In a remote clearing, hidden in a Mazovian pine forest, stands a granite monolith; around it is a small field of 17,000 jagged, upright stones, many engraved with the name of a town or village. Beneath the grass, mingled with the sand, lie the ashes of some 800,000 people. Treblinka, the site of the Nazis' second-largest extermination camp after Auschwitz-Birkenau, is an indelible part of the Holocaust. The memorial includes a small museum; the entire site is rarely crowded.
Between July 1942 and August 1943, on average more than 2000 people a day, mostly Jews, were brought to Treblinka II, as the extermination camp was known, in trains of boxcars. Most lived less than hour after they arrived: from the railway siding made to look like an actual train station, the men, women and children were marched to an open area where they were forcibly separated. Personal possessions were seized and they were stripped naked. Women had their hair shorn so it could be used to stuff German mattresses. Prodded by bayonets down a short path to the gas chambers, the people were killed in minutes; their bodies burnt on open-air cremation pyres.
Following an insurrection by inmates working as slaves in August 1943, the extermination camp was demolished. The area was ploughed over and the trees you see today were planted. Realisation of Treblinka's significance happened slowly after WWII, and the current memorial dates to the 1960s. There were less than 50 survivors of the camp to testify about what happened at Treblinka. One survivor, Chil Rajchman, wrote a gripping account of about the camp and his escape shortly after the war: The Last Jew of Treblinka.
Access is by a short road from Hwy 627. A car park has a kiosk that provides information and sells guidebooks, including the useful Plan of Symbolic Stones. A small museum nearby focuses on the workings of Treblinka and includes a model that helps provide a frame of reference to the site today. However, there is not much information on the people killed here, although there is a moving display of everyday items belonging to the victims that were found during recent archeological digs.
It's a five-minute walk from the car park to the site of the Treblinka II extermination camp, alongside a symbolic railway representing the now-vanished line that brought the boxcars full of Jews from in Warsaw, Białystok, Grodno, Radom and other towns across central Poland and as far abroad as Bulgaria. A huge granite monument, 200m east of the ramp, stands on the site where the gas chambers were located. Around it is a vast symbolic cemetery in the form of a forest of granite stones representing the towns and villages where the camp's victims came from. Unlike Auschwitz-Birkenau, nothing remains of the extermination camp, but the labels on the plan showing the original layout speak volumes. Many are struck by the comparatively small size of the Treblinka II site. Not much room was needed to kill 800,000 people.
A further 20-minute walk leads to another clearing and the site of Treblinka I, a penal labour camp that was set up before Treblinka II. The remains of the camp, including the concrete foundations of the demolished barracks, have been preserved.