Israel Arbeiter said his final goodbye today to his home city of Plock, Poland.
At 87, Arbeiter will most likely never again be healthy enough to return to the city that gave him life 87 years ago, but is now more remembered as the place where he last saw his mother, father and youngest brother alive. His father’s final words before the Nazis separated his family in the city square were both calm and powerful: “Izzy please make sure to carry on the Jewish tradition.”
From Plock, 14 year-old Israel Arbeiter was sent to a slave labor camp and his parents and younger brother put on a train bound for the death camp at Treblinka. At Treblinka Arbeiter’s family was gassed and cremated. Another brother disappeared and hasn’t been seen since. One other brother also survived the Holocaust.
As our film crew left today Arbeiter passed Plock’s beautiful city hall building, in the foreground, a sparkling water fountain danced in the sunlight. How different a scene it was for Izzy to witness today as compared to 1939 when the German SS and Gestapo entered the city and people started to disappear. There was no sunshine then, only gathering clouds of impending death.
As we drove through the Polish countryside bound for Krakow, I asked Izzy many questions about his younger days. Every answer began with joy, but ended in sorrow.
Last night we stopped at the Treblinka death camp. It was already past dusk when we pulled into a small area about 150 yards from the center of what was then the camp. The Germans did their best to hide the camp when they left, tearing as much down as possible to leave no traces of their crimes behind. But such a mass-muder could never be covered up and today, on this ground where Israel Arbeiter’s family once stood and breathed their last breath, Izzy also said his goodbyes to them.
In the darkness he spoke to his father, quietly whispering in such low tones that it was hard to hear from just yards away. He reassured his father he had kept his promise from that last day they were together in Plock and kept his family’s Jewish tradition alive. Next to Izzy stood the proof, his grandson Matt, who also wept for the pain his grandfather still felt and all those souls around him who cried and pleaded for their own lives more than 70 years ago.
The grounds of Treblinka were quiet. A half-moon peaked through the tall pines, and stars blinked in a cloudless Polish sky. There was hardly a breeze or a noise from the nearby woods. It was quiet. Death occurred here and you didn’t need any man-made signs to tell you that. You smelled it, but there was no odor. You could see it, but there were no bodies or walking skeletons visible. It was just total blackness, a deep dark color that was actually darker than black, if that is possible. It was the devil’s waiting room and all the lights were off, yet you didn’t feel scared for yourself, just sad for them.
As Israel Arbeiter walked across Treblinka, the shadows danced on the memorials put in place to honor all the cities, towns and villages in Poland where the victims of the camp arrived from. Izzy stood by the stone with the name Plock on it, his grandson Matt just inches away. The tears came running down his face, illuminated only by the low light of our video camera and a small flashlight nearby.
As emotional as this was for Israel Arbeiter, it will be much worse on Friday as he returns to the place whose name still makes him stop and stare off into the distance, Auschwitz. It was here where Izzy Arbeiter was sure he saw the Devil. He was wearing a black uniform with SS on it and he was hell-bent on one thing: killing as many people as possible and making sure they suffered tremendously in the process.
Please stay tuned as we post daily updates on Izzy Arbeiter’s return to Poland and Germany.
Tim Gray is Chairman of the non-profit WWII Foundation. To learn more about the WWII Foundation and to donate to their projects, including the educational documentary on Israel Arbeiter’s return to Poland and Germany, please visit www.wwiifoundation.org