Thursday, June 22, 2006

The Limits of Imagination (June 22)

Before the heavy discussion of today's topic -- my trip to the remains of the Warsaw Ghetto and the Treblinka Death Camp -- a minor continuing gripe about my hostel.

The hostel in which I am staying really is the best in Poland. The staff is unvariaingly polite and helpful; they provide free internet service (although there usually is a heft wait), and the rooms are clean and comfortable, facing a quiet courtyard. The only problem the last two nights has been the other guests. In particular, a contingent of brits, scots, americans, and aussies who come back from the bars at 11 pm with a truck load of beer (one of which I found this morning exploded in the freezer) and party it up in the room over my head. This morning, they woke me up with cheering and screaming around 3 am. If they start again tonight I'm going to take it up with the staff.

End of venting rant.

Today I took a hired tour of the remains of the Warsaw Ghetto and the Treblinka Death Camp. The driver and the guide met me at the hostel at 9am. My driver was a Polish woman in her mid-30s who spoke only Polish; my guide, Alex, spoke both English and German (as well as Polish). Over the course of the day, I teased out details of Alex's life. He was born in Poland in May 1930, making him just 6 months younger than my father. His maternal grandmother was Jewish and he defined himself as someone of Jewish descent. His family came from Zywiec (pronounced "ZHVI-etz"), a town in Upper Silesia now most famous for producing a popular Polish beer. I just checked on the map, and in fact, the area where he is from is quite close to where my grandmother's family was from. I only mention this because when I saw his face in profile, it looked remarkably similar to my father and grandmother. Not head on, but from the side, particularly the eyes (which were the same blue-grey color), the eyelids, and the way he smiled. As his mother had married a Christian, no one in the town knew of his ancestry, and while his family suffered significantly during the war (his father was wounded as a partisan), he did not face the threat of extermination. He did tell me, however, that he remembers seeing one group of Jewish prisoners from Auschwitz being marched through his village after the evacuation of the deathcamp. He said he was particularly struck by their wooden shoes in the freezing cold.

After the war, Alex did well in school and ultimately went to university in the Soviet Union where he trained to be a nuclear physicist. He said he was encouraged to join the Communist Party, but never did. Late in life, he decided to pursue an interest in history in general and Jewish history in particular, and that's how he ended up leading tours such as mine.

Our tour began with what turned out to be for me, the most emotionally powerful part of the entire day: one of the few remaining remnants of the ghetto wall. The Warsaw Ghetto, created by the Nazis is the autumn of 1940, occupied a wide swath of one of the poorer neighborhoods in Warsaw. Within its walls, over 450,000 Jews were imprisoned, enslaved, and starved for two and a half years. The ghetto was divided into two parts: the larger ghetto in the north, and the smaller ghetto in the south. These were linked by a series of bridges. During the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943, the entire northern ghetto was leveled to the ground, and almost no traces of it remain. By that point, however, the smaller ghetto had already been liquidated, and while much of it was leveled in the general Warsaw Uprising of August 1944, some parts of it survive, including several meters of ghetto wall.

The wall was two to three times my height and made of brick. There are a few gaps in the bricks, where two or three were removed for display in various holocaust museums. To see what this section of the wall looks like, go to:

When you look at this section of the wall, you are seeing it as those within the ghetto saw it (i.e., the side that faced in to the ghetto). Standing at its base, looking up at its insurmountable height, I thought I felt a fleeting glimpse of how it must have been to be trapped within these walls with no possible escape. For the 450,000 Jews within the ghetto, the only way they left those walls was either in a hearse to the cemetary (and 20% of the population did, in fact, die of starvation and starvation-related diseases in those 2 and half years), or when they were rounded up and sent to the umschlagplatz for deportation to Treblinka.

As we were looking at the wall, an elderly man came out from the neighboring apartment and from what I could gather, he was the one responsible for preserving this portion of the wall (he planted flowering plants in front of it). He was sent by Stalin to Siberia for three years.

