Wednesday, July 14, 2004
This is a continuation of 13 Ways of Looking at a Death Camp. Numbers I through III are here.
Treblinka is the least preserved of all the death camps on Polish soil. After the uprising in ‘43, the Nazis razed the camp to the ground. The Jews of the region had nearly all been liquidated by then, so the camp’s destruction was no great loss. All that remained when the Russians arrived were the ends of the rail lines leading in to a field of ruin. After the war, after the rubble of the camp was cleared, the Polish government used the site as a burial ground for old tombstones from throughout the country. Grave markers which had been pulled up to serve as paving stones were uprooted once again and brought to Treblinka, where they were piled neatly in an ever-rising ziggurat.
With time, this peculiar burial mound became a tourist attraction of sorts, and pilgrims came in growing numbers - from America, from Israel, from Britain, and even from the Soviet Union. Sometimes the visitors looked for a stone familiar to them in some way – a family or first name, a name of a town or even a date with some personal significance; if they found it, they would lay a wreath of flowers, or place a smaller stone atop it as is the traditional custom. Sometimes they brought tokens of their own to be added to the pile: a locket, a pair of gloves, a gold ring, a sheaf of letters. And so the mountain continued to grow for years after the last gravestones had been placed there, the official memorials at other camp sites had been constructed, and the last survivors of the camp itself had died.
Initially, only Jews visited the Treblinka memorial. After 1989, however, the Poles began to reexamine their own history during the war, to dig up the graves that underlay the plazas and the factories of postwar Poland. And, while no official decision was ever made to broaden the scope of the memorial (since the memorial itself had no official existence), Poles began to make their own pilgrimages. Besides the mementos brought by individual families, officers of the state bureaucracy – on their own initiative, and without authorization – dug through the archives of a dozen governments for lists of deportees, draftees, labor conscripts, the executed, the starved, the missing. They found maps of the General Government and of German colonization; childhood photos of the murdered officers of Katyn; all this and more they brought in truckloads to Treblinka, and added to the monument. Russians came, too, with their posthumous decorations, their red flags and Lenin busts; an elderly woman scaled the mountain to its top to place her firstborn son’s baby shoes (he died of hunger during the siege of Leningrad) at the very summit. Two weeks later it was buried under the ruins of a Ukrainian church, burned in ‘46, whose husk was carried to the site on foot, board by charred board, by the surviving children of the vanished village where once it stood.
Today, the Treblinka mountain is the highest point in Poland. There have been proposals, periodically, to take it apart, to organize its constituent material. Archaeologists from Tel Aviv came recently to assist in the excavation of the mound; they plan to dig a tunnel into the center, from which a spiral staircase would ascend to the very top. From that height, you can see as far as Gdansk to the northwest; to the southwest until recently, you could almost make out the Marriott tower through the haze around Warsaw, but now the view is blocked by the ruins of a slave ship from Port-au-Prince, on which it isn’t safe to climb.
If you were to climb that staircase now, at the summit you would find a coarse, grey concrete platform, built of slabs of the dismantled Berlin Wall. The Germans come periodically to clear new offerings from the platform and raise it another half-meter on a hydraulic jack; they fill in the space below with rubble from Dresden. Climb on that, and in the center of the center slab you could see the graffiti looks a fresher blue than elsewhere: Behold thy Gods, O Israel, it reads, in a hand untutored in Hebrew script.
At the heart – both physically and spiritually – of the Yad va-Shem national shrine at Dimona is the eternal flame. The “flame” (in actuality there are no flames; the famously flickering light is the product of air currents from the core below) lies at the bottom of a deep well of glass. Multiple reflections carry its image up to the level of the visitors’ gallery, and out, onto all the walls and even the faces of the visitors. The effect is so successful that some are afraid to step into such a fiery furnace – and many complain of the heat upon exiting, though the air is carefully controlled to within a half-degree of the standard seventy-two.
A custom has grown up for visitors to throw small objects into the flame. No one is certain where this practice began, but it is thought to have arisen as a natural extension of wishing wells. Individuals, couples or whole families will come and say kaddish or el maleh rachamim for their departed, sometimes of long ago but increasingly of recent memory, then reach into their pockets and toss, or give to their children to toss, a few coins, or pebbles, perhaps a prayer written on wood or ceramic or, especially among American visitors, some small personal memento, into the well of the flame. Then wait for the flash as their offering is consumed. Although condemned by both the Ashkenazi and Sephardi Chief Rabbis, many consider it a beautiful, contemporary rite of Jewish mourning, practiced by thousands, and the income from this tourism is a major contributor to the financial upkeep of the facility as a whole.
A more troubling side of this popularity, of course, is the increasing use of the shrine as a site for suicides, of solitary individuals but especially of groups. In response, the height of the guardrail has been raised, and the soldiers guarding the shrine keep closer watch than in the past when teenagers enter without their parents or other adult supervision. The most recent tactic adopted, to much fanfare, has been the installation of a series of posters displaying the results of failed suicide attempts in the flame, photos of the bodies of those who got caught on the way down, and had to be retrieved. Most of those who come with suicide in mind are unaware that one could survive the attempt, but several have. None has lived more than a year, but a year of terrible suffering. It is hoped that the vivid prospect of slow death from radiation sickness will prove to be a powerful deterrent in the future to those who would throw themselves into the flame.
