On a cold and snowy winter day, in 1943, the last transport from the ghetto of Wloszczowa, a small town in the south of Poland, is getting ready to leave. It is transporting the last remaining Jews to the Treblinka death camp. There, on a concrete platform fenced in with barbed wire, German soldiers stand guard, some holding onto fierce attack dogs, exposing their intimidating teeth. With the butts of their rifles, they shoved the frightened people who had just disembarked from the train they had been squeezed in for two days in sealed wagons without any food or water. They are led into a large concrete structure and commanded to undress and get ready to shower. Completely naked, they are told to run into the “cleansing” hall; when it was full, the doors were shut. Among dozens of Jews who were crammed into the sealed chamber I spotted Lilly, my young and beautiful aunt, standing there naked, trying to hide her nakedness with her hands, shivering with cold and fear. Almost complete darkness reigns inside with people pushing, praying, crying and screaming in despair.
After a few minutes a small hatch opens from the ceiling and a single beam of light penetrates. Everybody looks up and watches as a small canister is thrown down into the room. Suddenly a pungent smell rises from the floor and engulfs the room. People grab their throats, choking, coughing and vomiting. They start climbing one onto the other as they try to reach higher levels where there is still some air.
After a few moments, there is complete stillness; no groaning or suffering. Deathly silence takes over.
The sound of creaking hinges is heard and the doors open. Guards wearing masks peek inside and see that there are still some bodies twitching and fluttering as white foam drips from their mouths. The guards quickly move away, allowing the gas to dissipate and evaporate before other prisoners arrive to remove the bodies and move them to the crematorium where they will be burnt. Among those bodies is the body of my aunt Lilly, who was only twenty-seven years old.
I recognized her image from the many pictures that were found in perfect order in her personal album that was hidden by a Polish family. I also felt I knew her from stories that I heard about her from my father - her older brother.
Ever since I saw her image, I began to dream, and the dream haunts me; those frightening recurring images. Nearly always, at the point when her body is thrown into the oven of the crematorium and the metallic sound of the iron door being locked, I wake up sweating with my heart pounding.
I lie awake in bed and think and imagine what those poor souls, who went like lambs to the slaughter, must have experienced. Those were real people, many of whom were from my large and diverse family. Those thoughts provoke anger in me and a strong desire to take revenge. My body aches and refuses to believe that all this really happened.
But I have been there several times, to Majdanek, Treblinka, Auschwitz, Birkenau and Dachau. I saw everything; the barracks, the crematoria, the execution wall, the platform and train tracks. Although seventy years have passed, it seems as if it were yesterday.
Lilly was murdered four years before I was born, and two years before the Second World War ended.