After the wall, we went to visit Janusz Korczak's orphanage. Korczak was legendary in Warsaw for his work with orphans and his building survived the war and is still used as an orphanage today. As we were looking, an orphan (it's hard to write that word and not sound Dickensian) came up on his bicycle and offered to help us get into the main hall. He did so and so were able to get into the main room in the orphanage, with its memorial to Korczak. When the Nazis rounded up his orphans for deportation to Treblinka on August 5, 1942, Korczak insisted on accompanying them on the train, even though he was offered an exemption.

After that we drove to the Jewish cemetary. Located outside the ghetto, but still separate from the rest of Warsaw, this is where Jews who died in the ghetto were buried. At one point, we came to two large areas of depressed ground. The circumference was marked out indicating these were the mass burial pits for poor Jews who had died in the ghetto. Unlike Lodz, where they know precisely where everyone who died was buried, in Warsaw, the dead were given an anonymous burial.

Many famous Jews who had lived in Warsaw were buried in the cemetary, so we visited the graves of such luminaries as Y. L. Peretz, the pre-eminent Jewish short story writer of the middle of the 19th century, who is buried with An-Sky, who wrote probably the most Yiddish play: Der Dybbuk. I also found the grave of Chaim Zelig Slonismki, who edited the first Hebrew journal dedicated to the popularization of science (about which I hope one day to write an article).

Then we drove to the memorial to the ghetto fighters. This is a famous statue/memorial, on one side of which shows the heroic fighters, larger than life, and on other, twelve passive Jews (one for each of the tribes) on their way to the gas chambers with downcast faces. This dichotomy -- between armed resistance versus passive acquiesence -- is one I find quite troubling. Nearby is a more interesting memorial created in 1946 by those surviving Jews who returned to Warsaw. It is in the shape of a sewer cover, and referenced those Jews who escaped the burning ghetto through the sewers.

Next, we went to the site of Mila 18, where the main resistance bunker was located. It consists of a tall mound, the height of the rubble left in the street after the bunker was destroyed. Finally, we drove to the site of the umschlagplatz, where over 300,000 Warsaw Jews were rounded up between July and September 1942, and shipped in boxcars to Treblinka. The buildings adjacent to the square were the original buildings, though a marble enclosure marks the spot where Jews were forced to sit waiting for trains.

After that, we got back in the van and headed to Treblinka.

As people are waiting to use the computer, I'm going to post this part now, and add to it later.

(Updated: 4:oo pm -- Polish Time)

Here's why you never want to drive in Poland. There are virtually no freeways in the country (the only one run almost from Krakow to the German border, but there are gaps). That means that most intercity roads are one lane in each direction with a shoulder on each side. There are two types of vehicles on the roads: 1) slow ones and 2) fast ones. In the slow category there are the trucks and the 2-cylinder cars (mostly Fiats). Everyone else is in the second category. About one third of the vehicles, however, are in category one. That means you spend most of your time trapped behind a slow moving car or truck trying to pass.

In order to pass, the slow moving vehicle moves on to the shoulder, while the faster car passes in either the main lane or in the opposing lane. But since everyone is constantly passing someone, what happens when there is oncoming traffic also trying to pass? Since one's car may not be fast enough to pass the slower car before you hit the oncoming traffic, oncoming traffic must also drive on their shoulder to allow you to finish passing. Since Polish traffic is therefore often driving on the side of oncoming traffic, as you can imagine there is a very high accident rate.

As we got out into the country side, it quickly became rural. I asked Alex what percentage of Poles still live in farms and small villages and he said 35%, which I think is a remarkably high number. As we got further out we started seeing nesting storks (bochani in Polish). He asked if we have storks in America, but I said I didn't know. As we would drive, Alex would point out a small town, and then say how before the war it had a large Jewish community, but that they were all sent to Treblinka.

Not counting our stop for lunch, it took us a little more than an hour to drive to Treblinka. The camp itself does not exist any more. After the revolt of the prisoners, the Nazis obliterated all signs of the camp, plowed over the ground, and set up a former guard as a farmer on top of the land to conceal what had happened here. What that means is that there is virtually no remnant to see and the visitor must try to picture the horrific scenes with his/her imagination.