The apartment was on the outskirts of the city, not far, in fact, from the camp: a flat in a tower beside a highway, one among hundreds, identical and scattered about like droppings in a field. The buildings were the color of dust, the ground a hard grey skin broken by tufts of brown grass and puddles of rainwater. Here and there a playground swing, a shrine to the virgin, or a little seated Saviour in a box like an outhouse, resting his head in his left hand and wearing a pained expression, as though he were constipated. David said hello to each as they passed. Buck up, man, God knows you’ve seen rougher times. She laughed along.
“I am not promising anything of my father,” Elzbieta said, “you understand.”
“I’m not promising you’ll see him in headlines or anything either.”
“Don’t be silly. I only say that it is very early in the morning now for him. I wish you could meet him when he was younger. But he is very informed even today.”
They had met at the camp, of course. She had surprised him when she entered the barracks, and he dropped his tape recorder. After apologies, the tape recorder had to explained, and the simplest explanation David could muster was: he was working on a story, perhaps to become a book, about Poland. Yes, his family was from here. No, after the war. But he wasn't interested in the war so much; he wanted to write about the country as it lived, not as it died. The struggle under and after Communism, that sort of thing. And he didn't want just to hang out in the jazz clubs of Warsaw; he wanted to see the real country. All this was, of course, entirely spurious. So she told him about her father, who had had some small role in anti-government activities in the 1970s. Would he like to interview him? Very much indeed.
Upstairs, she threw their jackets in the washtub and made him tea while he poked about the apartment. He examined the Lapp etchings and West African masks on the living room walls, the photo calendar of New York above her desk below her bed, the cot in her kid brother’s room where her mother slept when the son’s asthma or her husband’s snoring acted up. She served him pickle salad, boiled potatoes and Italian plums which he took whole and spit out the stone. Her father awoke just as Elzbieta had risen to clear the dishes.
David offered his hand from his chair, and motioned to the older man to sit next to him. The father smiled at his guest and waved, and mumbled to his daughter in Polish.
“Tell him to sit, stay a while,” David said.
“He wants to know how you like in the city.”
“Tell him I love it. I would stay here forever. Tell him to sit.”
The daughter pointed to her empty chair as she translated, but her father waved her down, remaining standing in the doorway. Curled nostrils and dark hair on the back of his hands; his ancestry was unmistakable, but David couldn't think of a polite way to bring the subject up, not even to a landsmann. He would never have guessed from looking at the daughter.
The father played with his greying, uneven beard with his left hand as he stood there, contemplating, with his eyes fixed not so much on his guest as the space he occupied. After a moment, he came up with a question.
“Why doesn’t he sit down? Does he only take interviews standing?”
“He doesn’t want to sit down; you stay; I’m almost finish the dishes.”
“Well, what did he ask?”
Elzbieta rubbed her hands on her apron and replaced it on its hook beside the sink. “It wasn’t a question; he said Lublin is too much an old city, to much of the east.”
“Tell him it looks very modern; on the tram, when we were walking, we saw shops just like in America. Tell him I’m impressed. Even this apartment, tell him. I’d love to hear about all the architecture of the city, from an expert like him; tell him that.”
The older man snorted into his moustache, and his daughter laughed. “He says -- it’s funny. He asks if you know about the secret about the apartment, about the housing development.”
“Not unless you told me.”
Elzbieta looked at her father as she told the story. “They did competition for building this development in the sixties, for an artistic purpose, and so that it would be the best housing for the workers. It was part of the reforms from the period. All the most important architects of the time participated.”
Her father interrupted her, and her retort had just the faintest edge, as if astonished that a warning were still necessary after so many times around this course.
“I'm sorry,” she apologized, in English. “My father was working as architect for then as well. But he was passed over for this competition. The winning design was a plan to build thirty-six apartment blocks, of the usual type, to be laid out in such a way that, from the air, they see the portrait of Wladislaw Gomulka, in full profile.”
Her father doubled up his chin and frowned dramatically, and she aped him, and they laughed, and David with them.
“From the air!” the American cried. “That’s perfect! Well, you certainly can’t see it from the ground.”
She translated without relaxing her jaw, pinching in her vowels and making herself giggle. Her father cut her off, and began waving his hands, speaking through his own laughter.
“He says, of course you can’t see it; they never build it this way, this is the funny part. Because of shortages, the project is not begun until 1971; by then Gomulka is sensitive, politically, so they alter the design to form the profile of Brezhnev.”
The name translated itself, and her father knew to laugh again, to shake his flannel shirttails loose, and expose their raggedness. Can you imagine, he asked? The best housing for the workers, in Brezhnev’s nose? Can you imagine? He laughed and laughed, rubbed his eyes and sneezed and laughed again, shuffling back to his bedroom.