Tisha B'av


by Rabbi Menachem Nissel
No Denying The Holocaust
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The Soccer Field

June 16th, 2003

Our luxury air-conditioned bus drove through a village that looked just like all the other quaint villages in Eastern Poland. A gnarled weatherworn peasant shouted at his horse from a wagon laden with hay. Ruddy-faced women sporting brightly colored kerchiefs tended vegetable gardens that stretched from their wooden houses into the streets. The bus came to a gentle halt. Our translator, using her matter-of-fact "We are now at the Holiday Inn" voice, picked up the microphone and said three words:

"This is Sobibor."

We descended from our bus and found ourselves staring at a soccer field. Kids were playing soccer with the same carefree youthfulness as they do everywhere around the world. The scene was so Sunday Afternoon. So casual and relaxed, almost with a sense of charm.

The scene was so .... so normal.

Only the imposing watchtower beyond the goal posts and a "Sobibor" plaque to our right betrayed the little secret that we had just entered another planet. That we were walking over the tortured screams of almost a quarter of a million of our own people.

We politely walked around the soccer field so as not to disturb the game. Hiding behind our Tehillims we tried hard to connect to what was under our feet. But it was so hard. So alarmingly hard. There was nothing to connect to. Absolutely nothing. I closed my eyes and took a step back. In the distance I heard dogs barking and the piercing whistle of a passing train...

June 16th, 1942: With the hissing of brakes and screeching of iron wheels a train of fetid cattle cars comes to a halt at Sobibor Station. Almost a thousand Jews are herded out by Ukrainian guards swinging whips wildly at the bewildered men women and children, elderly, babies and crippled, as they blink their eyes at a sun shining cursed rays on a hell that has no bottom. German officers, holding ferocious dogs straining to sink their jaws into innocent flesh, bark orders at the guards, "Separate the men from the women! Everyone undress! Women must have their hair shaved! Everyone to the showers for decontamination!"

An adult passing by on a bicycle motions towards the kids playing soccer, urging them to leave the field while we pray. They leave grudgingly, why do these Jews always have to spoil our fun? I hear one of them mutter "Jude" under his breath.

About five hundred Jews stand in front of a twenty-five square meter chamber. The Ukrainians savagely start beating them with truncheons and iron-nailed gas pipes. Some are sadists, attacking little children in front of their mothers, roaring with laughter when a hysterical mother tries to fling herself in front of the brutal blows. Babies are tossed like rag dolls on top of the crying crowd. Fifty people are still outside -- there is no more room. The rabid dogs are set free from their leashes and they set themselves on their nearest victims. Everyone rushes screaming into the lethal chamber, the stronger crushing the weaker. Finally the doors are closed with a mighty clang.

The Hill

We closed our Tehillims and slowly crossed the playing field towards the bus. Once again we felt overwhelmed by the total ordinariness of what we were seeing. Birds flying through the sunny skies were merrily singing their tunes. I noticed delicate poppies, daisies and buttercups dancing around the grass.

As we approached the bus we saw an elderly woman leaving her house two buildings away from the soccer field. She started running frantically towards us, waving her arms up and down as if trying to fly. As she drew nearer we saw she was an aged matron with thin wispy gray hair held up with two hair clips. Her eyes were dancing animatedly, sunk into weary wrinkled skin. Her hands were big for her body, rugged peasants' hands that had spent a lifetime working the earth. She was chattering animatedly in her native tongue.

"You havent seen everything!" she exclaimed. "Follow me! You have to see The Hill."

Still jabbering loudly, she started marching towards an opening to the right of the soccer field. We followed her down a winding gravel path until we saw a grass-covered hillock at the end of the trail.

"Whats so special about that hill?" I asked.

"Ashes" she replied, almost incredulously, as if the answer was self-evident. "The hill is made out of ashes."

The door is opened. The bodies are like pillars of basalt, still erect, not having had any place to fall. Families are still holding hands, mothers still embracing their children. The blue corpses are tossed out, hurriedly, to make room for the next group. Sonderkommandoes, dark shadows of humanity, descend like ghosts to remove gold teeth from the dead.

2 Sobibor Station Road

A solemn procession returned, for the second time, to the bus. I asked our new guide to tell us her name.

"Yanina," she smiled, flashing a toothless grin.

"Tell me, Yanina," I asked, "how do all the residents of Sobibor feel about groups like our own visiting their village?"

"They resent it. They hate it that Jews come to Sobibor. They hate all the attention. Remember, this is our home, we live our lives here. Some of them laugh when they see Jews kissing the ground and crying over the soccer field. And some of the older boys, well, they sometimes throw stones too."

"So why are you so different, how come you want to help us?"

She stopped walking and turned towards me and for the first time her hands were still. She looked straight at my eyes and looked right through me as if she was looking far, far back into time.

"My brother was murdered in Majdanek."

She did not expand on her answer. I knew that to probe further would be an intrusion. There is an intimate covenant of understanding between victims that I, who have lived in a pampered age, am not allowed to grasp. Their souls have connected through suffering. The glue that bonds them together is the glue of tears and blood.

I asked Yanina if I could come to her house and fill some bottles with water. I explained to her that we need to wash our hands, as is our custom when leaving a cemetery. And her back yard is one of the biggest Jewish cemeteries in the world. Yanina, sensitively, seemed only too glad to help.

By western standards, Yaninas house would have been considered a shack, but I could see that she has tried her best to keep it neat and attractive. The only running water was an outdoor pump next to the washing lines. On the way back I read a blue sign with Yaninas address written on it in large white cursive letters. It was similar to signs we had seen on the front of houses throughout Poland.

Two Sobibor Station Road.

While looking at the plain blue sign something clicked inside of me. My fermenting emotions were about to explode like a volcano. My heart was racing. I just could not understand what I was seeing. I was trying so hard, so very very hard, to touch a hidden world. I wanted to see just one soul that could bare witness to the Sobibor I so wanted to mourn for. I wanted to sit down on the grass and cry with him all day as he told me his story. And then perhaps I could comprehend that it would take me on towards a thousand years to hear the bitter stories of the souls beneath my feet. Yet all I could see was the smiling face of Yanina in front of Two Sobibor Station Road. And sunshine, a soccer field and summer flowers.

I noticed that my hands were damp from perspiration. I gathered my strength to ask one final question.

"Tell me, Yanina. You know that in America, there are evil people, people who try and deny that there ever was a Holocaust. They like to use Sobibor as their example. Look around us Yanina! We see nothing! Absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. So tell me Yanina, are there perhaps youngsters in Sobibor who feel the same way, who feel that the Sobibor Death Camp is just one big hoax?"

Yanina flapped her hands and smiled one last time.

"Of course everyone in Sobibor knows what happened! To this very day, every time we plow our fields we see the ashes, every time we plow our fields we find more bones..."

The Sonderkommandoes have dragged over twenty thousand wretched bodies that day to their final journey. Soon the stench of the pyres contaminates the countryside. The night skies bleed crimson red, deep into White Russia and the Ukraine.

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