I went to the end of the world and back.
It didn’t take long to get there, just shy of a four hour drive that took us along lonely state roads, through simple villages, and past stretches of desolate, frozen farmland. My partner, Sergiusz, was driving, and I sat in the passenger seat observing a side of Poland which I had yet to see. Rundown shacks sat next to brightly built, modern houses and farmers stood on the corner conversing with their neighbors. Older women biked passed us and young children chased their family’s chickens. Like the backyards of many countries, we passed through the simple life.
We started in Warsaw and drove East. We drove so far East that we were just a few kilometers from Ukraine which also serves as the border of the European Union.
We went to the end of the world and back. We went to Sobibór.
Sobibór was a World War II Nazi German extermination camp. It is located on the edge of the village of Sobibór, which at the time was in occupied Poland. It only functioned for a short period in comparison to many of the other camps; it operated from May 1942 until October 1943. But, in these 17 months, over 200,000 people from Poland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union were killed.
This is where my family was sent. This is where Hana’s parents and her 13 year-old brother met the end of their life. After being searched, stripped and shaved, they walked down the Himmelfahrsstrasse, also known as the “Road to Heaven,” which is what the Nazis called the path leading directly to the gas chambers.
I didn’t want to visit here.
Close to our destination, as the sun started to hang low in the sky, we followed the directions on the map through a forest. This was the forest I expected when we started this drive, consisting of potholes and a crumbling ground. The trees were so bare that one could see nature’s everlasting limits. Sergiusz drove with the utmost attention, noticing the slightest dip in the land, which was incredibly difficult with the fresh layer of snow. He got us out quickly and with as much ease as possible.
As we emerged from the woods, we saw a few simple houses and a set of train tracks. There were no cars, no faces, no sounds. There were no places of business and there was no movement. It was quiet and it was empty.
We pulled the car over to the side of the road; there was no formal place to stop and park. A manicured path, lined with a small exhibit about the death and destruction that happened here less than 75 years ago, lay in front of us. As we walked, silence surrounded us. My own footsteps caused me to dramatically turn my head as if I was in a horror movie and felt the presence of someone lurking behind me.
We sauntered a short distance into the forest before being stopped by a boundary created by simple string tied to wooden benches. Recently the remains of gas chambers, bones and other objects belonging to the victims have been found here. These findings have caused some controversy regarding plans to build a museum and monument in the confines of this death camp. I obeyed the limitations, relieved I didn’t have to go any further.
I was scared and sickened and felt lost and confused. We were alone in this preserved plot of land. It wasn’t like visiting Auschwitz, when the voices of hundreds of international visitors rung through my ears. There was no distraction from the reality and the sinking feeling in my stomach started to feel like acid burning through my intestines.
We walked towards the car, eager to drive home. Back to the world, which all of a sudden felt safe despite the cruel realities that so many people still live in today.
With a slow stride, I peered around, taking in the last couple of minutes that I would hopefully ever spend in this place. As if out of no where, across an unkempt field, I noticed a dog tracking our every movement. I started to move a bit faster, careful not to run and startle him. With an irrational fear, my mind became filled with all of the horror stories of the way that dogs were used against prisoners during World War II. He gave us a warning bark, letting us know that we had no reason to be there. He kept his distance, but continued to scold us with his sounds as if we were intruders on someone’s private property. His bark resonated in the still air, echoing through the forest and reverberating off the rusted railroad tracks. I felt desperate to be sitting in the warmth of our car.
A wave of relief came upon me as both of our doors shut. The dog, satisfied with our decision, returned to a nearby house and was greeted by a young girl who had come outside, eager to play with her furry friend. The dog’s stiff tale became relaxed and started wagging with delight. A glimpse of real life emerged in front of my eyes.
In this place, at the end of the world, I was looking at a vision of love that only exists between a young girl and her dog. I know this love very well. I have this unconditional love waiting for me at home in Boston.
A couple of minutes passed before I decided to once again get out of the car. I noticed a burly man heading in our direction and requested Sergiusz to join me as his native Polish would be far more productive in this interaction than the handful of words I have managed to memorize.
With a grunt that served as a short greeting, he first pointed to a sign telling us we couldn’t eat here. We nodded in agreement without sharing that I wouldn’t have been able to eat at this moment even if someone had tried to force me to. Then he told me I shouldn’t take pictures, a request that was purely personal. We nodded. There was no need for a response. Without so much as a farewell, he turned and walked down the path, into the forest, towards the mass graves.
Whether this security guard is here all the time or only since the excavation started, I don’t know. But, here, in this cold desolate corner where not many people dare to go, a family has made a life.
And this whole time, I thought we had been alone.
We drove off in silence, focusing our attention on making our way west. My plan to stay until nightfall very naturally transitioned to my plan to get out before the sun set. I wanted to make peace with this empty hole of history where the remnants of Jewish life resonated only through a few faces and names of the dead. Where the past was guarded by a man and his dog.