Today is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. Exactly 5 months ago to this very day I took a journey my heart has always told me to take, I visited Treblinka Extermination Camp just over an hour outside of Warsaw, Poland. It has taken me this long to be able to look at these photos again and really be able to speak about my experience there, the best I can. It was life-changing, earth-shattering, and mind-blowing.
After a truly lovely, brief stay in Old Town Warsaw where I filled my belly with the most incredible pierogis, sipped beet and cabbage soup, drank traditional cherry liquor, took in some opera, shopped for traditionally dressed dolls for the girls, drooled over one of the main exports, amber, and thought non-stop about my beloved grandmother, Zelda Zelenkofske, and her parents, who emigrated from Warsaw, it was time for an excursion like none I had EVER taken. It was one not many want to take, ever. For me, I felt the need to, deep down in my soul for quite a while.
I was solo-traveling and decided to take a completely private tour. This didn’t seem like a journey I wanted to really make with a group of strangers. Mark, my guide, met me in Old Town where cars aren’t allowed. He helped me schlepp my bags across the cobblestone roads to his car, a car that would take me to see where some of the most horrific events in history happened. We chatted just as you would with any tour guide. I learned about his childhood in Warsaw and we shared a bit about our families and our different lifestyles. This casual conversation seemed to keep my nervousness (and admittedly, my hesitation) over what I was about to experience at bay.
Our first stop was down the last remaining streets of the Jewish section of Warsaw. It was almost like any other abandoned street, but it wasn’t. This was once a thriving, bustling neighborhood. That was until its business owners and neighbors were stripped of it, along with every single thing they had known, including their dignity, their loved ones, the clothes right off of their back, and for most, their lives. The main building on the block was ready to be restored into a synagogue, which I loved. Mark, however, told me that it will be one of the only synagogues in ALL of Warsaw because very few Jews remain. I remember thinking, “oh, obviously”. Why would they want to stay here? Who was even left? He informed me that the few Jews who do live in Poland speak only Yiddish. It saddened me to remember the last time I had heard Yiddish. It was when my beloved mom-mom was still alive. I missed her dearly. She would have been amazed by my trip here. She would’ve told me more about her parents and her grandparents. I should have asked more. I’m telling you, ask more! Ask now! Record those conversations with your elders before it’s too late!
(Those layers of bricks had so very much to tell. The gates at the top were still intact from before the occupancy)
We then headed to the last remaining wall of the Jewish ghetto. This is where reality really started to sink in. As we approached the wall from a distance, I was taken aback by the juxtaposition of the newly built condos next to the crumbling old brick wall. “How dare they!” I thought. It felt as if life just went on like the city just kept building and growing all around this horrific site. It felt as if what happened here didn’t matter anymore. Except it did. And it certainly does. Mark told me the Holocaust is spoken about daily. DAILY! The names of victims, murderers, locations, and terms are in the vocabulary they use on the regular. They don’t hide from it, it’s a part of who they are. It’s also not such a distant memory. It wasn’t until I was in Poland, on these very streets, that it really hit me, the Holocaust wasn’t THAT long ago. At all!! I had never felt so close to it in my whole life until this very moment. I touched the wall. I felt the coldness, the sadness, the heaviness it holds. I felt the souls of those who were forced to stay behind it. I wanted to go back and release them, save their lives and tear that wall the fuck down!! I could barely walk back to the car. The conversation had demised. He spoke. I listened. I could no longer speak.
(That little stone I placed seemed insanely inadequate)
The entire drive out to Treblinka I had my nose pressed against the window like a little kid. I watched the forest go by swiftly. It was dark and cold, yet eerily beautiful. THIS was the EXACT route the passengers aboard the trains took to reach the camp. We were parallel to the tracks. The tracks, although not used in present-day, STILL showed up on the GPS, which I found so strange, like a haunting. THESE were the very same trees they saw when they were frightened, not knowing where they were being forced to go. THIS was the last piece of the outside world many of them, except the 67 survivors ever saw again. “I get to see these trees on the drive home,” I thought. They did not. I had no idea the drive itself would be so heart-wrenching and powerful.
We were the only ones in the museum when we arrived very early on a frosty, chilling Friday morning in November. One of the exhibits in the surprisingly small museums that struck me was the Jewish headstones the Nazis destroyed and took for building materials. I don’t remember ever seeing or hearing about this in any other Holocaust museums. What was even more shocking was that they were taken from JUST down the road from where I was standing. All of the pieces in the displays like jewelry and silver smuggled into the camp were from RIGHT WHERE I STOOD. Wow! Just wow. It wasn’t flown in. It wasn’t on loan. It was from HERE. RIGHT HERE!
We entered the grounds…
We walked along the remnants of the train tracks that carried the prisoners to meet their fate. (I don’t think I’ve ever walked so slow.)
A big gust of wind came by as I stood at the train platform, thinking about the scene the victims stepped out to encounter. I thought about the uncertainty and horror they must have felt. I had the nerve to mention that I was cold. Mark asked me to imagine how the prisoners felt in the dead of winter here, especially when they were forced to strip of their clothing in the snow. (Mouth. Shut.)
I was suddenly at those stones I had only seen in photos. Each one represented a different town that was ripped apart and overtaken by the Nazis. I could have never possibly counted them all.
Without a doubt, the most impactful moment for me at Treblinka, and perhaps in my entire life (besides giving birth to my girls) was holding a rock that 800,000 Jews were burned on. The hundreds of stones on “the grill” (as Mark called it) were scorched and melted. I will NEVER EVER FORGET the way the ridges felt in between my fingers. I WILL NEVER FORGET this moment. It was HERE. THIS was it. THIS is where it happened. My life was forever changed on November 21, 2019.
On the ride back Mark informed me that those from the town of Treblinka are shunned for they knew exactly what was happening mere yards their homes and did nothing. They saw the smoke from thousands of bodies being torched from their front door and turned a blind eye.
We drove past the forest again. This time we saw many foraging for mushrooms. (It’s a weekend pastime here.) We stopped to warm up with some traditional soup made from those very mushrooms before he dropped me at the airport, but I couldn’t shake the cold… in every sense. I then heard my wedding song in English and just couldn’t wait to head back home, simply lay in Dave’s arms and squeeze my babies like never before.
My eyes are currently swollen from crying all morning and there’s a lump in throat I can’t get rid of. Reliving this through photos and recounting what I saw and felt has been extremely heavy. I’m glad to have finally been able to share because I think it’s so important to keep the dialog going, but I am beyond emotionally drained right now. This post took so much of me. I hope you take a bit of it with you.
May we all NEVER FORGET!