The day started early at 6 am. After breakfast, the bus headed for Tykocin, a seemingly typical Polish village but with a dark past. In August of 1941, after pushing deep into Soviet territory, the Nazis lined up the 1400 Jewish residents of the town in the main square. The women and children were forced into trucks and the men were marched deep into the surrounding forest, where the entirety of the town’s Jewish community was massacred and buried in mass graves. Just like that, 400 years of Tykocin’s vibrant Jewish history was decimated. Only 17 survived.
When we arrived in Tykocin, we toured the village’s 350 year-old synagogue. Inside, we sang, danced, rejoiced, and celebrated our ancestors with a delegation of adults from Buenos Aires, Argentina. However, once we left this holy site, there was a tangible shift in the group’s mood.
Primo Levi, author and Auschwitz survivor, once remarked how the atrocities of the Second World War would necessitate the development of a new language. New connotations for words like “camp” had come to imply unspeakable tragedies. Likewise, when we walked through the forest outside of Tykocin, the word “forest” had taken on an entirely new meaning. Instead of feeling peaceful and serene, we became overwhelmed with dread as we walked deep into the tall pine trees. By the time we arrived at the graves, the group was left speechless. Several of us had broken out into tears.
The bus was quiet on the way to Treblinka, the most efficient of the Nazi death camps. In the short 13 months that it was open, the Nazis murdered almost 900,000 Jews there. Only 100 Jews that disembarked their train at Treblinka’s station survived to the end of the war. To hide the evidence of their crimes, the camp itself had been completely destroyed by the Germans. In its place, the Polish government erected an extensive memorial. Although it was impossible to fully comprehend what happened in Treblinka, visiting the camp reaffirmed our purpose. Waking past delegations from all of the world-Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Sweden, Germany, and Belgium-we recognized how life moves on, even on the sites where the Holocaust’s worst crimes were perpetrated. We are still here and thriving, but must continue to tell these stories so no one will ever have to suffer the same fate.
Today we woke up to beautiful weather which contrasted the feelings we would have later. We went to Tykocin and walked around the little town and got to see the remains of the only synagogue left. During that time, an adult delegation on their March of the Living from Argentina came to dance with us and sing songs like Hatikvah, David Melach, and Shechachianu on the grounds that Jews, since 1642, had done the same on. We all felt such pride and joy. There was a connection between the groups, despite the differences of culture, age, and language barrier. After that, we drove a short drive to a forest near Tykocin. I had never felt an anger like I had when I was able to walk out, leaving behind the millions of Jews that died. After listening and sharing in our debriefing tonight, I have further realized the importance of sharing this journey because sooner or later we will be the only witnesses left. We are the ones who will be telling the stories, encouraging other Jews to experience the same things we are, and sharing the stories of those who cannot share them anymore.
Light streams through the tall thin trees surrounding us, birds chirp, we walk. The beautiful weather and scenery are an unsettlingly stark contrast to the horrors committed here in the Tykocin forest. The people of Tykocin were caught unaware. Cluelessly, they were walked down a gravel path to the very spot where we stand now, the forest, the pit, the death pit. The Tykocin Jews were mowed down one at a time. Bullet by bullet, one at a time until every last Jew was gone. There are no Jews in Tykocin anymore, the holocaust of bullets made sure of that. Standing there today overlooking green square fences marking off the pit’s boarders, you can only begin to imagine the hundreds buried below, killed with no warning, no options, and not a second thought. Looked in the eyes by their killer and bam. Gone. Babies were tossed into the air and shot down as if it were a sport. The pits here are just a few of many that began the mass killings of the Jewish people. The forest holds and ominous sense of pain now. The sun was shining through the trees, birds were chirping, and we walked presses with a hopeless sense of sadness, wishing we could do more than light candles marked with names of the slaughtered or say a prayer. Wishing for never again.
Next we reach Treblinka. We follow the signs marked “extermination camp” and proceed into one of the most fatal and efficient death camps ever created. Over 800,000 murdered in just 13 months in this death machine. All evidence of the atrocities performed have been erased; only memorials fill the space now where so many reached their end. A long strip of earth coated in black stones outlines where a pit once was. A pit that where the Nazis tossed the bodies and then later, to cover their tracks, removed, counted, and burned them. They ground the bones to dust and the ashes and threw them into a river, no evidence was to be left, no one was to remember the Jews. A large stone marker stands where the gas chamber entry once did. The chamber that killed thousands, deceivingly decorated with a Jewish star to calm the frightened jews. The deception was unreal to me. The numbers were unreal to me. The dehumanization was unreal to me. Being there knowing what had happened on the very ground I stood on yet seeing nothing but commemorative stones was unreal to me. We have been told over and over that we are the last generation who will have the privilege of hearing first hand from survivors of the horrors they endured, but it never really hit me until I was standing in the middle of Treblinka repeating the words “never again” with 24 Jews my age. We are the last generation to hear it ourselves, but we will NOT be the last generation to know. Seeing how the Nazis leveled Treblinka into seemingly another clearing in the forest made me realize that not making an intentional effort to pass down these stories is not only disrespectful to those who were victims of the Holocaust, but it is giving the Nazis what they wanted, it is letting them win. By not relaying the events which hatred and intolerance can create, we are allowing those things to live on in our world today, we are letting hate win. That is why we must remember, so we will never have to remember again.