Once again in the middle of the dreary countryside, sparsely inhabited and subsistent on agriculture, Treblinka seems almost completely isolated save for the fact that it was on a railway. Everything here is flat and wet, and you’d swear that you could see all the way back to Warsaw if it weren’t for the dying, thick treeline.
Our guide is telling us how Treblinka is different from most other camps in that its sole function was extermination. People came up off the trains, led directly into rooms sealed off and hooked up to the exhaust of tanks, and then cleared out to make room for the next group.
There was one revolt, she informs us, and the fact that we have any information on this camp at all is from the 40 or so eyewitnesses who managed to survive and escape. But then in 1943, the camp vanished; gone, erased.
The Germans extended their goal for the Jews of Europe and translated it to the camp, to make it as though it had never existed. They planted new grass, new trees, and tore up the railroad ties, all in hopes of disguising the site where 985,000 people were killed.
As we get closer, seeing “cow crossing” signs and a small wooden house so covered in moss and mildew that you’d swear it were part of the trees if it weren’t for the windows, you wouldn’t guess that a place like Treblinka was ever even here.
As we pull in, we’re in a forested parking lot with a small green shack and a white posted map on wooden posts. This can’t be right, I’m thinking. Where are the towers, and the barbed wire? The camp second only to Auschwitz in deaths, and we could’ve mistaken this for a pierogi stand (think of the homely, Slavic cousin of ravioli). However, like Stutthoff, cats roam the parking lot and there’s not a single bird in sight.
As we walk down the cobbled path through rows of thick pine trees and patches of snow, our guide begins to tell us more about this patch of forest, more like a hole in the Earth. This camp, along with Belzec and Sobibor, were started solely to kill, assembly lines of execution where debased male and female prisoners were the machinery and gears that turned to make it work. Almost completely isolated, this was a mock railway stop, where people were unloaded from cars and led into one of two buildings. Possessions were taken and collected, clothes stripped, and even the hair was sheared off and collected for stuffing the cots of German soldiers on the front.
Now, huge stone pillars lie on their sides where the railroad ties once were, marking everything. There’s a piece of scripture from Job that goes something to the tune of, “Earth, conceal not my blood,” she explains.
This has led to the tradition of placing a small stone as a sign of remembrance in the Jewish faith, a tradition for visitors to these camps. As we begin to turn down the path where the entrance to the camp once was, she tell us in a thick Polish accent, “there are a lot of stones here.”
What you see is breathtaking. Stones everywhere, all surrounding a giant stone monument, like the one at Stutthoff but right in the middle of a clearing. As we walk through and between the stones, every footfall echoing, the guide explains that each of these stones represents not a person, but an entire community that was completely eliminated in Poland during the war.
So efficient in their killing, Nazis cleared the Polish countryside like wiping a chalkboard, erasing every trace and leaving only dust. Now, these communities live on only through stones, their names painted in black letters, crowded in a forest.
As you walk across the field to where the crematorium once was, the breath just goes out of you. The cold wind gets into every crease and fold of your clothes, biting and chilling down to the bone. Even through two coats and a sweater, I’m shaking, almost quivering; I couldn’t imagine this in pajamas. You just know that there’s nothing like this in the rest of the world. Staring out at the beautiful treeline, knowing that you’re looking at the last thing that almost 1 million Polish Jews saw before they were hurried into a chamber to be slowly lulled into that endless sleep by carbon monoxide, it leaves you feeling hollow.
As we walk back down the same cobbled path and out to the mini-bus, nearly frozen, just trying to place one foot in front of the other, it’s hard to imagine that a place like this would have gone almost virtually unknown had it not been for the few who actually made it out in the uprising.
This resolution, the will to live and survive, is something that I’m coming to realize is an important part of the Jewish experience in the Holocaust. Stepping up on to the bus and coming to grips with the fact that this trip just got a lot more real, I can’t help but ask myself, could I do it? Could you?
Driving back to Warsaw to type this up, I’m physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted. Somewhere behind me, out in those trees, lies a clearing with figured stones, like 17,000 arrows pointing up to heaven. I feel too frozen to even write.