Understanding won’t come, but at least we’re all trying

Photo: Lev Gringauz – TC Jewfolk

This blog was written on JCRC’s Power of Place educators institute in Europe – an experiential professional development for teachers where learning unfolds as they tour historical sites across Europe in order to transform their understanding of the Holocaust, WWII, antisemitism, and Jewish life today. Power of Place is planned and co-led by Humanus Network on behalf of JCRC and generously supported by the Minnesota Vikings, the Tankenoff Families Foundation, and Allianz of America Corporation.

Aimee Ross of Ohio | June 21, 2024

Today, I sat in the yard of a man whose family home looks out at the railway that leads to Treblinka. This man — just a child in those days — vividly recalls Jews jumping from the trains, most getting hurt in the process, and then being killed on the spot by patrols following the “shipment.” Not only did he witness the many many trains to Treblinka, he knows that the Jews of Czyżew were murdered, along with Jews from surrounding towns. He points behind him, to gesture to the site where they were murdered by the truckload. His parents forbid him to go see the grave, because of bodies decomposing, but what can a child of five truly understand about a mass grave? What can a child that age truly understand about train cars full of human beings moving past his house while so many jump from the trains?

But his recall is vivid. He knows the local Jews were gathered at the school before being transported by the truckload into the woods to be shot—all 5,000 of them. He knows that Jews who were killed and buried after jumping from the train were exhumed, just to see if valuables were still on the body. He knows that one of those jumpers is straight across the tracks from that sycamore tree in his front yard, up by the road.

What he doesn’t share is what he thinks about all of it now — perhaps because so many years have passed, perhaps because he still thinks of it as a small, scared child, perhaps because he doesn’t understand after all these years — but he is definitely affected. At times, his voice shakes. He looks away from the interviewer. He laughs a little too loud at something he remembers. But he is not afraid of telling this story, and that is what’s most important. He is not afraid of 25 strangers invading his property, gathering on his lawn, and possibly passing judgment as they listen, eyes and ears open for understanding. He shares his witness to the generations gathered there looking for answers — those searching for how almost an entire country’s population of Jews was lost. And that is admirable, because wouldn’t you want to keep those awful memories bottled up if you were five years old and unsure of what might happen to you — especially if you told what you saw? But he didn’t. For the sake of understanding.

And when that group of people, including me, move from the lawn of his childhood home and farm to the middle of the woods nearby to witness that mass grave of 5,000, understanding still won’t come. It never will. Not for us nor for him, no matter how many times he shares his story. But at least we’re all trying.


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