If you listen closely, you can hear the train tracks from Warsaw to Bialystok crying. I heard it on Sunday, April 23, the day before the world memorialized Yom Hashoah, the day of remembrance for the Holocaust. I was traveling these tracks to visit Bialystok, the city where Esther Goldberg lived for a year – September 1939 until September 1940.
When I bought the train ticket, it listed Malkinia as one of the cities the train would pass through – it is approximately half way between Warsaw and Bialystok. I caught my breath. Malkinia is the last train stop before death. The “transports” to the Treblinka Death Camp made their way to Malkinia – whether from Warsaw or from Bialystok – so in either direction of these tracks.
All trains bound for Treblinka stopped at the Malkinia station. A few of the cattle cars were unhinged and taken on a separate rail spur to Treblinka; the reception area could not accommodate the whole train. Once these cars were emptied of people and then filled with the clothing and valuables of the murdered Jews, the car moved out and made room for the next group of cattle cars. In this manner 870,000 Jews were brought to Treblinka and murdered between July 23, 1942 and November of 1943.
I looked out the window and watched the scenery pass by. Though I was not here in 1939, I cannot imagine that this stretch of land has changed much. We passed lots of trees – birch (white trunks) and pines, low bushes, and lots of farm land – some grassy and some dirt rows of planted crops, stretching out beyond where I could see. As the train neared a stop – there were some farm houses and barns. Closer to the larger towns, there were some industrial buildings and even some kind of plant that terrified me because it had a tall round chimney structure billowing white smoke.
Most people in the cattle cars on their way to Malkinia, on their way to death, would not have seen this scenery. There was usually only one small window in the cattle car and it was high up and covered with bars. The scenery was not what was on their mind.
When my train reached the Malkinia station, I looked out and tried to take it in. Next to our track, there were at least 5 parallel tracks with a line of train cars just waiting. I wondered which of those tracks sent the cattle cars onto Treblinka. I feel that it should be marked somehow so we can know which track is crying the loudest.
To top it off, as I traveled on this track of death, I was catching up on my pod casts. I listened to Radio Lab from April 7, 2017. It was about the potential use of a nuclear weapon. It told the story of 81-year-old Harold Herring, who was a pilot in the United States Air Force and then was a trainee for the job of being one of the officers who holds the key needed to launch a nuclear weapon. He was learning all about the weapons and the science of it as well as the critical checks and balances in place, on the officer level, that must be satisfied before the key is turned to launch the missile.
One day he was wondering, “what are the checks and balances that a President must go through before ordering me and my fellow officers to launch a nuclear missile?” He wanted to rest assured that a President could not order a launch on a whim or because he had a bad day. He asked the instructor this question and was told to put his question in writing. He did and months of hearings and appeals ensued, at the end of which he got no answer to his question and was forced to retire from the military.
The reporter on this American Life obtained a copy of part of the report related to the decision to force Herman’s retirement. It read that although Herman stated repeatedly that if he received an order to launch, he would follow the order, but the report continued – his assurances were followed by personal subjective qualifications such as “if he thought the order was legal or if he thought the circumstances required the launching.”
When the reporter read this statement to Herman he was outraged. He said that it was false. He never made any such qualifying statements. Herman went on to say:
“I assumed that there had to be some sort of check and balance so that one man could not just on a whim order the launch of nuclear weapons . . . and that we should not put anybody [a military officer in this case] in a position where they are just following orders and throwing their conscious to the four winds. I think it is an affront to play the game that we don’t have a need to know for someone who is doing the most serious, grave jobs in the armed forces.”
The echo of Adolf Eichmann’s defense – “just following orders” – rang in my ear. If you want to know the answer to Herman’s question, listen to the podcast.
While these tracks were the tracks of death for so many, they played a different role in the lives of Esther’s family. When the war broke out in September of 1939 and Esther’s home was burned to the ground, her family left Stoczek. After staying with some relatives for a bit, they moved to Bialystok. Esther’s two brothers went first and got jobs. Making an exploratory visit, Esther and her father, Shlomo Zalman, crossed the German/Soviet border at Malkinia, intending to take a train from there to Bialystok. Shlomo Zalman was forced by the Nazis to work for a day on building the tracks to connect the Malkinia station with the rest of the German lines. I still cannot believe it – Shlomo Zalman, the Melamed of Stoczek, was forced to help build the railroad tracks that, three years later, brought trains to Treblinka. (See blog post November 16, 2016).
But in September of 1939, Treblinka had not yet been thought up. These train tracks led the Wisznia family to safety. Jews could live and work in the Soviet-controlled territories. Bialystok did not become a place of death for Jews until 1941 when the Germans attacked the Soviet Union.
On this train ride, I felt the exhaustion and the hope of the Wisznia family in 1939. But I also felt the fear, the hunger, the thirst, that people felt on these tracks in 1942 and 1943. I looked around at the Polish people sharing my train ride. They were just getting from one place to another. Do they even know about the trains to Treblinka? We had two cabin mates on the train from Warsaw to Bialystok – one slept and one worked on a crossword puzzle. On the return trip, our train car was full of people heading to Warsaw – young, old, people on computers, on phones, just living life. I wanted to get up and make speech as we reached the Malkinia station. I wanted to tell them that tonight was the beginning of Yom Hashoah and they should all remember what happened on these train tracks.
For the sake of my daughter and my lack of Polish, I held back. I said the speech to myself – that will have to do for now.