At Treblinka II, located in the rural northeast corner of Poland, approximately 850,000 Jews were gassed and burned, making it the deadliest of all the extermination camps. (Treblinka I was a labor camp.)
The Germans attempted to obliterate Treblinka II after liquidating its prisoners, but their effort to erase it from history did not succeed.
In The Texture of Memory, James Young wrote, “ . . . even though the Germans had completely destroyed the camp in 1944, plowed it under and planted it over in pine trees and grain fields, sun–bleached bones and skulls still poked through the sandy earth as late as 1957.” (p. 186)
Efforts at memorialization began in the late 1950s. In February of 1960, the Warsaw Regional Council selected the design for a memorial at Treblinka II from two Poles, sculptor Franciszek Duszenko and architect Adam Haupt.
The design would create a field of jagged stones that would suggest a cemetery, with 17,000 stones, 700 of them inscribed with the names of Jewish villages and communities in Poland that were obliterated by the Holocaust.
The field of stones would be surrounded by trees, and in its center would stand a twenty-six foot obelisk with an intentional crack down its center and a menorah carved in its top.
“Never again” would be written at the base of the obelisk in Yiddish, Polish, Russian, English, German, and French.
The memorial was completed and dedicated in 1964.
In 1978, the hundredth anniversary of Janusz Korczak’s birth, a stone was added with his name, the only reference in the entire field to a person.
James Young referred to Treblinka’s field of broken stones with its cemetery iconography as “possibly the most magnificent of all Holocaust memorials. ”
The memorial at Treblinka II raises complex questions that cut across all three of our areas of investigation: the psychology, the politics, and the aesthetics of memory.
The design and the impetus for creating the memorial at Treblinka II were in place prior to the Eichmann trial, prior to the screening of the Holocaust series on American television, and prior to any expansive international interest in the Holocaust. (See the main Introduction to this Holocaust section for a discussion on the impact of the trial and television series.)
Creating the memorial was an initiative within Poland, sponsored by the Warsaw Regional Council and the Polish Ministry of Culture, and designed by a Polish sculpture and architect.
As Young explains in The Texture of Memory, this impetus stemmed from the Polish perception that the murdered Polish Jews were “an integral part of the nation’s martyrdom during the war” (p. 188). The Holocaust as enacted on Polish soil was not perceived in Poland as an isolated Jewish tragedy but rather as part of a larger national tragedy wrought by the Germans on the country as a whole.
This is an important perception to investigate. Is it a blurring of numbers, a kind of expropriation of Poland’s Jewish victims into a misleading national count?
Young offers the following numbers and comparison that may help explain the Polish sense of national martyrdom:
“. . . of the nearly six million Jews who died, three million were from Poland; of the six million Polish nationals who died, three million were Jews and three million non-Jews . . . When we consider further that one out of every two Poles was either killed, wounded, or enslaved during the war, even the proportions of “national suffering” of these two groups grows similar.” (Texture, p. 123)
In proportion to its population, Poland suffered the greatest losses of any country in the war.
Included in the ensuing Polish interpretation of the war’s impact was the belief that the country’s non–Jewish civilian deaths were intentional rather than incidental and that the death camps in Poland would have been systematically turned against the Poles after the destruction of the Jews (Twilight, p. 123).
Take a moment to read this quotation from Hitler, part of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s permanent exhibition, in which Hitler links the killing of Poles with the Armenian genocide. It offers a view of the Hitler’s mindset in entering Poland.
The point here is not to evaluate Hitler’s intentions, or the Polish inclusion of its Jewish deaths within the context of a larger national death toll and sense of national tragedy.
What is more important for our understanding is that, similar to Poland, nations and groups with a connection to or interest in the Holocaust all define their own particular perspectives, their own angles of vision for remembrance. There is no simple, common denominator in Holocaust memorialization. There is an inherent process of selection and interpretation in Holocaust remembrance by all parties.
As Nathan Rappaport’s statue in New Jersey of the American soldier and camp survivor suggests, Americans wanted to see themselves as liberators. The Poles embraced the vision of a national catastrophe. Israelis saw the Holocaust as deeply linked to the birth of their nation, a linking of catastrophe, heroism, and rebirth (Twilight, pp. 209-217).
Is there one, definitive, final “correct history” of the Holocaust, one indisputedly valid interpretation?
At its deep end, is history that neat a package, or is it an irreducible set of slightly (or greatly) incongruous points of view – constructs made with some common materials but with often startlingly different architectures?
One final question. The memorial at Treblinka II was created within the context of a national perception of Polish rather than exclusively Jewish suffering and death. Does the memorial at Treblinka II seek to express that national perspective on the war, and if it does, is it done in a way that distorts the staggering and almost exclusively Jewish loss of life that took place there, or is it true to Treblinka’s victims?