Thursday, 4 October 2012


I'll never forget the conversation on the train in Iran.  We were sharing a compartment with three friendly young students from Tehran, educated youngsters who spoke good English.  One of them asked us:
"So, do you believe the Holocaust happened, did they really kill one million Jews?"
"One million?  It was six million.  Yes, we know it happened.  It was one million children that were killed."

You read about it, you learn from history books, or these days from television documentaries, or films even.  Treblinka is marked on our map and is more or less on our route.  The guidebook describes the memorial there and we agree to go.  About 10 kilometres from the site we have to stop at a railway crossing.  We then hit the worst road we ever ride in the whole of Poland - an old concrete slab road full of cracks, crumbling with neglect.  The farm houses here look poor and and shabby.  A grubby sign points us into the forest.

The Nazi Germans built Treblinka as an extermination camp mainly for the Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto.  A railway spur was put in to bring the victims right into the camp.  Close by another labour camp was built where Polish prisoners were brought to quarry as slave labourers.  The extermination camp ran from July 1942 to October 1943 - a mere 16 months.  It's estimated that at least 800,000 Jews and 80,000 others from persecuted groups like the Roma were killed in this short time.  The numbers are phenomenal.  It's hard to believe.  "Did they really kill one million Jews?"

The camp was closed and destroyed after an uprising by the camp inmates who were assigned the duties of burning the bodies.  No trace was left of the camp.  A memorial has been constructed with concrete sleepers recalling the railway line and then a wide clearing in the forest features a collection of stone markers, many with the names of villages and towns from where the Jews were brought.   There are a lot of stone markers.   In the centre is a sovietesque sculpture, large and imposing.  As we approach we see there's a school party of small children chattering and scrambling around.  My first response is disgust - they've turned a memorial into a play ground.  A teacher snaps three girls posing next to the large stone with Warsaw engraved on it.  Madness - these children cannot comprehend what happened here.  The whole gang pile into a decrepit school bus and drive off.

But when I think about it I am not sure I can comprehend what happened here either.  It seems unbelievable.  "Did they really kill one million Jews?"

As we are leaving another three coachloads of young people appear.  They are talking and loud but not boisterous like the little children.  They nearly all wear a white sweatshirt.  Many of them are carrying flags.  The flag is Israel's.  We are not the only ones who have come here to bear witness.

In order to write this and check the dates I looked Treblinka up on Wikipedia.  I never know whether to trust the facts I read here but two footnotes struck me. The first might answer the question, did the Allies know what was happening? "In 2001, a copy of a decrypted telegram sent by the deputy commander of Operation Reinhard was discovered among recently declassified information in Britain. The Höfle Telegram listed 713,555 Jews killed in Treblinka up to the end of December 1942."
The second might answer the question, were those who did this punished? "The Austrian Franz Stangl was the commandant at Treblinka from the summer of 1942. In 1951, Stangl escaped to Brazil, where he found work at a Volkswagen factory in São Paulo. His role in the mass murder of men, women, and children was known to the Austrian authorities, but Austria did not issue a warrant for Stangl's arrest until 1961. In spite of his registration under his real name at the Austrian consulate in Brazil, it took another six years before he was tracked down by Simon Wiesenthal and arrested in Brazil. After extradition to West Germany he was tried for the deaths of around 900,000 people. He admitted to these killings but argued: "My conscience is clear. I was simply doing my duty." Found guilty on 22 October 1970, Stangl was sentenced to life imprisonment. He died of heart failure in prison in Düsseldorf on 28 June 1971."

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