From the parking lot, we approached the limits of the camp, marked out by large standing stones. Concrete blocks laid horizontally signified the tracks leading to the ramp. At this spot, some 900,000 mostly Polish Jews were unloaded out of the rail cars (about 10-20% usually died in route). The Jews were then marched into an enclosure where men and women were first separated and then undressed, with the women's hair being cut. From there, they were literally funneled into a conduit of barbed wire (usually the wire was mostly camouflaged with branches and leaves that led directly into the gas chamber. This was known in camp slang as "the way to heaven." They were then gassed with carbon monoxide gas, and once they were dead, their bodies were burned in open pits and their ashes scattered. Those who were too ill or weak to walk, were taken aside to a different area of the camp and shot in the head.

When you stands on the area of the ramp, however, you cannot see any part of the former camp. Instead, a new path leads directly to the site of the gas chamber, marked with a large stone monolith. As you approach the monolith, there are large unhewn, rough stones, the larger of which have the names of cities and towns inscribed on them. They refer to the Jewish communities murdered in Treblinka, the most prominent of which is Warsaw, from where one third of all the victims at Treblinka came in the spaceof two months. The only individual name on a stone marker at Treblinka is that of Dr. Janusz Korczak, who accompanied his over 250 orphans when his orphanage was liquidated on August 5, 1942.

Beyond the monolith lies a large rectangular space marking the place where the bodies of the victims were burned. It is covered in pieces of what look like either blueish-black basalt or melted plastic. It is artificial and designed to mimic melting. Past it is a large arc of more stone monoliths. That trace a path back to the entry way.

I found the entire memorial strangely unemotional. On the one hand, I knew that terrible, truely terrible things had happened in this place. I have taught how the camp operated, the way people died, and yet to see the vast open spaces, the green fields and trees, and the blue sky, it was impossible to stand there are see the way it was.

So what did I "get" out of it? How did being there change or impact the way I view Treblinka? First and foremost I was struck by the isolation of the space. It really is in the middle of nowhere. The only village is several miles away. The only way you can visit Treblinka is by tour because there are no public buses that pass within miles of the place, because there is nothing else there. It was quite isolated while we were there, with an Israeli group arriving just as we were leaving.

This isolation isn't accidental; the Nazis picked a place as isolated as possible to conceal what they were doing, and for the first several months they were able to maintain the secrecy. It wasn't until the early summer of 1942, when the extermination process, begun at Chelmno in November/December 1941, had been in operation for over 6 months, that the first word began to leak out.

I was also struck by how complicit the bureauracy was in the killing process. I was intellectually aware, of course, that the Holocaust was only possible because the active participation of numerous sections of the German bureaucracy. But standing there, trying to imagine the process of unloading people from each train (100 or so from each small box car), I was struck by the unreality of it all. Each day, two or three times a day, trains with new victims arrived, were unloaded, killed, and burned. And yet each day was a regular work day for the Germans and their collaborators. Again, it struck me as almost unimaginable that people accepted, even embraced it, as their everyday job.

Afterwards, we drove back to Warsaw and I asked Alex to drop me off at the Nozyk synagogue, the only active synagogue in Warsaw. Located on the edge of the smaller ghetto, it was not destroyed but used as a stable by the Nazis. The building survived and after much restoration work in the 1980s, it is used as a synagogue today by Warsaw's small Jewish community (which Alex told me was about 2000). They have a small kosher canteen in the synagogue for community members who keep kosher, and they also operate a Jewish middle and high school. In the synagogue (which has a women's gallery), I saw pictures from a grade school outing, so obviously the community is not limited to elderly survivors. As I was leaving, the person who admitted me to the synagogue (in his 20s), was joined by two friends (one African) of similar age. It was getting quite late and he was closing up (also I can't really speak Polish) so I didn't have a chance to chat with him about Warsaw's Jewish community today.

Then it was back to the hostel for dinner and to pack up.

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