Photo: The field of stone memorials representing places from which Jews had been deported to their deaths at the Treblinka Death Camp
750 words / 4 minute read
In the late summer of 1959, accompanied by a Polish friend, a non-Jew, I travelled by car to the River Bug near Malkinia junction, on the Warsaw – Leningrad railway. We had intended, my friend and I, both of us students, to cross the river by the road bridge marked on my pre-war map. But on reaching the river, we found that the bridge was gone: destroyed in the fighting of fifteen years before, when the Red Army had driven the Wehrmacht from eastern Poland.
It was late afternoon. From the river bank, my friend called to a peasant on the far side, who was loading wood into a small barge-like boat. Eventually, the peasant rowed over to our side of the river, and took us back with him. We explained our purpose, and he took us to his village, half a mile away. Then he found a cart filled with logs, harnessed his horse to it, and drove us over the rough road, southwards toward the village of Treblinka.
From Treblinka village we proceeded for another mile or two, along the line of an abandoned railway through a forest of tall tress. Finally we reached an enormous clearing, bounded on all sides by dense woodland. Darkness was falling, and with it, the chill of night and a cold dew. I stepped down from the cart on to the sandy soil: a soil that was grey rather than brown. Driven by I know not what impulse, I ran my hand through that soil, again and again. The earth beneath my feet was coarse and sharp: filled with the fragments of human bone.
Twenty-two years later I returned to Treblinka. The bridge over the Bug had long been rebuilt. At the entrance to the camp was a museum, placards and explanations. Further on was the clearing, filled now with small stone monuments, each stone inscribed with the name of a town or village whose Jews had been murdered there. The sites of the railway siding and the gas chamber had been identified and marked. The railway itself had been re-created symbolically with concrete sleepers.
I could not bend down again to disturb the soil. In the years that had passed I had learned too much of what had happened there, and of what torments had been inflicted on my fellow Jews.
The systematic attempt to destroy all European Jewry – an attempt now known as the Holocaust – began in the last week of June 1941, within hours of the German invasion of the Soviet Union. This onslaught upon Jewish life in Europe continued without respite for nearly four years. At its most intense moments, during the autumn of 1941, and again during the summer and autumn of 1942, many thousands of Jews were killed every day. By the time Nazi Germany had been defeated, as many as six million of Europe’s eight million Jews had been slaughtered: if the killing had run its course, the horrific figure would have been even higher.
Jews perished in extermination camps, execution sites, ghettos, slave labour camps, and on the death marches. The testimony of those who survived constitutes the main record of what was done to the Jews during those years. The murderers also kept records, often copious ones. But the victims, the six million who were done to death, could leave no record. A few fragments of diaries, letters and scribbled messages do survive But in the main, others must bear witness to what was done to the millions who could never tell their own story.
This book is an attempt to draw on the nearest of the witnesses, those closest to the destruction, and through their testimony to tell something of the suffering of those who perished, and are forever silent.
The preparations for mass murder were made possible by Germany’s military successes in the months following the invasion of Poland in 1939. But from the moment that Adolf Hitler had come to power in Germany in 1933, the devastating process had begun. It was a process which depended upon the rousing of historic hatreds and ancient prejudice, and upon the cooperation or acquiescence of many different forces: of industry, science and medicine, of the Civil Service and bureaucracy, and of the most modern mechanisms and channels of communication. It depended also upon collaborators from countries far beyond the German border; and it depended most of all, one survivor has remarked, “upon the indifference of bystanders in every land”.
Preface, The Holocaust – the Human Tragedy