Monday, June 17, 2013


Elizabeth Campbell Karlsgodt is an Associate Professor of History at DU, currently on sabbatical and doing research for a book on the recovery and restitution of art looted by the Nazis in World War II. The book will focus on case studies in France, the Netherlands, and Belgium.


The last camp I’ll describe here is actually the first one I visited. Treblinka was an extermination camp located about fifty miles northeast of Warsaw. When I was planning my trip, I didn’t think twice about seeing it. I was planning to see the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial, and knew that most of the Jews deported from Warsaw went to Treblinka. In my courses, I’ve included films that discuss the camp (Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, for example) and I knew that around 850,000 people were killed there, mostly Jews, making it second only to Auschwitz-Birkenau in the number of victims.  (Non-Jewish victims included ethnic Poles and Roma.)  This number is even more staggering given that the extermination camp only operated for fifteen months, from July 1942 to October 1943.

Stones representing the victims' Jewish communitites in Poland
The images I had seen of the memorial made me want to see it in person—17,000 large and jagged stones representing the victims' Jewish communities in Poland. While the commemorative focus is on Polish Jews, there are commemorative stones representing ten countries from where victims were deported: Austria, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, Poland, the Soviet Union, and Yugoslavia. (The memorial was created in the 1960s and Cold War geography is reflected in the stones.)

After arriving in Warsaw, it became clear to me that I hadn’t spent enough time researching how visitors actually get to Treblinka.  I had assumed I could use a combination of trains and buses, as at Auschwitz, though on a smaller scale. However, it’s rather complicated getting there by public transit and most visitors either rent a car and drive themselves or hire a tour guide and driver. There are also companies that will organize tours for small groups. But I was only in Warsaw for a few days and needed to make arrangements quickly, so I decided to use a guide and driver, spending much more than I had planned. In the end, it was well worth it. My tour guide, Magdalena, taught me a great deal about the history of Warsaw, Poland and Treblinka.

As we drove away from my hotel, I was able to take in a broader view of Old Town Warsaw and the areas reconstructed after World War II. Magdalena helped me appreciate how much of Warsaw was destroyed in the war—85% of the historic city and 100% of the Jewish Ghetto. Of the 1.3 million prewar inhabitants, less than 10% survived the war. While walking around the reconstructed Old Town, I saw an outdoor photographic exhibit of Warsaw in 1947—rubble, two years after the war had ended.  It’s hard to imagine the vast destruction of the city, the result of German bombing in 1939, and Nazi retribution for the Jewish ghetto uprising of April 1943, and the broader Varsovian resistance uprising in August to October 1944. Though the Polish insurgents had planned to receive Soviet support, Stalin let the Germans destroy the resistance, holding back the Red Army on the outskirts of Warsaw to facilitate Soviet domination after “liberation.” Today, the Old Town has been impressively reconstructed, with 13th to 20th-century architecture, and is a UNESCO heritage site. Though it does not feel entirely authentic, one has to admire this example of Varsovian spirit and resiliency. (see the photo gallery at

The drive from Warsaw to Treblinka takes about an hour and features with some lovely scenery. As around Ravensbrück, I was struck by the beauty of the Polish countryside, very green and lush, with wetlands and dense forests. It’s an odd feeling to admire the surroundings of such a place, knowing the horrible acts committed there.

"Never Again" inscribed in several languages on the
commemorative stone to the left of the central obelisk.
Given the scale of killing carried out at Treblinka, I had anticipated more visitors at the memorial.  Whereas there were thousands at Auschwitz, there were perhaps dozens at Treblinka, and no tour buses, at least not that day. Before my trip, I had been aware of this disproportionate number of visitors to Auschwitz-Birkenau, about a million each year (eerily close to the number of people killed there). It makes sense, given that the Nazis destroyed Treblinka, whereas much of Auschwitz has been preserved and could be turned into a museum.  Yet I found myself wishing that more people would see other camps as well, where there is a concerted effort by governments and organizations to teach this history. Researchers today are still learning about thousands of smaller Nazi camps and ghettos that had all but vanished from public memory—estimated at more than 42,000 across Europe. (see the multivolume encyclopedia project being published by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial and Museum,

When I was at Treblinka, most of the other visitors came from one large group of Polish motorcyclists. They seemed to be covering a lot of miles during the holiday week. (Labor Day on May 1 and Constitution Day on May 3) Magdalena seemed a bit surprised to see them there. Clad in black leather and reflective gear with their motorcycles parked side by side in the parking lot, they didn’t exactly fit the imagined profile of the typical Treblinka visitor.  But we were heartened to see them there, feeling that it was indicative of a larger public wanting to learn about the camp.

There were two Nazi camps near the village of Treblinka.  The first, Treblinka I, was a labor camp established in December 1941. About a mile away, the Nazis established Treblinka II in July 1942 for one purpose: killing. Along with Sobibor and Belzec, Treblinka II was part of Operation Reinhard, the Nazi program for exterminating Jews from occupied Poland. The Nazis closed the camp in October 1943, two months after a heroic inmate uprising that failed to thwart SS control of the camp but allowed 300 inmates to escape, 100 of whom survived the ensuing manhunt.  Operation Reinhard had been a top secret program and when the Nazis closed the camp, they tried to destroy all evidence of it. There are no preserved buildings so one has to imagine how the camp appeared.

