Here is a model of the Nazi death camp at Treblinka, Poland. Two weeks ago I visited the site, driving for several hours from Warsaw to what is still a remote part of the country, an area of sand and pines, very small towns, and the ghosts of more than 800,000 people murdered. I went because I want to write about hell in my new book and I can think of no better place. In the model here you see the train cars lined up in front of the Nazi's fake train station. The Jews and others were unloaded here, divided into groups of men and women/children, and rushed to the left and into the two barracks where they were told to strip. (I should add that anyone too ill or old to walk was immediately sent to the "aid station" to the right--see the red cross flag--where they were immediately shot.) Once the people had stripped naked, they were rushed out the back doors of the barracks and onto "the road to heaven" which you can see curving through the trees, emerging directly into the large gas chamber. They were murdered there, and their bodies were dumped in the enormous pits near the gas chambers.
The crazy thing about Treblinka today is that there is almost nothing there. A small museum holds the model above, along with some photographs, but there are no buildings, no barracks, no gas chambers, not even train tracks. When the Nazis realized they were losing the war, they did their best to destroy the site. So, there are memorials as you see above, with shards of rock standing from concrete ground listing the names of towns from which victims came. But there is also a lot of the empty ground like in the bottom of the photo. Treblinka is still mostly just a clearing in the forest, as it was in 1942-1943.
When the Nazis realized they would be discovered, they decided to exhume all the buried corpses and burn them on a pyre day and night. Here is the memorial to that particular aspect of Treblinka. I found my imagination really struggled to picture what had happened here. Without the aid of buildings or re-created scenes, I found when I asked my mind to imagine that hundreds of thousands of people had been buried here, and their corpses burned on this fire, my mind just didn't know what to do. But in a way, I liked that. I liked that I had to work to imagine what had taken place here. Two weeks later I am still digesting the visit, and I look forward to writing about it for The Ground Around Us (or whatever the new book is called!).
I then went to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Here there are many buildings to help us imagine what happened. There are piles of suitcases and children's shoes, the displays of children's clothing, the piles of hair brushes, pot and pans, eyeglasses. And there are the photographs of those murdered, like these of a 13-year-old Polish girl with tears in her eyes.
A short distance away stands the death camp of Birkenau. And here you get to see the gas chambers where so many thousands were gassed. You see their ruins, as the SS dynamited them in haste before retreating. You see the walkway that so many took into the room where they undressed before being gassed.
And here is the selection area where some of those unloaded from cattle cars were selected for work (to be worked to death) and the rest selected to die immediately in the gas chambers. This was at the end of my time in Birkenau, as a thunderstorm was beginning to throw heavy rain, and at the exact moment I took this photo a giant bolt of lightning exploded overhead. Thus, this strange strip of light captured by iPhone 6 technology.
Ever since I wrote the proposal for the new book, I have been looking forward to visiting these places that were hell on earth. Now, having been there, I look forward to writing about my experience. Whether there are buildings there to help you imagine, or not, I think it's impossible to understand what it was really like on these grounds 70+ years ago. But it's good to try.