Leaving Warsaw we first went to Treblinka. Then we visited Sobibor. I came to Poland knowing more about those two death camps than I did about the others. I had read the memoirs of some of the survivors. There’a a great book called “Into That Darkness” that is a series of interviews with Franz Stangl, the commandant of Treblinka, that were done when he was in prison after the war. Worth reading. I’ll write about those two camps later.
Belzec. I knew very little about Belzec. Hundreds of thousands of people were murdered there. It’s near the border of Ukraine. It was part of the series of Aktion Reinhard camps – Treblinka, Sobibor, and Belzec – that were set up specifically to eradicate all Jews from Europe once the Final Solution became official Nazi policy.
The facts of all these camps are chilling; the numbers are mind-numbing. But Belzec. Belcez gave me what I came here for. And, as I expected, I didn’t like it.
Unlike the other camps, the Belzec death camp is not in a secluded area. Sitting just outside the town of Belzec, there are houses that look to be pre-war era dotting the area between the main avenue and the entrance to the camp. It definitely is, and was, part of the town.
There is a small visitor’s center/museum at the site. It’s filled with stories of those who died there, notes about those who ran the camp, and artifacts found years later. A case with dozens of Star of David armbands, tin bowls that the watery camp soup was ladled into, buttons, small toys, eyeglasses, shoes… the echoes of the people who passed through here. Nothing new or different from what we saw at the other camps or at the museums. People. Death. Mementoes.
It’s the memorial at Belzec that shook me. Subtle, yet an intense experience you don’t understand the intensity of until you are already in it. The Belzec memorial is a large hill filled with black stones and rocks encircled by a cement barrier with twisted pieces of rusted metal protruding upward. Slicing the field in half is a walkway with a tall memorial stone at the end. The pathway to the memorial stone is cut into the hill so that it is level. As you walk along the pathway, the symbolism of the stones and metal protrusions are clear. Feelings of sorrow, of the whole waste of human life. Of the cruelty and horror. A few steps further, as the hill rose and the path stayed level, I realized this was a turning point. I could still see the stones and metal without looking up, but the wall was up to my neck. I had the slight sensation of being trapped. I didn’t want to go forward, but I couldn’t turn back. Unlike those who died here, I did actually have the choice to go back. Back to the road, to the bus, back to my hotel with the soft bed and smooth linens. Room service. Hot tea on demand. I wanted to turn back. But I didn’t.
As the height of the wall increased, the feeling of being trapped did as well. The cement walls were not smooth, but had random, rough curves and outcroppings. Is was if there was a plasticity to the stone and the undulations of huge numbers of people pressing against it was frozen in time. With each step I took, there was a hollow “ping” echoing against the engulfing walls. Barely audible, but there. I listened closely to each ping, recognizing it as a footstep from the past. Ping. Ping. Ping. I don’t know how many steps I took – I wasn’t counting. But each of those pings was like a message from those behind the wall. Remember. Remember. Remember.