on this trip. I think of families in the Warsaw ghetto ordered, within 20 minutes, to appear for deportation at the Umschlagplatz transfer point, then herded onto sealed and overcrowded freight trains not knowing what they should take, where they were going or whether they would ever come back. I think of parents cradling their children and whispering words of comfort; of husbands silently praying for a way to save their families; of the wrenching pain when they are torn apart and the sheer terror that follows as they realize they will never be together again. I think of women, naked and cold, obeying orders, pushing & shoving each other to get into the “showers” as guards shout, “Hurry! Hurry! The water is getting cold.” I think of all those lives and I shudder.
We walk through the forest on a cobble stone path identified on the “Selected features” site map as the “Road to the Gas Chambers.” Treblinka was made to look like an ordinary train station in an ordinary village, five long hours from Warsaw in the middle of nowhere.
In a hushed tone, Thorsten calmly details the efficiency of the Nazi death machine: “People were moved to the gas chamber… an engine… carbon monoxide. After 12 minutes they were dead…removed…gold filings ripped from their mouths… Grilled. Their bodies burned” on pyres not far from the death camp’s bakery with its smell of freshly baked bread.
Nothing remains of the crematoriums built with a cruel efficiency by German engineers at the height of their professions. Treblinka is now the Museum of Struggle and Martyrdom. Carved into a massive piece of granite, in several languages, the words “Never Again.”
I walk away with an uneasy feeling. The world is increasingly controlled by demagogues and dictators. A fellow traveller, Eli Boyum, sums it up, “In every country the lunatics are working very hard to take us backwards.”
Never Again? I’m not so sure.