Visitors can walk on the train platform where victims arrived and visualize the scenes that took place there.  The Nazis maintained the illusion the victims were heading for a labor or detention camp. They didn’t want the victims to panic or to overtake SS guards.  This illusion enabled thirty or so guards to dominate hundreds of victims at a time.  A warehouse with the victims’ belongings was made to look like a train station from the platform, with a sign that read “Treblinka,” and a ticket window—completely useless. At the “field hospital,” there was a Red Cross flag, again entirely useless because those who were too weak or ill to walk to the gas chamber were simply sent there so they could be shot into a mass grave. 

Concrete slabs representing railroad ties
The victims who were able to walk were separated by gender and stripped of their belongings. The SS seized valuables such as coins or jewelry and the clothes were piled in huge mounds.  SS guards then ordered the victims to walk the “path of happiness” to the gas chamber.  Men’s heads were shaved, women’s hair was cut short so it could be woven into textiles. (There is a very powerful scene in Shoah in which a Polish-Jewish barber recounts being forced to cut the hair of Treblinka victims.) They were killed in gas chambers, mostly using carbon monoxide, and their bodies were burned on huge pyres.  Initially, the Nazis had tried to use mass graves at Treblinka but discovered that the soil was too sandy and the bodies didn’t decompose adequately, leaving evidence of the operation. Compared to Birkenau, the Nazis’ extermination methods were less sophisticated at Treblinka, and the coarse, rocky memorial created in the early 1960s also seems to reflect this more crude approach.

Leading to the train platform, the path of the train tracks is commemorated in concrete narrow blocks, meant to look like railroad ties.  As you follow a path to the extermination site, you enter a wide field and see a looming, 26-foot stone obelisk modeled after Jewish tombstones. Surrounding the obelisk are 17,000 jagged granite shards inscribed with the names of the victims’ Jewish communities in Poland. As James Young puts it, the memorial “resembles a great, craggy graveyard.” (The Texture of Memory, 186)  The largest stone, as one might expect, commemorates Warsaw’s Jews. Otherwise, there does not seem to be a set pattern in terms of the stones’ placement and some stones are blank. For this reason, it can be difficult for visitors to track down a stone from a particular community. (Magdalena has helped visitors do this, and she was pleased to pick up a guide from the visitor center with the stones’ locations.)

There is one stone dedicated to an individual, Janus Korczak, a Polish-Jewish pediatrician and author of children’s books who ran an orphanage for Jewish children. The Nazis offered him an opportunity to escape deportation, but he instead chose to die with the children under his care.  At the base of his commemorative stone, visitors had left dozens of small stones, a Jewish tradition akin to leaving flowers at a Christian cemetery.

Next to the memorial, there is a small but useful visitor center that displays artifacts, such as coins and everyday objects collected from victims at the extermination and labor camps. Exhibits in a few rooms explain European history leading up to World War II. In this and the Warsaw Uprising museum, I was struck by a narrative emphasizing the lack of Allied action in face of Nazi aggression in the late 1930s. The displays show that the Poles were abandoned while the West appeased Hitler; Britain seemed to be the primary target in this critique.  A photo of Ribbentrop and Molotov signing the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact of August 1939 was juxtaposed with one showing lovely British ladies at a seaside boardwalk around the same time, not a care in the world. If the West had checked Nazi aggression, the displays suggest, the Holocaust and murder of Poles and other enemies of the Reich could have been prevented.  Whatever one thinks of the interpretation, it comes through clearly in these Polish museums. 

A detailed scale model of the camp helps visitors visualize how it operated. Photographs of the camp taken by SS guards also help visitors visualize how it operated and provide further evidence of the crimes committed. One image that still haunts me showed victims loading onto a cattle car, a little girl in a light-colored jacket holding her mother’s hand. It’s such a basic, primal image of mother and child that one sees every day, but here, you know the mother can’t protect the little girl and you imagine what they endured. Other photos that stick in my mind: the huge mounds of victims’ clothing piled up next to the gas chambers; the site of the initial mass graves, before the bodies were burned; the zoo—yes, a zoo was at the camp for the SS officers’ enjoyment; the model shows planted flowers outside the Kommandant’s quarters; the vegetable gardens, which must have been covered by human ashes. Humanity at its worst.

Having seen the four camps I’ve described here, I’m left with a question I ask in my classes on World War II and the Holocaust:  what should we do with the knowledge of atrocities committed by the Nazis, killing six million Jews and at least several million other enemies of the Reich?  We all have to answer this question in our own ways. For me, this history provides a deep sense of gratitude for the blessings I enjoy that are easy to take for granted—to live, work, marry and raise a family.  I want my students also to recognize the many ways in which they are fortunate, despite whatever personal struggles they may be facing. (and many face serious ones)  In my opinion, awareness of our security and good fortune gives us a duty to recognize when basic human rights are withheld from members of today’s society, and to speak out against social and political injustice. The Holocaust Memorial Social Action site at DU, sponsored by the Center for Judaic Studies and Holocaust Awareness Institute, offers the perfect space in which these connections between the past and present can be made.

My memories of these visits are still fresh and I have several months to think about how I will incorporate what I’ve learned into my courses. I can only make sense of the experience by focusing on hope. There was a beautiful symbol of hope in the area surrounding Treblinka—storks. These graceful birds migrate to the marshy habitat in this part of Poland to breed, and often build their nests on houses or barns. They aren’t afraid of humans, which helps explain the centuries-old legend about storks delivering babies and bringing good fortune. As we were driving away from Treblinka, we could see a row of nests on street lamps along the road. In a place forever marked by murder and genocide, this life-affirming image restored my faith in regeneration, human compassion, and our collective potential to pursue a more just present and future.

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