Thursday, July 17, 2014

A Visit to the Treblinka Extermination Camp

Non-Concentration Camp Portion
As I write this, I am sitting in a Polish laundromat, cleaning all of my clothes that have been neglected over the past couple of weeks. The whole thing was confusing, but I had some really nice Polish men explain the whole thing to me. One didn't know any English, but he still jumped up to help and put the soap in the machine for me. To be honest, I am really falling in love with Poland--but I know I've only been here a few weeks and being a tourist is very different than living here. However, so far the interactions with Polish people have mostly been positive (other than some weird spatial issues a couple of women seem to have, like a woman walking literally one step behind me so she was practically breathing down my neck into the hotel). Oh, and of course our waiter in Krakow, but he was a grumpy bum.  
We had the cutest waiter yesterday at our cafe (after our visit to Treblinka). The cafe advertised that the staff proudly spoke English, but you could tell it was a struggle for our waiter. Still, he didn't give up and kept going and went the extra mile to make sure we understood each other. At the end, he was literally sweating, but we got yummy food and a great experience. We even got little glasses of cherry wine at the end.

Concentration Camp Portion
Yesterday (I am writing this on Saturday the 17th, a full five days before this will go up), we went to visit the site of the former Extermination Camp at Treblinka. I honestly take a bit of issue with the terminology "extermination" because it implies that Jews were killed like rodents or bugs. I understand the Germans used it, which makes sense in a way, but I don't like the idea of using that language, but I digress. 

For me, Treblinka was not a personal experience, but I was still extremely emotional--much more than I expected to be. I think what struck me most was the beauty surrounding the area and the idea that people would feel totally helpless. You're in the middle of nowhere, naked, your head shaved and no one knows where you are as you suffocate on poison gas. I got such a sense of helplessness and confusion--which I am sure is what the Nazis intended.
At the beginning of my PhD, I was planning to write about both Janusz Korczak  (click his name for more info on him) and Anne Frank, Korczak is not as well known as Anne is, but there are countless plays and stories about him. He was an amazing, amazing man...and one of the near 1 million victims of Treblinka. His story stuck out in my mind the most as I walked around the monuments. 
For those of you who didn't click the link about Korczak, in a nutshell, he was an author, pedagogue, pediatrician and ran an orphanage for Jewish children on Krochmalna Street in Warsaw. His ideas on children as individual people were revolutionary at the time (and in a way, still are). He instigated a Children's Republic int he orphanage in which children took responsibility for their "crimes" against the community, ran a newspaper and did their lessons. The orphanage was absorbed by the Warsaw Ghetto, leading to illness and starvation of many of the orphans. In 1942, the SS came to take the orphans to be killed at Treblinka. Rumor has it that they told Korczak he was exempt from deportation (although likely he would have had to go later anyway had he refused) and he went to die with the children. He told them they were going to the forest and would see many beautiful trees and animals and they say they carried the flag of the Children's Republic on their way to Treblinka. This is the story that stuck out in my mind as I toured the remains of the camp--and my heart was extremely heavy thinking of the excitement of the youngest children...but also the ability of a man to know he is going to his own death and to face it so calmly and bravely.
The author of The Pianist, Szpilman, had this to say about Korczak's march toward the trains in the Warsaw Ghetto:
"He told the orphans they were going out in to the country, so they ought to be cheerful. At last they would be able to exchange the horrible suffocating city walls for meadows of flowers, streams where they could bathe, woods full of berries and mushrooms. He told them to wear their best clothes, and so they came out into the yard, two by two, nicely dressed and in a happy mood. The little column was led by an SS man..." p 96

Irena Sendler, (click her name for more info about her) a Righteous Gentile who saved 2500 Jews (another remarkable person!), speaks about that day here:

That story really stuck with me as I toured the remains of the camp. There isn't much there, but each Tombstone represents an entire TOWN or CITY destroyed in Treblinka--for an idea of scale.

Tombstone for each country Jews were sent from

Symbolic cremation site...where bodies were disposed

Symbolic train tracks and ramp, where victims came out to a fake train station with fake time tables.

Til next time...

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1 comment:

  1. Hi Anna - I have never seen photos of Treblinka before. What a powerful experience - your photos are stunning. I felt similarly visiting Dachau - the natural beauty that surrounded the camp made it all so surreal. I'm glad you're enjoying Poland!

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