Thursday, August 23, 2012

Haimi at Sobibor

There was an article in Haaretz this week regarding the excavations that Israeli archeologist Yoram Haimi has undertaken at Sobibor, the Nazi death camp in eastern Poland, that made a profound impression on me…and not only because of the actual work itself that Haimi has undertaken. (If you are reading the electronic version of this letter, you can see the article by clicking here.)

Sobibor, as I expect all my readers will know, was a place of indescribable horror, a camp that existed for no purpose other than to kill the people sent there. There were no fig leaves set in place to obscure the “real” point of the place’s existence: no industry, no forced labor, no factories of any sort, no phony schools. There were also no survivors, or almost none: of the quarter of a million people deported to Sobibor, a scant fifty-three are known to have survived. (All the survivors were among the three hundred camp workers who managed to escape during the camp-wide revolt in October of 1943, an uprising that wrested full control of the camp from the Germans for all of sixteen hours. Some readers may have seen the 1987 made-for-television movie, Escape from Sobibor, starring Alan Arkin, Rutger Hauer, and Joanna Pacuła, which dramatizes the story very effectively.)

Just a few days after the revolt was quashed, Himmler himself ordered that Sobibor be closed and its buildings, including its gas chambers and crematoria, razed to the ground. The site was then planted with trees in the hope, I suppose, that the crimes committed there would never come to light if the place itself were to vanish from the face of the earth. It didn’t work, of course. There were, at the end of the day, more than four dozen escapees, each possessed of complete knowledge of the Nazis’ crimes in that place. And, of course, most of the German officers who ran the place also survived, as did many of their Ukrainian underlings. The perpetrators, of course, were less inclined to tell their story, although many were tried in courts of law and subsequently either committed suicide or died in jail. But even despite all that testimony, the earth slowly set itself to reclaiming the ground upon which Sobibor stood. The trees grew. Eventually, grass covered the ruins, obscuring them from view and making the precise lay-out of the camp difficult to discern even to Shoah scholars. There is, I suppose, something comforting in the thought that the earth even can do such a thing, that our sentient planet can step in—if this is not too bizarre a thought to say out loud—to obliterate the horrors committed on its outer surface something in the way our bodies naturally heal wounds, sometimes even without leaving scars as physical evidence of their historical presence. But there is also something wrong with a place of such indescribable pain simply vanishing, something that makes the eradication of a place like Sobibor painful and upsetting even to think about, let alone to acquiesce to.

Enter Yoram Haimi, an archeologist by training but also the child of a family of survivors. Except, of course, that it was not all of his family that managed to flee…and some of those who remained behind were murdered at Sobibor. For a long time, apparently, Haimi felt the matter to be settled, the camp to be gone, the testimony of those few survivors to be all that remained of that time and that place and those horrors. But then, about five years ago, it struck him that he himself held the tools to right a great wrong. And so he set himself to work, bringing the tools of his trade to bear in his effort to unearth Sobibor, to locate its buildings and its killing sites, to reclaim what the perpetrators tried so strenuously to obscure—and, in so doing, to honor the dead by showing reverence to their final resting place.

Does thinking about a Nazi death camp in that way seem odd to you? Try thinking of Sobibor instead as a vast Jewish cemetery—and, unlike in some of the other death camps, only Jewish people were murdered at Sobibor—and the effort to reclaim the space makes more sense and becomes, if anything, a noble task for Haimi’s team to have undertaken, and perhaps even a sacred one.

Has so much time really slipped by that the work of uncovering the full story of the Shoah has passed from historians to archeologists? Having read about Haimi’s work in Haaretz, I started looking for more to read and came upon a very interesting essay, complete with photographs, that Haimi and two other archeologists, one Israeli and one Polish, authored, an essay partially about Sobibor but also about similar archeological excavations recently undertaken at Treblinka, Chelmno, and Belzec. (Readers reading on a screen can find the essay here.) In a sense, it is only logical for archeologists to work at uncovering that which the earth has naturally hidden—that is, after all, exactly what archeologists do for a living—and yet it seems unbelievable to me that we have, somehow without me noticing, moved through the time when an event as ever-present in all of our psyches as the Shoah could merely be recalled and recounted to a new era in which even its details need instead to be physically drawn forth from the earth by scientists trained in that kind of excavation.

The thought that the work of recovering the story of the Shoah has passed to people trained to dig it out physically from the earth—and not to some rarified version of “Shoah archeologists” but to actual archeologists trained in their field and simply applying techniques usually used on sites from distant millennia to events that, even in our own day, have slipped into the realm of the unrecoverable…other than by the means they are bringing to bear in the pursuit of history and of truth—that makes me feel old. But also very satisfied. First and foremost, I feel satisfied that the poor people who died in that place will have their final resting place acknowledged even absent the stone monuments that normally mark the graves of deceased Jewish people. Secondly, I feel satisfied to take note of the effort to guarantee that the stories of the Holocaust that have not yet been told do not simply vanish with those who remember their details from personal experience. And thirdly, I feel very satisfied by the thought that, even after all these years, the truth about the Shoah turns out truly to be ineradicable even if the means of extracting it from the mists of time past must necessarily change as times moves forward and an ever-increasing number of years separate us from the events at hand.

We all age. About that, there isn’t much to do. Episodes in our lives that were once current events become ancient history. We grow older along with the earth itself, and none of us much likes that thought. Its most dour implication, obviously, we like even less. But spending this month of Elul—this holy month that leads directly into our holiest days—contemplating the passage of time and our place along the trajectory that leads from history to destiny through an ever-shifting present, that should be an ennobling experience far more than an upsetting one. It seems unimaginable to me that the study of the Shoah has, at least to some extent, passed to archeologists. It seems unimaginable to me that I have colleagues in the rabbinate who were born long after I myself was ordained. It seems hard, even, to believe that I am my own age. But coming to terms with who we are and what we have become—including not just our specific ages but the fuller story of our lives as well—that is the sacred work to which the days and weeks of Elul call us as we approach the High Holiday season imbued not with arrogance or unwarranted certainty regarding our own merit, but with humility and with resolve. The concept is not merely to number our years so we can know how old we are…but to number them, as the psalmist wrote, so that in doing so we may yet gain hearts of wisdom.

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