Our second full day in Poland was an especially moving and emotional day for our group. We traveled outside of Warsaw to the small village of Tykocin, once home to a few thousand Jews but is now home to none. The town looks virtually unchanged since the 19th century, and the town’s refurbished (but not functional) synagogue adds to this effect. We were able to visit the synagogue, which is beautiful and modeled in the old, eastern style of synagogues, with a pulpit in the middle and prayers written on the walls so that those people who could not
afford prayer books could read along. Additionally, we visited the Jewish cemetery in Tykocin, which is almost undistinguishable because most of the gravestones were destroyed and all that remains is an overgrown field. Professor Robert Jan van Pelt then told us about how all of the Jews in the town were rounded up in the square, with the message that they were being relocated. There was no way for these Jewish people to know what was to come.
Professor Robert Jan van Pelt then guided us through an experiential exercise, where our group traced the steps of the Tykocin Jews by following their exact path on a silent bus ride to the nearby forest. We then walked slowly down a path in the lush, green woods to an unknown destination. At the end of the path we realized there was a mass grave, and we learned the horrifying fate of the Tykocin Jews. The contrast of the mass grave with the bucolic forest was surreal and disturbing; the Jews of Tykocin were murdered on a similar summer day. We lit memorial candles for these people, and thought about the generations of Jews whose lineage ended in this spot.
We then continued to the Treblinka death camp, a place of absolute horror where between 770,000-925,000 people, mostly Jewish, were murdered. The camp was only operational for a brief time, and operated on a very low budget. The camp site was destroyed by the Germans in the fall of 1943. What remains are three symbolic mass graves with jagged stones marked with cities throughout Poland from which Jews were deported and murdered. These stones are especially significant because in many instances entire Jewish populations from these cities and towns were murdered at Treblinka. The raw evil and destruction of the Holocaust is made apparent when visiting Treblinka.
These sobering and overwhelming experiences marked a major turning point in our trip. Our group took time to reflect on the enormity of life extinguished in a short period of time.