The One When Temperature Didn’t Matter

January 12

“At 4pm the train got under way again and, within a few minutes, we came into the Treblinka Camp. Only on arriving there did the horrible truth dawn on us. […] Helpless, we felt intuitively that we would not escape our destiny and would also fall victims to our executioners. But, what could be done about it? If it were only a nightmare! But no, it was stark reality. We were faced with what was termed “eviction,” meaning eviction into the great beyond under untold tortures. We were ordered to detrain and leave whatever packages we had in the cars.” –Yankel Wiernik, A Year in Treblinka

When someone says the word “concentration camp” more often than not, one would think of Auschwitz. Although Auschwitz was one of the most brutal camps during the Holocaust, there is one that I personally believe surpasses all tragedy- Treblinka. Treblinka was a death camp located about an hour and a half from Warsaw and is responsible for nearly 1/6 of the total deaths of the Holocaust. Because of its “systematic killing efficiency”, it is considered to be the factory of death during this period of history. A person only had about a 1% chance of surviving two hours after they arrived and only a fraction of prisoners escaped after the revolt.

I knew some basic information about Treblinka before we arrived. Approximately 1 million people lost their lives during its 15 month operation and the camp was destroyed when the prisoners revolted towards the end of the war. Today, the site is memorialized mainly in the field where the two mass graves reside. The display is very symbolic, with a large stone structure in the place of the gas chambers, grate-like stone planks representing the open crematorium and 17,000 stones, each bearing the names of the communities where the victims previously resided.

Although I had this background information at the ready, I still was unsure about what it would be like to visit Treblinka. There are few places on earth where one can stand and think, “Wow, almost a million people were murdered here.” The thought is unbearable and frankly unimaginable.

My first impressions of Treblinka were absolutely not what I thought they would be. The scenery was gorgeous. We were in a wooded area that was just caressed with a beautiful untouched snowfall. That reaction in itself made me feel bad, because I was instantly drawn to the environment and not the purpose. We entered the visitor center where we learned more about the camp’s layout and what we would be seeing in the memorial site. I found myself flipping through the visitors’ book while our guide was telling us about Treblinka, and stumbled upon a note written late last year. It said, “This is where my sister and grandmother were gassed in September 1942”. My lost purpose was immediately renewed and we all left to visit the memorial.

The weather today was cold and brittle, but I couldn’t feel anything. I was just lost in reflection and the numbing sight of endless stones. I think this experience was a turning point in the course for the entire class. The perceptions of the death camps we studied in school started to mold into realities; a feeling that few people have the opportunity to experience. I am glad that I came to Treblinka, though I do not think I will ever want to visit again.

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