We arrived in the city of Treblinka with some trepidation. Our drive had taken longer than expected so we were anxious to get off the bus and see the memorial. We drove passed the city limit sign. We drove through the town. There was no sign of the memorial. There were no signs indicating this was the place of the murder of 800,000 men, women and children.
We drove a little further, and then turned back toward town. We must have missed the signs. We had not missed any signs. We decided to stop and ask someone for directions. Our driver spoke Latvian. We spoke mostly English. The people in the store spoke Polish and a little Russian. The first person in the store refused to give any help. She just turned away form us. Another attendant gave us basic directions.
We started back down the road and made a different turn. The road wound through the woods and then construction blocked our path. We stopped a man on a bicycle who gave us new directions. We followed further away, and then finally saw a sign. It used the name Treblinka, but it gave no indication of the mass killings, instead it was listed as a memorial to freedom fighters.
The parking lot was empty. A tiny shop had long since closed for the day. Each step we took toward the memorial seemed to draw the noise from the air. By the time we had walked the 100 yards signifying the beginning of the memorial, we were all wrapped in a silent pilgrimage.
It’s an impressive sight. 18,000 stones rise in a ring around a central memorial. Each monolith represents about 45 people; about how many Jews they could kill in a single day. They are built over the locations of huge mass graves. In the middle is a black, almost molten looking scar representing the cremation pyre that burned 24 hours a day.
We wandered, first as a group, and then slowly into our own world. Occasionally a stone was engraved with the name of a town eradicated. The tops were often adorned with small stones added by pilgrims. As we wove through the memorial, I was struck by how disheveled the place looked. Limbs had come crashing down and lay on top of the memorial. Grass and weeds grew through every crack imaginable.
It did not look like a widely visited place, which is no surprise considering how hard it was for us to find. The people at the store were hoping we would go away quietly. The lack of signs was disturbing.
It is easier to forget the deeds of darkness than remember. It is easier to ignore pesky questions than to answer honestly. It is easier to hate people who are not like us, who don’t agree with us, than to reach across our differences.
The front of the monument has the words, “Never Again,” but it seems we as a culture are falling into the patterns of hate and blame that eventually lead to destruction.