Warsaw, Poland

By Peter Bennett
3/12/2009 • World War II Time Travel

I leave the old ghetto at Stawki Street, near the university. It’s late afternoon, and the students are finishing their classes. It’s getting too dark and cold to fraternize, so they quietly go their separate ways. Before the war, the northern building had been a hospital; in the summer of 1942, it became part of the Umschlagplatz—the “collection point” for the death camps. The SS rounded up thousands of Jews daily, dumping them in the cesspit the hospital had become. Then they were dispatched by train to Treblinka, a death camp some 60 miles northeast of Warsaw, or summarily shot and dumped in a mass grave in the nearby Jewish cemetery. A monument marks the place the train depot stood; the gray marble resembles an open freight car.

In January 1943 the SS began their last roundup. Rather than die in the camps, the Jews resisted, armed with handguns and homemade explosives. A mound of earth at 18 Mila Street, now surrounded by bleak high-rise apartment slabs, marks the last bunker of the Jewish fighters who defied the SS army. By the time the fighting ended in May, the ghetto had been destroyed.

The next day I set out for Treblinka. Somewhere along the train line from Warsaw to Malkinia—the closest station to the site—the sun comes out, dissipating the gloom. It shines on one of two thankfully vacant taxis standing by the very rural station. When the SS trains hauled their human cargo, a branch line continued the short distance to the camp.

Treblinka was the last of the extermination camps to be built, and the most efficient. Entering the site at the same place the deported Jews would have disembarked from the freight cars, I’m surprised by how small it seems. More than 800,000 people were executed in this forest clearing in less than 18 months. Today the sweet fragrance of the surrounding pine trees fills the air, but the Jews destined to be murdered here were greeted by the smell of death, said to have clung to the countryside for miles around.

The original camp buildings are long gone; instead, a massive monolith stands where the gas chambers used to be. Around it lies a scattering of smaller, jagged rocks; some are engraved with the name of a European town or city whose population was wiped out at Treblinka.

Walking back, I’m greeted by eager Israeli schoolchildren; they’re on a visit to Poland’s Holocaust sites and have come to Treblinka for an evening vigil. The young curator of Treblinka’s museum regrets that visitors seldom stop by her small, but interesting, exhibit. In fact, she tells me, “You’re the only visitor today.”

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