Friday, July 23, 2010
July 24- last day
Today is our last full day in Poland and we sadly left Lodz and headed towards Warsaw. We've returned to Warsaw so we can fly back to the United States tomorrow morning. We go from Warsaw to Frankfurt and then Frankfurt to DC. If there aren't any delays we should arrive back in the U.S. just before 4 pm. The hotel we're staying at this evening, a Courtyard Marriott is within walking distance of the Warsaw airport. The walk is literally a 200 foot walk from the lobby to the Lufthansa check in desk. I've never seen anything like this before. We don't have to worry about wrestling bags onto a bus, we simply walk out the hotel's front door. This is the most "Americanized" of the international hotels we've visited. The rooms have both U.S. and European outlets and there's no shortage of English TV channels. I don't mean to sound like a spoiled American day tripper, but these small luxuries are nice to have. We spent most of today in a bus. Looking back on it, the day consisted of an endless cycle involving sleep, reading, viewing the countryside, eating M&Ms, more sleep, eating chips and apples, and various conversations. The reason for the long bus ride was a visit to the site of Treblinka concentration camp. Treblinka is 4 hours away from Lodz, but the journey was a bit longer due to traffic delays.
Treblinka was the last emotional stop for our group. Treblinka was one of 6 Nazi killing camps and one of 3 Aktion Reinhardt camps solely devoted to murdering as many Jews as possible. Treblinka was responsible for murdering an estimated 800,000 Jews. What is an even more disturbing fact is that all of these deaths occurred in a concentrated span of 16 months, roughly from July 1942-November 1943. Treblinka is really located in the middle of nowhere. You must travel great distances to visit as it is located in the middle of the forest. We traveled on various dirt roads to get to there. Auschwitz is located within a city and fairly close to Krakow. Belzec was built within viewing distance of the nearest town. During the time that Treblinka was fully operating, no outsiders came even remotely close to the camp. One photo exists of smoke coming from the pits of burning bodies and even that was taken from a considerable distance. The only camp which murdered more Jews was Auschwitz.
Today when you visit Treblinka nothing remains from the original camp. I always feel that there is something about the absence that is haunting as opposed to places where the presence of remains is tangible. Upon abandoning the camp, Heinrich Himmler ordered that Treblinka be completely destroyed. The Nazis were very effective in carrying out Himmler's orders. All traces of the original camp were removed and destroyed. The Nazis bulldozed the entire camp. We know about the location of Treblinka due to a few valuable sources. An inmate who was taken to Treblinka was able to hide underneath one of the cattle cars and survived the journey back to Warsaw. He was able to sketch the camp's locations and dynamics onto a piece of paper that eventually made its way to the Jewish Underground. Inhabitants from a neighboring village noticed all of the activity and trains in the area and reported what they observed. Finally, a few people did survive Treblinka, but not many. Steve lit a memorial candle for Vladka's family( see photo)
Treblinka is located amidst a very lush, beautiful forest that did not exist 67 years ago. As I walked up to the camp's entrance the forest reminded me of walking through local forest land. Scenically, Treblinka reminds me of Bergen Belsen in terms of how both camps are situated among a very beautiful forest. The most important thing to remember with this comparison is that Bergen Belsen doesn't even compare to Treblinka concerning the number of people murdered at the camp. A stoned path sits where the original railroad tracks once were. Next to the stone path is a series of stone slabs leading further into the camp. These slabs, which are part of the Soviet memorial at Treblinka symbolize the railroad tracks which one guided people into the camp. There wasn't much to Treblinka when it existed besides railroad tracks, a gas chamber an open pit to burn bodies and a few living quarters. Selections didn't take place at Treblinka because the camp's sole purpose was to murder as many Jews as possible. The most disturbing statistic I heard during my time at Treblinka was that 120 guards were responsible for murdering an estimated 800,000 people. This isn't a statistical error. Human beings certainly have the potential to commit the gravest of atrocities.
As I walked through Treblinka I noticed the various rock fields. This was similar to Belzec's memorial, but different and unique because Treblinka's rock fields were spread out more and the stones were different in size. The first series of rocks I viewed were much larger than the rest and identified all of the countries where Jews came. The field of more but smaller stones has a village's name on each rock. Out of all the rocks, only one person's name exists: Janusz Korczak, an author and educator. Korczak ran an orphanage in the Warsaw ghetto and cared for 200 children. Korczak knew that the ghetto would be liquidated and he knew that upon deportation his children would be immediately gassed. Korczak had many opportunities to flee and save himself, but he refused to abandon his children. Korczak boarded the train to Treblinka with his children and bravely marched with them to the gas chamber. Korczak knew there wasn't any hope for his survival, but it was more important that he remain with his children. I don't know many people who possess this level of bravery. Upon leaving the camp grounds, I placed a rock on the stone with his name to pay my respects and leave evidence of my visit.
A house-size rock memorial stands where the gas chambers once stood. Directly next to the gas chamber is a rock field of mostly black rocks. In this particular area is where the pit of burning bodies once existed. It was difficult to remain in this area for too long. The base of this pit contained many memorial candles and other traces of previous visits. Some people in our group who toured Treblinka today broke down for the first time all trip. I didn't show it on the outside, but internally I struggled with visiting a place that was responsible for such horrific atrocities. I will continue to think about and analyze the places I've visited long after I return home. Visiting these camps is a difficult, horrific experience, but one that people definitely need to take. The remnants of the concentration camps are direct evidence that such barbaric acts really occurred and they happened during the fairly recent past. As an educator, it's my responsibility to visit these places so I can pass along what I've witnessed to teachers and students.
. The ride was like going back in time. Most of the houses were either cement or wood - crooked little buildings with fenced in yards. Cows were chained to trees in the front yard - chickens roamed the yard and horses were seen within barns. We even saw a few storks on chimneys
After dinner, we gathered for an end of the tour get-together where we roasted our directors and each other. I wrote a series of "The most likely to..." which which poked fun at everyone's little quirks. There were several very funny moments. We repeated the words to the Partisan Song which is usually sung at Holocaust Remembrance. We honored Vladka Mead - the originator of the program, and finally, we sang "Que Sera Sera" - Vladka's favorite song - What will be, will be --
This is our last international night. Some of the people in the group are re-packing their clothes. Other people have congregated in the hotel bar to share a few more laughs across the pond. I will leave you with a funny experience to end this dispatch. Last night we ate at a restaurant which serves traditional Polish food. The first dish served to us was a fish gelatin mostly consisting of carp. You read this last sentence correctly. At first I didn't know what to make of this dish placed in front of me, but after a series of incredulous looks I could not venture into this jelly like texture. There were too many contrasting elements that my mind couldn't overcome. Carp meat, skin, almonds and fruit combined with the wiggly texture just didn't tempt my taste buds so I humbly set the fish jell-o aside. Thankfully, the main course of duck and the lime gelatto doused in vodka more than made up for the rocky beginning.
Tomorrow I'll write from the USA!!