7 a.m. Slawek and Radek come by the Hotel Europa to pick me up, and give me a few minutes to enjoy breakfast downstairs. I love food in Poland. I love food in Europe. They eat REAL food in Europe. It grows out of the ground. It has flavor. REAL food.
We have a quick stop at a college building in Lublin, near the hotel. This was where Operation Reinhard’s main offices were located, overseen by Odilo Globocnik.
I really wish that your computer could read Polish characters because I’m typing words that can’t be properly read. Maybe I’ll stick Photoshop buttons in here at a later date so that you can see the proper words. Like my guide’s name is Slawek, but the ‘l’ is actually an ‘l’ with a small line in the middle, giving it a ‘w’ sound. So his name sounds like Swah-veck. Sobibor has an accent over the ‘o’ and the ‘i’ is an ‘ee’ sound always in Polish. So Sobibor sounds like So-bee-boor, with the boor sounding like ‘boo’ like as in ghost. Belzec has a line through its ‘l’ also, and a dot over the ‘z,’ so Belzec sounds like Behw-zhets. The lone ‘c’ in Polish is a ‘ts’ sound like ‘cats.’
We continue on the few-hour drive to Sobibor, stopping along the Bug (pronouned Book, like ‘boo’) River on the way for some coffee and bread. Just across the river is Belarus, former Russia. You could easily wade across the short distance. Then we stop in Wlodawa (the ‘W’ is a ‘v’ sound, and the ‘l’ has a line through it. Vwah-dah-wah, with the stress on the dah). Of the 10,000 inhabitants of pre-War Wlodawa, 7,000 were Jewish. And most of them were sent 12km north to Sobibor. This number of Jews fluctuated as Jews were brought in from other parts of Europe for work duty. Out of 1,000 Jews from Austria, only 3 are known to have survived.
In Wlodawa, we visited the Muzeum Pojezeirza Leczynsko-Wlodawaskiego, which is contained inside an old Jewish synagogue that the Nazis used as a warehouse for victim’s belongings from Sobibor. In recent years a Dutch investor and the township have refurbished the synagogue and the inside is beautiful. There are a few ruined tombstones bearing Jewish inscription on display. The Nazis loved to torture the Jews in all possible ways. The Jews were forced to tear the centuries-old tombstones out of the earth from the Jewish cemetery, smash them up, and use the stones to pave new roads. In Wlodawa, ulica Solna (Solna street) received a good many stones in its lengthening.
The striking main area for the torah is repainted and the original wall inscriptions in the other building are still up, hundreds of years old. In the main building is a room set up as a teaching room for the young Jews of the time, complete with books, toys, desk, etc.
Then we made our way to Sobibor. Slawek and I walked across the train tracks to the old Sobibor station, now entirely dilapidated and not in use. The bench where Jan Piwonski told of seeing the Jews unloaded in ‘Shoah,’ now lays back against the fence around Sobibor station. More of the paint has come off and a chain holds the doors closed, though it did look like fresh flowers were in the window of the office. Directly across from this old station is a lumberyard, formerly inside camp boundaries, and a building used as Franz Stangl’s house before he became the commandant of Treblinka. This house had a pleasant sign hanging outside, “The Merry Flea,” almost as if it were a restaurant or bar, to further deceive arriving Jews. A family lives in the house today, with no relation to any Nazi or Ukrainian families.
Sobibor began operations at the end of April 1942, and continued until the uprising of October 14, 1943. Over 300 Jews escaped but only 50 lived through the war, most being blown apart by the land mines situated around the camp, or rounded up by SS-Men. These events are portrayed through words in Claude Lanzmann’s film of Yehuda Lerner’s testimony, “Sobibor, 14 October 1943, 4 pm,” and in the Rutger Hauer and Alan Arkin film “Escape from Sobibor.”
Slawek outlines the original plot of the camp on the train platform side, and where the original platform was. It seems that all the train tracks from during the war were replaced in later years, merely from wearing out. The original grassy ramp is still there, though paved over with cement blocks years ago for the current-day lumberworkers. We walk into the small museum run by an older Polish man, and all the exhibits are in Polish. The many displays showing Nazi camp history are in Polish, and the 3D model of the camp also explains the houses in Polish. Luckily Slawek and Radek are there for translating. They’ve added a small section to the exhibits of items found during the recent digging in 2001, including chunks of an underground well, several yards of rusty barbed wire, a barbed wire holding post, and some bricks from a barracks.
We step outside and Slawek shows me where they uncovered some of the barbed wire and posts that were slammed deep into the ground to hide them. The archeologists have been able to recreate a fairly approximate pathway through the Himmelstrasse, or Road to Heaven, as the Germans called it. Meaning the Tube to the gas chambers. This tube was about 12 feet wide, and about 500 feet long. Those selected for death, which were most of any transport, were sent from the reception area, to an undressing room, and were beaten down the Tube towards the ‘baths.’ Men were always driven first. Women would follow, and their hair shaved in a special hut on the way to the baths.
Slawek, Radek and I walked down this path, and I was surprised how long it took. The archeologists had place wooden markers in the ground showing the approximate edges of the Tube. At one point Slawek showed me something interesting. As the Nazis were fond of planting trees over their camps once they had annihilated the surrounding area of Jews, there are trees all over Sobibor. Every tree in the area is roughly 60 years old, being born after the camp had been abandoned. As we can now see through the work of the present-day diggers, the Nazis weren’t always so careful to eliminate all traces. We guessed that the departing Germans just got tired. Along one segment of the Tube, some of the barbed wire that was forced in the ground to ‘hide’ it found itself enmeshed in the growth of two of the trees, and through the years has grown in-between the trees, embedded in the middle of the trunks of the two. Pretty cool to see this bit. Regardless if the diggers had uncovered a mass grave and bones were strewn all over as the much drooled-after proof the revisionists so taunt historians with, seeing this little bit of history growing, this short bit of barbed wire pulled from the earth by the growth of the trees is kinda wild.
We got to the end of the path, and the approximate spot where the gas chambers were located. A few feet off from where the end of the Tube is located, but not far off. A simple though effective memorial of a large square chimney, and a large sculpture of a women with her child occupy the approximage spot of the gas chambers. Further down this path is a very large circular open-air urn of sorts, containing a pile of ashes mixed with dirt, pulled from the area of a mass burning pyre. The pile is covered with rocks which is why the whole thing doesn’t just blow away. Slawek pointed out an area near this monument that was clear of trees. This area was found to be full of mass graves by the diggers. He noted that the trees refused to grow over the mass graves at the camps. The scientists today are unsure why, maybe due to the gasses used, or some other anomaly, as it was believed that human ash made good fertilizer.
Already 5 hours into our day, we strolled back out of Sobibor and packed up for the several-hour trek to Belzec, my last stop on my tour of the three camps of Odilo Globocnik, Christian Wirth, Franz Stangl, and Aktion Reinhard.