Treblinka and the Ground of Basic Goodness

On this, my eleventh visit to Poland, I’ve felt at home once again, reconnecting with a lineage that is clearly as Polish as it is Jewish. This sense of connection is much more fundamental than nationality. It is a deep resonance with place – with the powerful presence of earth and trees and sky – a particular stillness that sings its own distinct melody and in its singing holds the essence of all things. Simply by being here, something is reawakened in me. The phrases that express this experience all seem to include the word heart; heart essence . . . awakened heart.

The sense of an inner reunion is the invisible breath that supports me here. Within this awareness I don’t find a particular mission to pursue, just a simple quality of spaciousness and being. But then a question arises. If space has no mission beyond this simple beingness, I wonder:  How does this help? Does my being here, does our being here, contribute in a positive way?

The greatest killing factories that humanity ever produced were here in Poland. Can there be a more potent charnel ground on earth – where death and life have collided so catastrophically – to experience the genuine heart of sadness and sense the condition of one’s connection or trust in basic goodness?

From Warsaw, my friend and I rented a car and drove to Treblinka. The ninety-minute drive took four frustrating hours as we drove into fields and other dead ends. Unfortunately I couldn’t understand the words on the only directional sign within the sprawling village that carries the same name as the camp.

Did they really expect tourists, even a veteran tourist like me, to understand that “Muzeum Walki I Meczenstwa” referred to the concentration camp?  A few days later, I learned that those words meant “Museum of Struggle and Martyrdom.” No wonder the tourist guides, referring to Treblinka, say “access by private transportation.” And no wonder it took eleven years (plus four difficult hours) to finally get there.

Unlike Auschwitz-Birkenau, the secrecy of Treblinka’s history somehow continues. From the summer of 1942 to the summer of 1943, roughly 800,000 Jews were gassed as part of “Operation Reinhard,” the Nazi code name for the complete annihilation of European Jewry, and one of three concentration camps dedicated to this single-minded mission. On August 2, 1943, after an armed insurrection by its inmates, the camp was dismantled, liquidated and the area plowed and planted over. To this day, the precise details and location of its killing apparatus are not entirely known and are still being investigated by researchers.

But the journey was worthwhile. To my surprise, Treblinka’s memorial was the most powerful Holocaust memorial I have visited: a mandala of17,000 irregular boulders surrounding one monolithic stone monument, like a symbolic Jewish cemetery. All one has to do to enter the power of the place is to walk very slowly among the stones – not relying so much on the eyes, as we usually do, but on the physical presence that the stones exude and the care given to their arrangement. For me, the absence of the dead was met or held by the stones’ presence, and I was held there with them.

Polish and Israeli flags at Treblinka

That night, in the darkness, my friend and I finally found our peaceful guest house near Tykocin, on a dirt road in a village called Kiermusy. The next morning, in the misty sunrise, my heart was filled with the gentle spirit of beauty and goodwill. Within this peaceful quality of being, there is a natural impulse to look around, a desire to open and extend outward. Appreciating others, one smiles and says hello and suddenly a new bridge of connection is made. New friendships become strangely potent and full of meaning, as well as old ones. Is there anything more important in this flicker we call a lifetime?

But back to my question:  If space has no particular mission, just this simple quality of being and openness, then how does visiting a place like Treblinka . . .  bearing witness to what happened there and sharing these thoughts help?

I’d love to hear your ideas and thoughts.

10 Responses to Treblinka and the Ground of Basic Goodness

  1. Ellen, I so enjoyed this, and there is an even greater sense of open heart and simple directness in your writing. Being taken to the Treblinka monument was powerful and photos are great when they are used in this way. Loved this passage, among others: New friendships become strangely potent and full of meaning, as well as old ones. Is there anything more important in this flicker we call a lifetime?

    My only suggestion is… wish you had written and sent out more of these!

  2. Last winter a terrible windstorm blew over hundreds of trees near my cabin. When I went out to survey the damage, I found that I couldn’t just walk by and note them. I had to stay with them, be aware of what happened, express my sadness in whatever way I could.

