"Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness." - Vasily Grossman Treblinka was an extermination camp. Unlike Auschwitz or Majdanek, there were no selections when people stepped off the train. Everyone was dead within two hours.
Because of the nature of the camp (and four other extermination centers), the Nazis wanted to keep it secret. Poland was the perfect location. Over twenty percent of the land was virgin forest, but the nation had built an extensive railway system the could utilize. The location of Treblinka, half way between Warsaw and Bialystok in a forest near a Ukrainian farming village served by an enormous train station because of the lumber industry, was perfect. They had only to use forced labor from a nearby shtetl and a penal camp for Poles to extend the tracks into the forest. They could murder 2,000 people a day starting in July 1942 with impunity. They did this so efficiently, that by the fall of 1943, over 800,000 Jews were dead.
Treblinka is not like Auschwitz. There are no buildings to see, the visitor center is a shack in a parking lot, there are no tour buses in the 20 car parking lot, and the museum is one room. There is nothing left. To hide their crime against humanity, it was burned to the ground when the Nazis were finished using it. It is a forest clearing.
I was not prepared for Treblinka. I don't know how anyone could be. On the way to the camp, I realized that I should have brought a Yahrzeit candle, a copy of the Mourner's Kaddish so that I could recite it for my relatives, and a rock. However, in the morning I did think to bring a plastic bag so that I could take some soil. I wasn't sure what I would do with it, but it seemed like a good idea.
While we walked to the memorial, the sun was warm on my face. Birds chirped and tweeted. The leaves in the forest rustled, and the trees cast shade on parts of our path. It was otherwise utterly quiet. I told Jerszy that it seemed fitting. 800,000 people lost their voices here forever, and it should be silent to honor them. It was also more terrible because of the solitude. How could such horrific things happen in such a peaceful place?
The memorial reconstructs a part of the railroad tracks and platform. It uses stones to signify where the fence would have been. Jerszy said that we had to use our imaginations to recreate what it would be like for the people who died here. Again, faced with nothingness, the horror looms larger.
There is a huge stone monument in the center of a clearing. It is surrounded by three concrete areas. Each area covers a pit in which ashes were uncovered. One each concrete area, hundreds of rocks of various sizes represent the towns which were emptied of their Jewish population. There is also a rock for Janusz Korczak (Henryk Goldszmidt), the man who ran the orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto and accompanied the children to their deaths rather than escape to hiding.
In front of the main monument, dozens of bees flew close to the stone path. No flowers or grass grew in the spaces between these rocks. Their honey must be very bitter, I thought, for nothing sweet or good can come from this place. Although I fear being stung by a bee, I stood facing the monument and let the buzzing fill my ears. They spoke for my Great Aunt Doba. "Tell your grandfather I miss him." I nodded.
A symbolic pyre stands behind the main monument. Initially, the dead were buried in mass graves, but the Nazis became nervous that they would be discovered. They dug everyone up and burned them along with their new victims.
Mosquitoes whispered to me as they hovered around my face. I swatted them away. "Ah, the mosquitoes are terrible this year because of the floods and then there was hot weather," Jerszy said. I slapped one on my knuckle. My blood was spilled here now, too.
I walked around the monuments aimlessly. I tried my best to recite the Mourner's Kaddish. I collected soil from the cracks of each concrete slab, as well as little flowers that grew in the areas that formerly hosted gas chambers. As I felt the dirt under my finger nails, I knew what I would do with my collection. The next time I am in Chicago, I will bring them to my grandfather's grave and leave them there. This is the best I can do to reunite him with his family.