In the spring of 1945, during the closing days of World War II, at a place known locally as Ettersberg Hill in eastern Germany, advance elements of the U.S. 8th Army broke through the gates and barbed wire of a prison facility called Buchenwald. What the battle-hardened American soldiers found there would not only live forever in their memories, but would make of the name itself an epithet on the lips of generations to follow. In its eight-year history as a prisoner “work camp”, the crematorium and surrounding forests of Buchenwald had witnessed the disposal of the bodies of at least 56,000 of the quarter million slave-laborers who had toiled there. The American liberators were met by 28,000 emaciated survivors.
As terrible as were the grizzly statistics carefully recorded in the German captors’ daily logs, they paled in comparison with the lists just as meticulously maintained by other “camps”- especially those master-minded by Heinrich Himmler and created as part of the infamous “Operation Reinhard”. Such facilities as those at Sobibor, Chelmno and Belzac in Poland were different. At these places there were no labor projects; no detention barracks; no temporary holding pens. They were “extermination camps”, pure and simple. The one held up as a “model” of perfection by Himmler and his SS leaders – an example of the kind of efficiency to be emulated – was Treblinka.
Situated in a remote and heavily-forested area in the northeast corner of Poland, where Bison still roam and forests are primal, it is easy for a visitor today to understand how the secrets of Treblinka could have remained hidden for so long. While names like Dachau and Buchenwald quickly became world-infamous, very little was said about Treblinka well into the 1970s and 1980s. For one thing, it lay in an area occupied by the Soviets whose own anti-Semitic activities were not so foreign to what the Germans had done. Secondly, by 1943 the Nazis had managed to cover up much of the evidence – even exhuming and cremating what bodies had not previously gone to the ovens. And thirdly, very few of those taken there in the first place ever saw the light of day. There was, though, a prison uprising in 1943, with a handful of prisoners escaping to survive with local partisans.
The Reinhard Plan had as its goal the annihilation of Europe’s Jews. The daily trains which came down the single track leading to the make-believe station at Treblinka pulled box cars filled with Jews gathered from at least twelve countries. Within two hours of arrival, death by asphyxiation, cremation over a system of grates, and burial of the ashes would be completed, and all would be in readiness for the next arrival. The camp’s infrastructure could handle 2000 per day.
Treblinka operated as a death camp for only one year, in which time 800,000 Jews were “processed”.
Of all the stone memorials which share the silence of Treblinka today, the most telling is a large circle of 1700 carefully-placed native stones, each commemorating one of the villages whose innocent residents ended up here. Gone with them are the untold stories of the 800,000 individuals who made that sad, sad one-way journey. There is, however, one stone honoring an individual. It carries the name of Januse Korczak, the pen name of a radio host and writer of childrens’ books. Dr. Henryk Goldzmit also operated an orphanage in Warsaw. He declined an opportunity to leave the ghetto, but instead chose to march with his 192 orphans to the train station, and to die with them at Treblinka.
As we mark Holocaust Memorial Day, on January 27th, we are left still with the haunting question: How could an inhumanity of such gigantic proportions take place amidst the cultural and educational landscape of one of the world’s most progressive countries in the middle of the twentieth century ?
We each have our own way of dealing with the act of mourning. For me, I regularly take from a desk drawer, and hold in my hands a hand-written list of sixteen names I have committed to memory and determined never to forget: Aushwitz – Buchenwald – Dachow – Bergen-Belsen – Sachsenhausen – Mathau – Birkenau – Chelmo – Ravensbruck – Mittelbau – Nordhausen – Sobibor – Theresienstadt-Matheusen – Treblinka.
And as I write these words today, I am able to weep for those who traveled THE SAD, SAD ROAD TO TREBLINKA.
Al Cooper can be heard on Cedar City’s KSUB talk radio each Monday at 4:00 PM. Al was recently awarded “Hall of Fame” status by the Utah Emergency Management Association.