    I know this is not the same as what happened at Treblinka, but I do believe we have to bear witness to whatever happens in this world, can’t turn our heads, can’t dismiss it.

    From the photos, I can see how the stones at Treblinka are so powerful.

  3. I love your comment Kathy and I do think your story is a great illustration exactly because you felt it so personally! Thank you.

  4. Dear Ellen. Thank you for this story that begs the question on space which you say has no particular mission. I’m not so sure. I live in Poland now on the site of my husband’s family home before the war, the home from which they were taken by the Nazis. They survived the war but there is something palpable in the atmosphere here. Memory? Collective memory? Energy fields? This atmosphere asks of me not only to bear witness but to take action. I just returned from Bratislava where, sadly, another drinking culture is developing within the medieval walls of this ancient town and was suddenly struck by the architecture which offers us its history and its beauty, its challenges and changes and was aware of the disconnection between the presence of very drunk weekend tourists alongside the delicacy of the buildings. I feel this disconnect in Poland. When the Jewish/Polish population of academics, intellectuals, artists and nobility was aborted here so was the soul of the country. Something is trying to fit back together again and sometimes I feel the space has a hold on me. All of us who have come back talk about it. It’s a curious feeling.

    I’m a friend of Juanita’s and she thought we’d like to strike up a correspondence and indeed I would. I just finished reading Train Ticket and was completely captivated by it. I’m looking forward to reading more of your work.

    If you are still in Poland, please feel free to be our guest in Sichow. Thank you for posting this blog – the stones in the photograph are majestic. Is it possible to be proud of this stone? Certainly they have my utmost respect. Many thanks. Amber

  5. Dear Ellen – These pilgrimages you are making to Poland seem like very important work for you and for much that is unseen, very much in the spirit of Tikkun Olam. Thank you!

  6. Dear Amber,
    Thank you so much for this response and further fine-tuning. I’m captivated by the question of how exactly to ‘take action’ and by your comment that ‘Something is trying to fit back together again . . .’ I would love to connect further so let’s be in touch.
    gratefully, Ellen

  7. I’m reminded of the Lodz concentration camp we visited, or rather the field that remains. It had a kind of still quality, desolate, with a bit of heaviness, grief, of some terrible history held deep. But also open, life going on, things growing. Perhaps that’s deeper still. Ancient arms embracing. Mirroring with nothing held back. Liquid, moist mirror, watering our ground.

  8. Dear Ellen,
    Last year, I journeyed from the United States to Poland, finally bringing to fruition the pull that I have felt all of my life. Because my journey was based upon this undeniable force rather than tourism or morbid curiosity, your words…the description of your visceral reaction to the Memorial, were especially moving.
    During my time in my ancestral towns, and at Belzec, where many members of my family were gassed, through the screaming in my head, I could hear the collective voice of my family giving their approval…thanking me for honoring them in this way.
    To the question as to the importance of the space, I think it’s completely subjective. Some will occupy that same space and feel closer, as I did, and some will not be able to bear it and will shut down. And some, like my dear friend Amber Poole Kieniewicz, will work tirelessly to try to make sense of something senseless, using art as the vehicle.
    I moved to Spain two months ago for all the obvious reasons. But I know in my heart that I am also here to be closer to Poland. I’m going back in the Spring for what I know will be the second of many visits. I hope to quiet the screaming in my head sufficiently so that I can feel even more. For me, occupying that same space is paramount.

  9. Hello Ellen!
    I’m also a Montreal native, whose parents were survivors (Lodz & Krakow). Your work is important, and your words so evocative!
    When I wanted to visit Lodz on my first visit to Europe, my mother shouted over the phone in loud Yiddish: “Gay nisht! Di blut fun undzere millionen ligt in d’rerd”! You may probably know the translation. It reflects how incredibly angry and distrustful our parents were. While I’m a very loving and forgiving person, I totally understood. Like you, I’ve immersed myself in Jewish culture and life. I was a professional singer for 35 years, and continue teaching Yiddish Language & Culture.
    Wishing you contined success with your writing and creative endeavors!
    Betty Silberman

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