There’s snow everywhere, as far as my eye can see, covering the ground and the 17,000 stones that memorialize the hundreds of thousands of my people that were murdered here. The slushy remnants of yesterday’s flurry is seeping into my boots, and my feet can feel the chilly dew through my three layers of socks.
Around me is destruction. The death of a civilization. The calculated cleansing because the right to live became a question for us, no longer a given. Treblinka has no remorse, nothing to comfort us. The eerie silence tortures my mind as I tried to picture what happened here, fighting back tears as I realize that had I been here, one of these stones would have been the only memory of my life left on earth.
I take in the horror in total shock, my body aching from the fatigue of being here, seeing these sites around Poland for days. I think back to Auschwitz, where I numbly walked through one of the largest human killing machines in history and saw faded photographs of entire families that were wiped out in madness. I picture the yeshiva of Lublin, once a great center for Torah scholarship and now reduced to half a bookcase of Talmud. I see the concentration camp Plaszow, which has now been turned into a park with a memorial. I remember Majdanek, where the Holocaust came to life for the first time, where I stood sobbing outside of the gas chambers because it was all too real, too vivid. The Shoah was no longer a collection of stories or a collective history, it was right before my eyes. All this time, everywhere I went, one thought ingrained itself into my mind, deepening the sense of hopelessness I felt: How did we survive this?
Just one week earlier, I walked through the Jewish Quarter of Prague feeling slightly uneasy. There was no obvious threat of anti-Semitism coming my way, but I felt overwhelmingly uncomfortable. I looked around and saw the preserved fragments of Jewish life in Prague, what would have been a museum of an extinct species had Hitler been successful. The tour guide pointed out areas of the former ghetto that dated back to the 9th century, now a low-rise section of a gentrified street. There are still Jews in Prague I am told, but I saw few signs of obvious Jewish life. The storm of the 1940’s swept away this community, and I found myself questioning why a Jew would choose to live here once more. I made motzei after Kabbalat Shabbat with a small community in an abandoned synagogue, the words feeling as empty as the absence of Jewish spirit in this city.
My mind returns back to where I am now, lighting a yartzeit candle in Treblinka hoping that it will be enough, knowing it will never be enough. But the flicker of the flame alleviates some of my helplessness, a small light of hope in a sea of absolute despair. In this snow-filled hell I picture the one real solace as clearly as I can to remind myself that this is all in the past. I see the Kotel in my mind and re-live the feeling of lingering my fingers on the ancient stone, I am entranced by vivid memories of wandering the streets of the Old City. I hear children playing in Hebrew and their parents arguing bitterly about Israeli politics. I yearn for it in a way I never have before, perhaps truly understanding Israel for the first time. Through Majdenek and Auschwitz I clung to the images of Jewish freedom, craving the sovereignty of the Jewish State that weeks earlier I took for granted. I began counting down the hours until I could leave, to complete my own Yitziat Mizraim and leave this narrow, historically traumatic place for the freedom I have been blessed to know my whole life. The divided Israel, the problematic Israel, the controversial Israel vanished and was replaced with a deeper unconditional love for my flawed homeland, for even at its worst its very existence is nothing short of a miracle.
My friends emerge from behind the stones scattered throughout the snow, faces solemn and feet trudging through the thickening ice. We return a little less innocent, a little more humbled. Our silence echoes that of our surroundings, as if uttering a single word diminishes the remembrance of those whose final destination was here. We climb onto our bus, sipping soup and slowly returning back to the real world.