A Small Station of Treblinka: For Holocaust Remembrance Day

 Today, January 27, is Holocaust Remembrance Day. This date commemorates the date that Auschwitz Concentration Camp was liberated by the Red Army in 1945.

More than 1.1 million people were killed at Auschwitz, and more than 1 million of them were Jews. Among the others were LGBTQ people, Roma, Poles and other Slavic people, the physically and mentally disabled, Jehovah's Witnesses, and members of political opposition groups.

More than 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust, the result of a homicidal and genocidal Nazi state government in Germany and the occupied countries of Europe before and during World War II. The Nazi government's murders were systematic, cruel, and unprecedented. 

Holocaust Remembrance Day, however, was not instituted by the United Nations General Assembly until 2005, sixty years after the end of World War II. And despite decades of horrific documentation, death camps, and survivor testimony, there are still those who deny the existence of the Holocaust or suggest it "wasn't as bad as it seemed."

The Holocaust occurred not just because of a few homicidal maniacs, a few fringe evil collaborators who managed to wrest control of the government -- it also occurred because of businessmen who decided that slave labor and work camps were good for profit. It occurred because of ordinary people who chose to look the other way when their Jewish neighbors disappeared and lost their homes, and Jewish stores were filled with broken glass. 

Reading about the Holocaust now reminds me of sometimes reading stories in Sunday school about the way people treated Jesus. Everyone always thought oh I never would have acted like that. I would have been the one to stand up and say something. But the likely possibility is that many of us would have remained silent, because the cost of speaking up is often higher than we are willing to pay.

Many Holocaust survivors still tell their stories today. But they are getting older and many die each year. In Israel, 900 Holocaust survivors died of COVID-19 in 2020. As they die, their memories must not die with them.

As a Lutheran, I carry with me the shameful history of Martin Luther, a powerful theologian who did much good to reform the church, but who also, at the end of his life, wrote anti-Semitic diatribes against the Jewish people. Those writings were later used by Nazis to support their genocide and hate. 

None of us are entirely good or entirely evil. We have to help each other learn from our collective memory to always choose love and not hate, and to speak out and condemn hatred when it's found in our midst.

Today on this Holocaust Remembrance Day, I am so grateful for the many books I've read that have helped to light in me a passion for remembrance and honor and truth surrounding the Holocaust. I carry this memory when I see photos of the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, including a man wearing a "Camp Auschwitz" t-shirt, with STAFF printed on the back. Nazism is not an exclusively German formulation, nor is it relegated to the distant past. The allure of hatred to prove one's own superiority and salve one's own self-hatred is always insidious.

And so in the face of the temptation to hatred and forgetting and obfuscation of the truth, instead, today we remember and honor the lives of those lost and forever changed by the Holocaust.

I want to share with you a poem written by a Polish Jewish poet, Wladyslaw Szlengel. Before the Nazis came to power and occupied Poland, he was a popular Warsaw writer. He took part in Warsaw's defense and later became a Jewish organizer in the midst of abject poverty and suffering in the Jewish Warsaw Ghetto, where the Nazis forced all Jewish people to live without proper food or shelter. Thousands died there, among them Szlengel himself, in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943.

Before his death, Szlengel devoted himself to recording for history what was happening to the Jewish people. He wrote this poem about transports from the Ghetto to the Treblinka Death Camp, where at last three-quarters of a million people were killed.


A SMALL STATION OF TREBLINKA

Here is the small station of Treblinka
Here is the small station of Treblinka
On the line between Tluszcz and Warszawa From the railway station Warsaw - East You get out of the station and travel straight

The journey lasts
five hours and 45 minutes more
And sometimes the same journey lasts A whole life until your death

And the station is very small
Three firtrees grow there
And a regular signboard saying
Here is the small station of Treblinka... Here is the small station of Treblinka...

And no cashier even
Gone is the cargo man
And for a million zloty
You will not get a return ticket

And nobody waits for you in the station
And nobody waves a handkerchief towards you Only silence hung there in the air
To welcome you in the blind wilderness

And silent is the pillar of the station
And silent are the three firtrees
And silent is the black board
Because here is the small station of Treblinka...

Here is the small station of Treblinka... And only a commercial board stands still: "Cook only by gas"
Here is the small station of Treblinka... Here is the small station of Treblinka...

—Władysław Szlengel

I am grateful for the poet's words. Never Forget.

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