Tuesday, July 10, 2012

July 10, 2012 Warsaw-Treblinka-Bialystok

July 10, 2012             Warsaw-Treblinka-Bialystok

Shayna has become our family photographer. Last summer, she went to Camp Galileo’s photography workshop and discovered a hobby that has captured her imagination.  She worked in the summer, then leveraged her Nonny (thanks Nonny!), to get a fancy 35 mm camera and she’s been snapping away ever since. 

I tell her that “when I was your age” we had something called film that made taking 500 pictures in an afternoon prohibitively expensive….and you didn’t see your pictures for a week after you returned from vacation.  Never mind.

We woke up this morning in Warsaw to gather our suitcases, load the van, and begin the next part of our family roots journey.

Helise met us for breakfast to go over details and get as much genealogical information as possible so her office can conduct research while we travel.

Goodbye, Helise...  See you in San Francisco (or our next trip to Poland)

We drove a few hours on the main road, then switched to a smaller side road…then to an even smaller road with lots of pot holes…followed by a paved road that looked like the one in Ukraine on our way to Trochinbrod. 

Then, we noticed a small sign that said “Treblinka.”  We drove in to a parking lot with three other cars. 

“It’s hard to get to Treblinka,” I told Jakub.  “That’s the point,” he responded…as I understood instantly the intentionality of placing a death camp in an obscure area, far away from anybody.  In fact, Jakub told us that the local villagers were all moved out during the war.  We did cross railroad tracks which, whether they were the tracks that brought the Jews to Treblinka or not, caused me pause.

Jakub explained that most visitors (OK, tourists) see Auschwitz because its more centrally located and easy to access from Warsaw and Krakow.  Treblinka much less so, though he explained that Israeli groups visit regularly.

We started in a small museum that traced the history of Treblinka, from a labor camp then to a death camp that claimed the lives of 800,000 Jews.

We walked then, to the entrance of the camp.

As Zvi had explained, this was more a memorial than the remains of a death camp.

Entrance to death camp

There were no buildings remaining and lots of memorials and artistic creations to recall events there.

We walked down a wide green path and saw concrete slabs along the way.

 Jakub explained that these were placed in the location of the train tracks so we could see, and follow, the path of the trains that brought the Jews to their deaths.

Shayna stopped to take a picture of a flower.  Talk about a moment.  She LOVES photographing flowers and stops everywhere and anywhere she sees one to capture it on film (or digits, as the case may be).

What a contrast…to be walking in a death camp with flowers blooming and to have Shayna stop herself…and our group…to notice it.

I asked Shayna about the flower she photographed.  She told me she wasn’t taking pictures of flowers.  She was taking pictures of a butterfly.

That just about did me in.  For those of you not familiar with American Jewish folk music…especially at Jewish summer camps…there’s a poem, made into a song, called “The Last Butterfly,” a plaintive ballad that recalls the Holocaust.

(Camp aside: the kids loved this song so much they kept requesting it over and over, without realizing its reference.  Some time in the mid-1980s, some wise song leaders removed it from the song list so it could be preserved for moments when a Holocaust song was appropriate.)

The sight of Shayna taking a picture of a butterfly at Treblinka filled me, at least, with a profound sense of awe and Godliness.  I didn’t think Shayna knew the song, which made this whole scene all the more powerful.

Here’s the poem (check Youtube for versions of the poem set to music):

"The Butterfly"
Pavel Friedman 4.6.1942

The last, the very last,
So richly, brightly, dazzlingly yellow.
Perhaps if the sun's tears would sing
against a white stone. . . .

Such, such a yellow
Is carried lightly 'way up high.
It went away I'm sure because it wished to
kiss the world good-bye.

For seven weeks I've lived in here,
Penned up inside this ghetto.
But I have found what I love here.
The dandelions call to me
And the white chestnut branches in the court.
Only I never saw another butterfly.

That butterfly was the last one.
Butterflies don't live in here,
in the ghetto.

We continued to walk to the site of the mass grave, Shayna taking pictures the whole way.

At one point, I asked her how she was doing and she said, “Look Daddy, this butterfly won’t leave my hand.”  She held up her hand, now with a white butterfly clinging to it….as  it had been for a good 10 minutes. 

Another moment for me.

She explained that she’d been walking and that the butterfly just stayed there.  She decided to work the butterfly into a series of photographs.  Here are a few:

Here are two others Shayna took:

Later, I told her that there was a song about butterflies and the Holocaust.  “I know Daddy,” she said, “Rebecca did a report on it.  That’s why I liked having the butterfly on my hand.”  No words at that moment.

When we turned a corner from the wide green path, we saw a giant memorial as well as hundreds of stones.  This was the mass grave where 800,000 Jews were buried.  Atop the mass grave, they placed stones, each one to represent a community lost to the Holocaust. 

Walking around, we saw a huge stone for Warsaw, 

another large one for Bialystok, the town which is our destination today.

Then, I saw the stone with the Polish spelling for Mizritch, the first shtetl we visited last week and home to my great grandparents, Isaac and Leah Rosenbloom.  I placed a stone on the memorial rock and asked Shayna to take a picture.  

It was a sense of full circle, as the community that my family called home existed as a Jewish shtetl for only 40 more years.  Then, the Jewish history of Mizritch moved to Treblinka and the mass grave we were visiting.  A moment of profound thanks that our ancestors made the decision they did…

We barely spoke in our time there.  When we did speak, we just whispered to one another.  I choked up a few times, overcome by the number of memorial rocks all over the place, staring at the site of the crematorium, and realizing that the grave site was, indeed, underneath us…right then…right there..

The site of the crematorium.

We held hands with one another from time to time and from place to place as we walked.  I asked the girls how they were doing.  “Sad” and what else is there to say.  Shayna whispered to me that Marci suggested the four of us gather at the Bialystok memorial rock and recite kaddish, which we did.