Wednesday, April 22, 2009


Today I checked out the book "Treblinka" from the Harold Washington Library here in Chicago. I first read the book when I was twelve and in Hebrew School in order to prepare for my Bar Mitzvah. Back then it was an assignment just like any other; however, lately I've had a renewed interest since I'm travelling to Poland for an exhibition in a week and am planning on visiting the camp (it is actually a memorial, the camp itself no longer is standing). I wanted to re-read Treblinka so that when I stand on the actual site, I will have some kind of a connection with the history of the place. The more I read, the more I think that it will impossible to register the connection between the memorial and the history.

Although my ancestors on my father's side were Eastern European Jews, they had long been living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan by the start of the war. My mom's side of the family was a different story. My grandmother grew up in Czechoslovakia on a farm with her grandparents. She was not Jewish but her grandparents owned a farm that the Nazis wanted and they ended killing them to take their land. My grandmother saw her grandparents die and after escaping, she immigrated alone to NY in 1938 at 18 years of age.

My grandparents had different ways of dealing with the war, my mother's mom never talked about it and never had any desire to return to the continent. My father's mom reacted by boycotting German goods until the end of her life (apparently very upset when my parents bought a Volkswagon Beetle in the late 1960's).

As for me, I didn't meet anyone from Germany until I was 22. I was living in Guatemala at the time and shared a house with my dear friend Ute. For me, the war was something of the distant past. I found that I really connected with the Germans that I met and their uniquely dry sense of humor. That being said, I remember the first time that Ute and I talked about the war and to my surprise, the war was still very much alive for her. She still carried a degree of guilt, This was really eye opening and made me feel even more affection for her.

Two years later I travelled to Germany to visit her and have been back since to exhibit my work in Munich. Although I felt removed from the war (my father wasn't even a twinkle in his mother's eye), I was acutely aware of the history of the place. My gallery is on Ludwigstrasse which is the street where Hitler held his early rallies, it was pretty intense to stand on the same spot where the Third Reich was born and I felt it pretty deeply.

And so next Sunday I depart for Poland and to the site of the Treblinka Death Camp. One of the amazing things about Treblinka is that it was one of the few camps to rise up in revolt. It sounds insane to say that I'm looking forward to the experience but it is something that I've always wanted to do and I'm sure that it will be profound. I've found that my relationship with the Holocaust has greatly changed since I've become a father, it has become even that much more unfathomable.

Below you can find a documentary about the events leading up to Treblinka, it is long but interesting. I'm sure I'll post again on this theme after my return.


Georgia said...

Jon, you HAVE to read The Zookeeper's Wife! It is set in Warsaw, during the war. Take it with you.

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