Holly Robertson, 2012 AJC Fellow
I found myself in a peaceful field full of purple, yellow, and white flowers; countless orange butterflies; and wild raspberries. Yet knowledge of the space’s past darkened my observations and I felt guilty for finding such a place so beautiful. The Nazi-killing center Treblinka once occupied this very field. Where lupines dotted the terrain, 700,000 to 800,000 Jews were murdered between July 1942 and November 1943. Vasily Grossman, a Soviet-Jewish journalist, described Treblinka in July 1944 as follows:
“The earth is throwing out crushed bones, teeth, clothes, papers. It does not want to keep secrets. And the objects are climbing out from the earth, from its un-healing wounds.”
Today, 17,000 stone slabs of varying dimensions jut from the earth memorializing the dead; 700 of them bear the names of towns where Jews who perished at Treblinka once lived. When I saw the earth pushing up those stones, I thought of Grossman. I thought of the hundreds of thousands of voices lost and wounds unhealed in the very place I walked. Knowledge of the dead juxtaposed with the beautiful surroundings of the living forests and flowered meadows was unnerving.
Treblinka has remained an empty space since the Nazis attempted to destroy all evidence of its history. It was this noticeable absence—an empty field symbolically connected to the absence of an entire people—which moved me. It forced me to grapple with how space affects our perceptions of history, memory, and mourning. Recently, thousands of miles away from Treblinka, I read Chaim Potok’s The Chosen. One line in particular resonated with me: “You have to listen to [silence], and then you can hear it. It has a strange, beautiful texture. It doesn’t always talk. Sometimes—sometimes it cries, and you can hear the pain of the world in it. It hurts to listen then. But you have to.” The silence of Treblinka is the pain of the world crying. It hurts to listen. But we have to.
Holly Robertson is a Master’s candidate at Georgetown University in Global, International, and Comparative History, where she focuses on 20th century Polish history, Polish-Jewish relations, ethnic minorities, and the Holocaust. Her current research traces the interactions between ethnic Muslims and Jews living as neighbors in the Polish borderlands before, during, and after the Holocaust. Holly is a research assistant in the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and will be interning for the Office of Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova at the U.S. State Department in the fall.