A Visit to Treblinka
I discovered that an engine driver who had driven the death trains for the duration of the camps' existence was now living in a village called Malkinia, about ten kilometres from Treblinka. I decided to go there right away, heedless of the lateness of the hour and of common politeness. I could not wait. We left Treblinka by the narrow road that meets the railway line as it crosses the River Bug, which runs parallel by the same bridge. All the trains that had transported victims had clattered in the opposite direction over this bridge, which spanned the wide river whose powerful waters I could sense in the darkness, not knowing that some months later, illuminated by a magnificent sunset, I would be drifting down it on a motorboat with my cameraman, on what would also be the first day of shooting in Poland.
At eleven o'clock that night Malkinia was asleep. I found Henrik Gawkowski's small farm only with great difficulty and, as I knocked, the peals of midnight rang out from a church as immense as a cathedral. At first no one answered; I knocked harder, there was a sound of swift feet on stairs and a female voice struck up a conversation with Marina. Then the door was opened by a little woman with a round, kindly face, her hair tied up in a scarf. She turned on the lights, had us sit down and went to wake her husband, who shuffled downstairs rubbing his eyes. I liked him immediately, I liked his child-like blue eyes still heavy with sleep, his air of innocence and loyalty, the lines of pain etched into his forehead, his evident kindness. Though I apologized for showing up so late, he seemed so unsurprised by my urgency that it was as though he shared it.
He had neither forgotten nor recovered from the horrifying past in which he had played a role, and he found it entirely just that he should have to answer any demands made on him at any hour. In fact, I was the first person ever to question him; I had arrived in the night like a ghost, no one before me having troubled to hear what he had to say. He went to fetch a bottle of the wonderful vodka drunk by Polish farmers, miraculous, blessed rot-gut, and after we had downed the first shot, I ventured that we were famished. He and his wife bent over backwards, ransacked a mesh-panelled meat-safe like the one my grandmother Anna had had, providing us with a cornucopia of food, of cold meats and bread and the vodka that unlocks mind and memory. Listening to Henrik I knew, just as I had felt that afternoon with Borowi, that the preliminary research was over, that it was now time to act and begin filming as soon as possible. I needed not just to film, but first and foremost to staunch the flood of words my questions had unlocked, these memories, as precious as gold, as blood, that I had rekindled. We talked about how the unloading had operated on the ramp, the chaotic rush, the beating, the truncheons, the screams of people who would be dead within an hour or two. When I said, "when you pulled the wagons up to the ramp" he stopped me dead. "No, no, that's not how it happened, I didn't pull them, I pushed them," and he balled his fist and made a pushing gesture. I was devastated by this detail, floored by this truth, by which I mean that this trivial confirmation told me more, helped me more to imagine, to understand than any pompous reflection on evil doomed to reflect only on itself.
It was clear to me that it was vital that I stop questioning Gawkowski: unlike the Jewish protagonists about whom, for reasons I've mentioned, I needed to know as much as possible before shooting, in this case it was essential not to sully anything. I was the first person to return to the scene of the crime, to those who had never spoken and, I was beginning to realize, wanted so much to speak, to speak torrentially. It was vital, it was imperative to preserve this purity, this spontaneity; this Poland was a treasure not to be squandered. Already, after one day and one crazy night, I knew that during my stay here I would visit the sites, pace them and survey them as I was later to do at Chelmno, but I needed to say as little, to ask as few questions, as possible; to remain on the surface, to move lightly over the land of extermination. But if I was to wait until filming began before daring to go deeper, I had to act fast. This detail, powerfully moving in every sense of the word, that Henrik Gawkowski had pushed the wagons with his engine rather than pulling them was the occasion of a moral lapse I committed during filming, one I readily admit to, one that shames me every time I think about it. Before the cameras, though I already knew what he would say, I asked him that question and, like an actor, I feigned surprise at his answer. I did so because I thought it was important not only that the audience know such operational details but also that they realize how revealing this discovery had been for me. But I blame myself for deciding to pretend that this was the moment I learned it for the first time.
What a night I spent with Henrik! He proved to be devastatingly honest, he wept from the emotion, and doubtless the vodka. I myself had tears in my eyes and we hugged each other several times. I make no mention of this in Shoah, but the picture he painted of Treblinka and the surrounding villages during the thirteen months when the gassings were taking place defied any tale. its way into the pockets of those who laboured in this business of death, the SS, the Ukrainians, the Latvians, or it was buried by Jewish members of the Sonderkommondo, to be used in the infinitely unlikely event of an escape. This was the money that the villagers and the prostitutes were given in exchange for vodka, pork and pleasure.
Henrik, in tears, confessed to me that in one night, playing poker between trains, he lost $50,000 --- a fantastical sum at the time. He added, "Ill-gotten gain never prospers."--- From The Patagonian Hare: A Memoir
Frank Wynne, Translator
©2012 Farrar, Straus & Giroux