Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Poland Journal - Day III - Death Camps

May 27, 2008
כ"ב אייר תשס"ח

I have been dreading this day in particular: A day of dead cities, death forests, and death camps. Our first stop: the Umschlagplatz – the gathering point for the deportation of the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka. It sits surrounded by green trees and office buildings. Like so many places of Holocaust significance, this one is in an urban area that is modern and banal. We quickly board the bus and travel back in time to a shtetl.

We arrive at Tykocin. A former shtetl, half the town is Polish Catholic, dominated by the Cathedral. The other half of the town was the Jewish shtetl dominated by the Tykocin Shul built in the mid-1600’s. The surrounding buildings sit virtually unchanged from the time of the establishment of the shul and just as they did in the 1930’s: whitewashed walls, terra cotta roofs, cobblestone streets. The television satellite dishes do betray the museum like feel of the shtetl. Their presence announces that all did not stop in Tykocin. In fact, there are new residents in these old buildings – none of them Jews.

We enter the cavernous synagogue of Tykocin. This was a shul built as a statement of importance, as if to say in 1652, “We made it!” Today, the shul is a museum. It is restored with funding from the Lauder Foundation and others and it is possible to sense what the grandeur of the place was. We look at the photos of the Jewish residents no longer among the living. The megillat Esther is open to Chapter 9 where Esther and Mordechai and the Jews of Persia fight back and specifically, to the portion where Haman and his ten sons are hanged from the gallows prepared for Mordechai. Haim, our leader, calls me up to the bimah, along with Ilyse, and our friends shower us with candy in honor of our respective sons’ bnai mitzvah. It is our “Am Yisrael Chai” moment: Look you bystanders! You failed! We are still here.”

We leave the shul and there are a few residents sitting on the stoops looking at us with looks of curiosity. Most of them are rather elderly – ninety if they are a day. They too suffered during World War II. I “should” feel some modicum of sympathy for them. But I do not. I cannot imagine their narrative and, frankly, I am not interested. I want to approach them and ask:

Did you know the Jews that lived here in 1939?

Were you friends with them?

How long did you wait to move into their homes after they disappeared?

A day?
A week?
A month?

Did you even wonder where they went or what happened to them?

Tykocin, you see, gives new meaning to the phrase “Here today. Gone Tomorrow.” Soon after the Nazis conquered Poland, they came to Tykocin. The 2,500 Jewish residence of the town were called to assemble in the evening, were marched 7 kilometers to the forest of Pochova, and murdered en mass, shot into mass graves. Imagine going to sleep one night with 2,500 Jewish neighbors and waking up the next day with half the town missing. So, what do you do, you 90 year old woman giving me the dirty looks? You move into a now formerly Jewish home…

We finish our visit to the shtetl. Time for lunch. By the waters of Tykocin we are to eat. “A beautiful spot,” we are told. One of our colleagues is uncomfortable: “Maybe they made the Jews march across the bridge on the way to their deaths. It freaks me out. Can we eat somewhere else?” So instead, we eat in the nicely manicured town square, right in front of the Big Church, where we are promptly told that all of the men of the town were gathered by the Nazis and put to work in forced labor groups until the Jews were separated out and sent to the slaughter. In places like this, I cannot imagine that there is any spot we can sit and eat that isn’t shaded by the shadow of the Angel of Death or poisoned by the tumat met – the impurity of the dead – that pervades this part of Europe. As we leave Tykocin, I start to notice a vague familiarity in the small towns we drive through. It bothers me but I don’t pay much attention.

We drive seven kilometers through winding roads into the middle of the Polish forest of Pochova. Tall, thin pines and a few birch trees line the road. I am more uncomfortable than ever here in this forest; the winding roads feel even more familiar. I feel like I know them like the back of my hand. We walk the last few meters to our destination: the final resting place of the Jews of Tykocin – three pits in the middle of the forest. I am frozen. Disbelief. Anger. I wonder if this is how incomprehensibility feels. We hold a brief memorial ceremony. Our candles join those of the Israeli Police and other groups that were here the day before holding their own memorial ceremonies and the wreaths of the March of the Living groups that preceded us by a few weeks. We walk back through the forest to our bus and proceed to our next stop: The Death Camp of Treblinka.

Notorious for its relatively short life and great success in exterminating Polish Jewry, Treblinka was essentially dismantled by the Nazis after its purpose was fulfilled. There is virtually nothing of the Death Camp left, except for the “Roasting Pits” where the hundreds of thousands of bodies were burned. Since none of the buildings remain, there is just an enormous field left, cut into the Pine and Birch forest. A gigantic Soviet Era – or at least Eastern European – style monument dominates the site. Throughout the area are 17,000 stones, many bearing the names of communities wiped out by the Nazis. Only one stone has the name of a person on it, that of Dr. Janusz Korczak, hero to Poles and Jews alike. Again, the familiarity of the place overwhelms me, as does the enormity of the number of Jews murdered here.

Danny, an art educator and installation artist, shares his opinion, his distaste actually, for the monument. In his opinion, the mysterious horror of the place would have been best preserved by leaving the parameters of the camp empty. And then, at that moment, all the stones, the monument, disappear for me and I can see the answer. It is a moment similar to that in “Searching for Bobby Fisher” when Ben Kingsley, in an attempt teach his protégé to see what is not yet there, slams all the chess pieces of the board. “Can you see it now?” he asks. Silence reigns until the boy sees it. And now I see it to and recognize the familiarity that is haunting me. The winding roads through pine and birch forests, the smell of the pine needles and the fallen leaves, the sounds of the birds, the winding road that opens to an enormous field: This could just as easily be Conover, Wisconsin, my summer home for twenty years, Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, as it is the Pochova forest. This could just as easily be a summer camp, a place of life for Jewish children as it is a place of hatred, murder, collective annihilation.

I can see it: to the left is the perfect spot for a chadar ochel, a dining hall; to the right, a welcome center and business office. Over there, on the other side of the field, I spy the place where I would put a circle of boy’s cabins and a circle of girls cabins. There is a massive weeping willow just off the center of the main field. There, I would put benches for people to sit and talk, to enjoy the shade of the enormous tree – the gathering place for friends. I am sick to my stomach. Fury fills my every muscle, bone, and nerve. Can a place that looks like this really be used either for good or evil? Can the difference between a summer camp and a death camp be the intentionality of the leader and his followers? Leaving Treblinka does not relieve the anger, for driving through the little towns of rural Poland looks just like driving through the little towns of rural Northern Wisconsin: Wittenberg, Antigo, etc. The disconcerting nature of the similarity is just too much for me.

Like rural Wisconsin, there are rolling hills here, subdivided into farms. Often, the fields are separated by small patches of woods. The only difference is that in central Wisconsin, I don’t ask myself if Jews were rounded up and shot en-mass in these small wooden patches.

We return to Warsaw, where we will have a wonderful visit at the home of our classmate, Helise. On the way to her apartment, we walk through downtown and a man, somewhat drunk, calls us over. We stop. He pulls up his paunch, which hangs over his belt, and gestures at the belt where he proudly wears a Swastika. Seventy-two hours in Poland and I feel like someone is finally honest with us. He yells “Heil Hitler” and we just walk away.

Is there a renaissance of Jewish life in Poland or is it a patient taking its last breaths? I don’t know. What I do know, with great certainty, is that I don’t plan to stick around long enough to find out.

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