17.2.14

Chil Rajchman - Treblinka

Rating 8.0

Jean Amery, Tadeusz Borowski, Imre Kertesz, Primo Levi, Boris Pahor, Elie Wiesel…

The list of authors who survived Nazi concentration and extermination camps finding the strength to tell the world about them could have been longer. Had beautiful minds such as Janusz Korczak, Irene Nemirovsky and Antal Szerb not been among those drowned by the Holocaust, we could have had more masterful first hand accounts on the atrocities perpetrated in the lagers. And who knows how many strikingly important diaries and memories were shattered and burned.

For sixty-five years Chil Rajchman's memoirs were not included in any bibliography about the Holocaust. In fact, they were not even published and were kept in a drawer somewhere between the US and Uruguay where Rajchman died in 2004. Then someone opened that drawer, read those Yiddish written pages and translated them into French. It is likely that what had happened a few years ago with the notebooks of Irene Nemirovsky being rediscovered and becoming an international bestseller played a part in this process.

However, it must be stressed out that whereas Nemirovsky's unfinished Suite Française was a work of fiction (even though deeply interconnected with history in its making), Rajchman's writings deal with the darkest reality human beings could find themselves in.

Rajchman doesn't tell us who he was, what he was doing, how he was taken and put on a cattle waggon on October 1942. What the author tells us is where he was brought: Treblinka.

The lack of barracks and factories in this reconstruction of Treblinka shows how the lager was never intended to be a lager camp, but only a facility to exterminate people as quickly as possible

Now, there are still many former Nazi concentration camps which can be visited nowadays. I've only been to Dachau that was the first KZ (Konzentrationlager) the Nazis converted into a death gearwheel and that visit still haunts me. Even though I'll never stop looking for Holocaust and concentration camps related diaries, memoirs, poems and - to some extent - novels, I don't feel like visiting another lager. The wickedness I perceived in Dachau was more than enough.


And yet, if I wanted to pull myself together to go and see the horrors of Treblinka, I would find no barbed wires, no iron gates, no turrets, no barracks, no gas chambers, no crematories. What I'd see ia just an ample clearing in a thick forest with a few stone memorials dotting the barren landscape.  
Unlike Auschwitz-Birkenau, Bergen Belsen, Majdanek and Sachsenhausen which were called 'concentration' or even 'labor' camps where Jewish and non Jewish prisoners had to work themselves to death, Treblinka (and Belzec, Sobibor, Chelmno) was an extermination camp.

To cheat and reassure the people brought to the extermination camp by train only to be gassed in a few minutes, the Nazis made up a mock railway station with a fake ticket office
Whereas luck, physical strength, inner determination and sometimes scheming could keep you alive in a concentration lager, you had no chances to survive in an extermination camp. 99% of those who arrived to Treblinka were killed within a few hours. And this is the reason why the Nazis were so eager to leave no visible trace of such a hell on Earth. Before leaving Treblinka behind, the executioners meticolously razed the whole camp to the ground, burning hundreds of thousands of bodies and crushing their charred bones with bulldozers. They had the mass graves filled with soil and planted them with lupins. I don't know why the Nazis bothered to cover all that up (the insanity of evil?), but it's a fact that no extermination camp in Poland was left behind untouched.

Chil Rajchman was among those few Jews who were left alive by the executioners to put the evil doings under the carpet. And he spares no unpleasant detail of what he had to do to survive in Treblinka. Cutting the hair of thousands of women on their way to the gas chambers, bringing out the dead bodies, putting corpses into deep graves and covering them with lime, extracting gold teeth and eventually destroying any proof of a gigantic methodical massacre.

Railway tracks of the divertion leading to the camp and cutting through the woods are one of the few signs of Treblinka's existence today. 
As you might have understood this is an extremely difficult book to read through. Rajchman doesn't let you take a single breather and never hides his hatred for the Nazi executioners around him. At a first glance, the author doesn't show any hint of hope for his future, but looking between and beyond the sharp lines he left us, the anger and desperation of Rajchman gradually turn into the willingness to fight back. And that's what eventually happens with the prisoners planning an uprising within the camp leading to Chil Rajchman and others managing to escape from Treblinka.

Treblinka - A Survivor's Memory is an extraordinary document on human evilness from the very bottom of the abyss it could lead us to and - at the same time - an exceptional story of human resilience that everyone might be aware of.


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