As we commemorate the great losses suffered during the Holocaust this Yom Hashoah, we share with you a thoughtful reflection from Natalie Perach, an alumna of the 2011 REALITY Israel Experience for Teach For America corps members program. In December, Natalie used a Make It Happen Project micro grant for REALITY Israel alumni to travel to Poland and Budapest on a trip sponsored by the Jewish Resource Center at the University of Michigan. Having lost family members in the Holocaust, Natalie wanted to explore the vibrancy of Jewish life as it once was, the magnitude of the loss and the seeds of rebirth.
“You’re a sick man,” a member of the trip said to Tzvi, our England born, Israel-residing tour guide, half jokingly, half trying to break the nervous energy that grasped our group. “Scheduling a trip into Treblinka at eleven thirty at night on New Year’s Eve. You’re a sick man.”
Rabbi Lynn (the leader of our trip), passing nearby, overhead my remark. “Welcome to hell,” he commented.
Hell it was. And hell it is.
Thirty four of us walked slowly into the Treblinka Death Camp, winding through its stone path of terror, each grasping a single lit red candle in the frigid December air. Eight hundred seventy thousand murders in 10 months. Eighty seven thousand per month. Or 3,000 per day. They were perpetrated by a mere 32 SS officers—amounting to roughly 30,000 murders each.
As we sang the haunting Jewish anthem “yizkerem,” in memory of our slaughtered family, the clock struck midnight lighting up the sky with the loud, booming sounds of cheap fireworks set off in the Polish countryside. And as we stood at a large slab of stone, a memorial to the entrance of Treblinka, our communal voice began to crescendo with emotion, and World War II literally came to life around us. The firework explosions, a literal carbon copy of the gunshot sounds which traveled for miles through the surrounding forests. And the fireworks themselves, lighting up the sky for more than half an hour vaulted us back to the Allied bombing raids of 1943 in this small Polish village.
We spent nearly two hours within the Treblinka camp. And that was just the beginning.
No writer, no matter how poetic, no matter how accomplished, or trained, or poised could ever define what we felt in those few hours as we celebrated life in the lowest depths of hell. We listened to our trusted tour guide Tzvi recount stories from the mere 70 survivors of Treblinka. Seventy. Out of nearly a million. We learned about Ivan the Terrible who had such contempt for crying Jewish babies that he would snatch them out of their mothers’ arms, rip them in half with his bare hands and then give them back to their wailing mothers before ushering them into the gas chamber. When in a more charitable mood, he showed mercy—grabbing small children by their feet and swinging their heads into a brick wall—at least leaving them in a single piece for their parents.
We listened to the deeply moving words of one of the chosen seventy, a barber in the camp whose job it was to shave the victim’s heads before they would enter the gas chamber. A job that was extraordinary painful, made impossibly worse when his own wife walked into the room and sat down on the bench in front of him. In his own words, he recounted how he showed affection. He cut her hair more tenderly, told her he loved her, and that if she stayed to the right side of the showers, she would survive. No matter that he knew she would die. But at least he allowed her to visit death properly.
These were just a few of the stories. We learned three, maybe four. But in reality, there are nearly a million. And no number of these trips, no number of memorials, no amount of reparations can ever do justice to their memory.
I’m not alone in that sentiment. While certain Holocaust memorials believe that the ideal memory is in each individual name, the memorializers at Treblinka took a different approach. The place was leveled. It is now just an empty field of rocks. But those rocks, many of which are more boulders than rocks, each carry a single inscription: the name of a shtetl entirely annihilated or nearly destroyed within Treblinka’s walls. And, most chillingly, there are hundreds of those memorial stones.
Several from our group found the names of the shtetls where their respective families had once lived. In some cases, their family member was the lone survivor from an entire town. In a true display of the absolute power of technology, Rabbi Lynn phoned his cousin Avram—an elderly man who lives in Miami, and speaks broken English, while maintaining fluent Yiddish—in front of the shtetl stone representing his now incinerated former home. And as Rabbi Lynn spoke to him in old world Yiddish, we were transported back to 1942, we felt the pulse of the camp, and we felt the sorrow in the painful Yiddish words.
And as we stood there shivering, despite heavy overcoats from the likes of North Face, Marmot and Arcteryx an 80-year-old man in his Miami apartment choked through a painful rendition of the mourners Kaddish through a Blackberry speakerphone. His Aramaic words, so powerful, yet so pained, became slurred as he choked back tears, so much so that we barely knew when to respond “Amen.” And just when we thought it was over, this man we’ve never met, whose voice was projected from 6,000 miles away, began reciting the list of his family members remembered in his Kaddish prayer. And if any in our group had held back tears to that point, they couldn’t any longer. Nearly a dozen names, wrapped in the affectionate wailing of Moishe-le and Chana-le, much as our own grandparents used to wrap us in their arms and add the Yiddishe suffix to our own first names. Avram was the only survivor from his entire family, and a full 70 years later, the passion and affection was no less evident in his voice.
After Avram’s Kaddish, we placed our candles on his shtetl’s boulder, completing our step back in time into the Treblinka Death Camp. Then, in what was a recurring image of our trip, we walked out of Treblinka, an opportunity to exit shared with only 70 souls in the history of the camp.