Sign outside Sobibor death camp
Sign outside Sobibor death campREUTERS


The bus thunders along fields, meadows, and farmsteads. The landscape is like a picture. The grey tones are strengthened by the dark sky from which a steady rain fall. The land has been ploughed over and is ready for the winter. The little houses and farms are straight out of “Fiddler on the roof” made of grey stone or wood. Smoke rises from the chimneys. The color of the smoke and its smell reveals that people are using lignite. Time stood still here. With just a little imagination, you can go back to the time of the “Shtetl”, the hub of an extensive Polish Jewish community. With a rich and advanced Jewish culture. The dreadful catastrophe has swept away everything in its murderous path leaving an awful void.

It is cold in the bus. The heating does not work. Frozen to the bone and with our coats on we regard the countrified panorama. The windows are steamed up on the inside. The rainwater runs down the windows in streams. It is quiet on the bus. Hardly a word is said. We are new for each other. Our group has been formed by the wish to visit those places which play such an important part in our lives. Not a day goes by we feel the lack of warmth of our family and our feeling of identification with them. This emptiness haunts us every day. Trees wearing their glorious autumn colors streak by. The greyness of the sky and the landscape are in complete contrast with the nuance of the red, dark brown and yellow of the withering leaves.

Towards the end of the afternoon, we reach our first stop - Birkenau. On leaving the bus, the cold takes our breath away. It is already getting dark and under the threatening storm clouds we take the road on which so many wretched people took their last journey fifty years (1993) ago. Through the gate of the main building, along the railway to an area between the two blown up crematoria is the memorial.

It is as if the camp has no borders. Its immensity is far beyond the imagination. Hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children - Jewish, Sinti, Roma, Communist and resistance fighters, met their annihilation here.

The fate that awaited them could no longer be evaded. The battle was unequal. Depersonalized and bereft of all human honor, their lives were abruptly taken away.

Auschwitz is like a terrible nightmare, far from reality. The truth is unambiguous, hard, and cruel. Tens of thousands of glasses, pots, and pans. suitcases with the names and birth dates of the deported, false limbs in all sorts and sizes, are the silent witnesses to the immense cruel drama that unfolded here.

A glass case filled with two thousand kilos of hair, women’s hair. Between the strands of hair, a plait can be made out, some intertwined with ribbons.

Mountains of shoes: red, brown, black, white, left and right, winter and summer shoes all mixed up together. In between are some children shoes neatly tied together. Senseless and cruel.

The chimney of the crematorium shows where the murder machine did its work. On entering the gas chamber, your heart rises in your throat. This room does not seem real. There is no atmosphere; the emptiness is reflected in our hearts. We stand quietly in a circle and whisper. We look around nervously and feel completely despondent.

The ovens loom threateningly. There is an irresistible urge to touch the stones from which they are build. Constructions with open consuming mouths gaze at you.

To look at all this is unreal, to understand, impossible. The cruelty and immenseness of it all makes one feel sick and gives the feeling of helplessness. The unanswered question constantly repeats itself: “Why, why…... !?”

Like lost souls, far removed from reality, we wander around with expressionless faces and with an empty emotion. The reality is confirmed. To be confronted with the naked truth with our own eyes’ cries in our souls.

Tswi Herschel, age 5
Tswi Herschel, age 5Courtesy of Tswi Herschel

The incomprehensible has become even more incomprehensible. The enormity and the mechanical-like nature of the murder machine are immeasurable and cannot be understood. A fourth dimension.

The sun blinds us when we go outside. Its warmth caresses our bodies. The affection for each other strengthens us to enable to continue our journey of pain. Our emotional thoughts do not have to be explained. A slight touch, a look of recognition and understanding are more than words can say.

The late autumn sun paints the countryside in a golden haze and yellow.

Our bus follows the road in the direction of Poland’s eastern border to the extermination camp Sobibor.

A bond is formed with our fellow travelers. We exchange stories.

The landscape slips by and farmers are working in the fields.

We are not concerned with our daily activities. We are trying to come to terms with our past to know, to see and to digest so that we can continue our life and be able to love to embrace life, to exist.

The road makes a turn and goes through thick deciduous forests with open stretches.

Slowly all conversation stops. The tension is palpable. The realization that Sobibor is not far away makes us all quietly pensive. We listen attentively to the words of a survivor of his arrival in the Sobibor.

The bus stops at the car park near the camp. We rise slowly from our seats and without exchanging a word we leave the bus. with own thoughts, we walk in the direction of “die Rampa,” the platform where the cattle cars through the opened doors their human cargo were driven out.

Our footsteps follow the footsteps of our murdered loved ones, our fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, and other relatives. The rails reach the buffer. The end of the train track, the end of the train journey, the end of life itself.

Walking from the platform to the place where our loved ones met their fate, destroys any feeling of reality in us.

By absorbing this moment, seeing this place, Sobibor becomes real and automatically visualizing the sense of the truth.

The thoughts of the unfortunate while walking, shuffling to the “End”, sharing their feelings of fear, hope for a better future, being able to see each other again, is simply unimaginable.

Seeing with our own eyes this place of destruction, emptiness engulfs us, paralysis takes over and cuts like a knife in our hearts.

At the stack of ashes - human remains -, the “graves” of our relatives, we voiced their names when our emotions allowed us to do so. Our voices were soft, muffled, and heavy with grief, but we assumed they sounded loud.

A cry to heaven.

Together we said Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, hardly able to speak, and with ache in our hearts.

This desolated place, extermination Camp Sobibor is a black hole far away from the inhabited world, has disappeared from the face of the earth.

Trees were planted, to leave no trace of the genocide of hundreds of thousands of innocent Jews that took place at this camp.

The wind blows through the branches of the new forest. The only thing one heard is the whispering of the trees. Not even a sound of a bird.

There was silence, deadly silence.

In stillness we left this place of anguish. The murder of our relatives struck us like lightning.

Chastened we returned.

With our visit to camp Sobibor the grief slightly softened. However, the wounds did not heal nor did subside.

We visited Sobibor, the place where our loved ones had to bow their heads and gave up their souls to the destructive sword of murderous hatred.

(Originally written in October, 1994)

Tswi Herschel is a Holocaust survivor who was born in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands in 1942. He was saved during the Holocaust by Dutch couple, who cared for him after his parents were deported to the Sobibor concentration camp, where they were killed.

He lives in Israel and can be reached at [email protected].