Any person who has watched the Academy Awards in recent years can see that the Holocaust is a topic of interest. Filmmakers who pursue it have been highly lauded, but increasingly they use the subject as an instrument of philosophy: The Reader (2008) led viewers to question traditional notions of Nazi evil and Inglorious Basterds (2009) went so far as to rewrite history.
Memorials and museums proliferate but their role as tourist destinations has made the presence of a “Holocaust industry” obvious. The autobiographies and memoirs of survivors – once the material of historians – have come to make up a literature indistinct from fictional renderings. As the final Holocaust survivors die out, I often fear that the layers upon layers of representation will somehow obscure our vision of historical truth. What if the reality of the Holocaust is swallowed by its imaginative depictions? Without the opportunity to sit and speak with a real witness to Auschwitz, how will my children learn the harsh reality of genocide?
This last question received an unexpected answer on Tuesday, June 7, 2011 when the summer fellows in my Warsaw-based Humanity in Action program and I took a field trip to Treblinka. This camp was one of three built in 1942 in eastern Poland specifically for the purpose of extermination. In the summer of 1942 some 350,000 Jews were sent from the Warsaw ghetto to the gas chambers of Treblinka. Another 500,000 Jews would join them by October 1943. Deception was sustained from the first moment to the last. Ninety-nine percent of all who arrived were asked to deposit their valuables with a cashier before “continuing their journey east.” They were asked to undress and shave their heads for sanitation. As their commodities entered the war economy for Nazi profit they entered the gas chambers. Only a small fraction of the inmates were kept alive as prisoners, strong men kept to dig graves and bury corpses.
The Nazis sought not only to mislead their victims, but the world as well – in 1943 the Nazis exhumed and cremated all the corpses in Treblinka’s mass graves. By the end of that year the Polish Jewry has been eradicated, and even the camp itself was rendered nothing but ash.
Imagine then, if you have not been to Treblinka, what you find there today: meadow surrounded by dense deciduous forest. It is, against all expectations, serene. Only the songs of birds and the buzz of insects disturb the quiet. If it weren’t for thousands of granite rocks that mark the space like jagged gravestones there would be no way to know that you were walking on ground marked by death. Nature also deceives you.
It occurred to me then that the grass in Treblinka’s meadow will not pause its growth to mark the human tragedy that took place there. To make the Holocaust matter, to keep it from turning to ash, we have to encapsulate it in a human medium, the largest and least mortal we have: artistic representation. Though many have tried to represent the Holocaust as truly and as perfectly as they could, I realized that no such purity ever existed, in fact or in fiction. Even the stories I hear from the Holocaust survivor I visit in New York City transform with each retelling. But they are what we have: humble, flawed stories, which nevertheless must attempt to convey the awful enormity of genocide.