Six hours in the van, and we’ve covered about a quarter of Poland with our smiling driver listening to only Enya and what I’m pretty sure must have been the Night at the Roxbury soundtrack. It’s already been a long day by the time we reach Sobibor.
Like Treblinka, this place is completely isolated and meant to eliminate people in secret. One prong on the trident of Operation Reinhard, the only way to even access Sobibor would have been by train, and it was meant to be that way. The original white railway sign for the camp still hangs next to the tracks, now green from moss and age.
Even out here in the middle of nowhere, though, houses are still built right up to the outside boundaries of the camp, oddly enough. The same road that prisoners once marched down toward “disinfection and baths” is now paved and cuts back from the road to rest of the site. As you walk down, a small path shoots off to the left lined with young saplings and small stones with even smaller plaques with the names of victims. About a few hundred feet further, where the gas chambers painted with Stars of David once stood, is a large stone pillar and a statue of a man and child. These people were deceived to the very end.
From between the statues, the path known by the prisoners as the “road to heaven” leads down to a mausoleum where the crematorium once was. Honestly, it’s so huge that it takes me at least a minute or two to even walk around the perimeter of the closed mausoleum filled with ashes of victims.
Probably most famous for the prisoner uprising of around 600, or more likely the movie made about it, fewer than 50 of them actually survived. The camp was ordered to be shut down only a few days later, to be utterly erased. Like its counterpart, Treblinka, all structures were to be demolished and replaced with new trees, and here an unassuming Ukrainian farmer planted them.
By the time the Russians reached Sobibor, there was no trace of the history – the quarter of a million people who had been killed there. Looking at the desolate parking lot and the now only seasonally open museum, you’d think there was still nothing left here.
On the very same train tracks that once functioned to bring in Jewish and Polish prisoners, a crane loads freshly cut pine logs into an open topped car. The workers look at me like I’m crazy, standing in the snow taking pictures of signs and trees. They even point at me and comment to each other in Polish as our group walks past.
Is it just that these sites are so commonplace that they have accepted them as a part of everyday life? I mean, I know that I don’t go to the Alamo to pay my respects, but this is different. Poland doesn’t exactly thrive on its tourism industry, especially not at places like Sobibor, out in the middle of the woods practically. I suppose tourists just aren’t seen out here nearly as often as they should be.
Getting onto the bus to head toward Lublin, our home for the next few days, it’s hard not to think that maybe these people have become desensitized to the things around them. Driving toward the Ukraine border, it all gets a little fuzzy from there. It’s hard not to be overwhelmed.