Last week, we visited Treblinka on the way to Bialystok. It’s definitely one of the less frequented concentration camp museums, and one that I barely knew about before this trip. It stands in the middle of a forest, with a small 3-room museum near the entrance. One room summarizes the events of WWII, showing propaganda posters and flyers that was common during wartime. The second room displayed some pieces of Jewish graves, and the final room displayed photographs and artifacts from WWII. Lining the walls were photos of Treblinka during the time of its operation, including photos of the German workers. (One is Franz Stangl, who we have been reading about in a book called Into That Darkness by Gitta Sereny.) Additionally, there were several glass cases containing some items that had been found in the camp during archaeological research (pieces of jewelry, dishes, and so on). There were also stories of a few of the prisoners with handwritten journal entries & letters.
After visiting the museum for about half an hour, we walked down the rocky path toward the memorial site. Alongside the path, there is a symbolic railroad track to represent the path that the prisoners took to arrive to the camp. The entire memorial site is represented through stones – not arranged or organized in any particular way, different sizes, jutting up out of the ground in random places. In the first section of the site, different stones represent different countries from which people came to Treblinka. There is a large stone column in the middle of this section, then past that there is a large black block in the grass between the two sections. The block is made of burnt glass taken from the destroyed cremation chamber (?), and along it, people had left flowers, flags, and candles honoring the dead. Finally, the last section of the site has hundreds of stones representing cities/villages/towns from which people came to Treblinka. The size of the stone is correlated to how many people were taken from that site.
It was an incredibly surreal, emotionally taxing experience. During our walk and even the first section of the memorial site, there was a constant low buzz from the flies/bees that had made themselves at home. However, as soon as we stepped foot on the second section, the buzzing stopped, as if even the bugs knew this was a sacred place to avoid out of respect. We were left in complete silence save the light crunching of gravel under our shoes. Because it’s such a small and rarely visited site, there was nobody else outside when we were, and there was nobody guiding us through as was the case when we visited Auschwitz. We were left alone with our thoughts and the dizzying number of stones. Because of this, visiting Treblinka was more emotional for me personally than visiting Auschwitz & Birkenau. Navigating my way through the maze of stones, being careful not to disturb the small rocks & candles people had left for their loved ones, one word kept resurfacing in my thoughts: senseless. The killing, the hatred, the blame – all senseless. I thought about all the different types of people that had been killed, how much potential they could’ve had, how much they could – and would – have accomplished if given the chance. I thought about how close we may be to something like this happening again, given the right circumstances. I thought about what I would do, what I would’ve done during WWII. I thought about Franz Stangl, who admits during his interview with Gitta Sereny that over time he grew to see the prisoners as “cargo,” no different from cows being led to slaughter. I thought about the Germans, drinking and laughing and ignoring the consequences of what they were doing. I thought about the prisoners, Jewish and otherwise, and how frightened they must have been, his disgusting their living conditions likely were, how mothers were trying to care for children while worrying about their literal life incessantly. Mostly, I thought about my family and friends, and how that could’ve been us had we been born in a different time, in another world.
Treblinka was hands-down one of the most impactful parts of the trip, despite only having been there for an hour. It has been (and still is) hard to process, especially alongside Auschwitz & Birkenau. Auschwitz had a more factual, angry energy to it, as if to say “here’s the harsh reality of what happened; here’s what they did to these people.” Since Treblinka, we have also visited Stutthof. I can’t say much about it, except that it was deeply, incomprehensibly, viscerally sad. It was old and quiet, and it felt as if even the buildings themselves were mourning what had happened. Maybe it was because it was late in the trip and I had/have less emotional energy to process everything, or maybe it was just my state of mind on the days we visited each camp, but each one felt different, gave a different feeling, told a different story. Of all of them, Treblinka still stands out to me the most for its sheer underrepresentation, but all of them were equally impactful in different ways and I am so grateful to have had this opportunity.