A Visit to Treblinka
(Part I)
Still behind the wheel of the car, I unexpectedly came upon a long convoy of goods-train wagons coupled together, standing at a platform that was nothing more than a dirt ramp. I drove on to the ramp and stopped dead. I was at the station. At Treblinka station. I got out of my car and began to walk, crossing the tracks to the main platform where the station building stood bearing a sign, in proud, high letters, TREBLINKA. Beneath it, a scroll on which, in Polish, were the words 'Never Again,' the only reminder of what this place had once been. At the end of the platform, at right-angles to the tracks, nailed to two posts set into the concrete, was a signpost bearing the name Treblinka on either side so travellers could see it from either direction. Treblinka was nothing but a ghost station: as I stood petrified on the platform, attempting to come to terms with the enormity of what I was witnessing, trains passed, some hurtling straight through, others stopping to load and unload passengers. As for the goods wagons, they had not been placed there as some sort of memorial, but had simply been shunted on to a siding waiting to be put back into service.

I had not wanted to come to Poland. I arrived full of arrogance, and convinced I was coming only to confirm that I had not needed to come, so I could swiftly return to what I had been doing. In fact, I had arrived there fully primed, crammed with all the information amassed in four years spent reading, interviewing, even filming ... I was a bomb, though a harmless bomb --- the detonator was missing. Treblinka had been the detonator; that afternoon I exploded with sudden, devastating violence. How else can I put it? Treblinka became real, the shift from myth to reality took place in a blinding flash, the encounter between a name and a place wiped out everything I had learned, forced me to start again from scratch, to view everything that I had been working on in a radically different way, to overturn what had seemed most certain and, above all, to allocate to Poland, the geographical heart of the extermination, the crucial place it deserved. Treblinka became so real that it could not wait; I was gripped by a powerful sense of urgency that day, one I would continually live with from that moment on: I had to film, to film as soon as possible, that was the order I received that day.

It was already late in the afternoon. On foot, Marina and I covered every inch of this village whose centre truly was the train station and the tracks. I stopped at a farm whose farmyard afforded spectacular views of the passing trains. It belonged to the farmer in the reddish shirt with the cheerful potbelly, an unforgettable figure to those who have seen Shoah. It was cold, he invited us in and I understood from the way he looked at Marina that he had identified her as a Jew, something she had felt herself and later confirmed to me. The gloomy room in which he lived smelled of sour milk, cabbage, slurry and an unidentifiable odour of mildew that immediately turned our stomachs. But what was most frightening was the monster, his son, paralysed, mentally handicapped, wracked by uncontrollable spasms in his chair, head always turned to one side, tongue hanging out. Czeslaw Borowi and his wife had conceived him in the August stench of 1942, as the trains bringing Jews from Warsaw waited at the station for their turn to arrive at the extermination camp. From that very first conversation, Borowi, who, given the smell of his house, must have been immune, nonetheless insisted on talking to me lyrically about the futile efforts and the methods employed by the inhabitants of Treblinka to get rid of that stench, which, for months, day and night, enveloped every house in the village --- as Suchomel had said to me, "It depended on the wind" --- holding their noses, closing doors and windows, stopping up every opening, every crack and crevice. The peasants who lived near the camp struggled heroically not to smell. They ate and they made love in the unbearable stench of charred flesh, of bodies being burned in pits to eliminate any trace of the extermination and in the even more intolerable stink of putrefaction from mass graves. Dusk and daybreak, Borowi told me, when dew settles at morning and evening, were the worst, because the smell did not rise, did not drift, but hung in the air at ground level, leaching into every corner of every house, into even the least delicate nose. Borowi seemed to be an expert on the subject of smell, his olfactory memory had a truly poetic refinement. As I listened to him more than attentively, I fulminated on the inside, harangued, cursed and reproached myself. How could I have thought even for an instant of making this film without the man sitting opposite me, without all those I had seen that same day, without the places that seemed to me exactly as they had been thirty-five years ago, without the permanence that could be read in the stones of every building, the steel of the railway tracks, without the fearsome plunge into the heart of the past I was discovering in these old farms?

The journey to Poland was like a journey through time. If by 1978 in Western Europe, it was all but impossible to imagine what the countryside and what life in the country had been like in the nineteenth century, the profound socio-economic changes having wiped out virtually all traces of the past, it certainly was not the case in Poland. Here the nineteenth century existed, one could touch it. The persistence and the disfigurement of places coexisted, wrestled with each other, impregnated each other, chiselling perhaps even more finely, more heartrendingly, the presence of what remained of the past. My sense of urgency was suddenly overpowering. As though I were trying to recapture all those wasted years, the years without Poland, I went on asking questions, oblivious to the night drawing in, to the hunger we must surely have felt as we had not eaten since Warsaw, but I was in a trance, spellbound, in thrall to the truth being revealed to me. I left Borowi and, in the mud and the darkness, I talked to people whose faces I could barely make out, aware that they seemed pleased to have found a stranger curious about a past they remembered with extraordinary exactness, yet one that they spoke of as if it were legend --- something I understood only too well --- a past both incredibly remote and yet very close, a past-present etched forever in their minds.

--- From The Patagonian Hare: A Memoir
Claude Lanzmann
Frank Wynne, Translator
©2012 Farrar, Straus & Giroux
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