Today was the first time Dr. Wright and I had been to Treblinka, despite living in Poland for 11 months in 2010-11, visiting for weeks in 2012, and taking our first Witt in Poland trip with 8 students in 2013. In 2013 and this year we read Gitta Sereny’s classic book of interviews with Franz Stangl, commandant of Treblinka during its most lethal period of about a year starting in August 1942, and yet in the earlier trip we didn’t travel here.
Treblinka, as you read elsewhere, is not Auschwitz-Birkenau. There are no crowds. In our 80 minutes on site we saw maybe 40 people, and that includes a large group of twenty American (I think) high-school age students who had just concluded a visit (and their teacher had just finished suggesting reading Sereny as I walked past).
We started out in the small museum (which was built recently) but I had a strong desire to get moving into the outside memorial spaces, so I left before the rest of us. I tried to find the Extermination Camp on my own, got disoriented using the map provided by the museum (and I wasn’t alone in finding it confusing; there were three Polish people on the same path), and was walking along the border of the Extermination Camp, which is marked by large stiles. In the main memorial section of the Extermination Camp, which houses the massive stone monument and the stones which are scaled for the size of the population killed by country and by town, it was extremely hot (80+ degrees Fahrenheit) and there were ground hornets everywhere, making an infernal buzzing. Frankly, it was surreal.
We only spent time in the Extermination Camp, and did not walk to either the Penal Camp or the Execution Site, which are a few kilometers away. When we left we were hungry and I hadn’t made lunch plans. I knew we were only about 90 minutes from Bialystok so I didn’t think it necessary in my pre-planning. Thinking about the hornets and how they bothered me, and about my hunger and the students’ hunger after what we’ve read and experienced was to say the least unnerving.
The most moving part of the Extermination Camp for me was the symbolic railway line running up to it. I just sat there and waited for the rest of the group to approach, listening to the birds and the insects.
Video of that moment here: https://twitter.com/manes/status/1003002041239855104?s=21
We will absolutely be back.