Chapter 4 Transcript : The End of the world

Note: We Share The Same Sky is produced to be heard and not read. We encourage you to listen to the audio which includes emotion, accents, laughter, music, pauses, and emphasis that can not be transcribed to this page.

RACHAEL CERROTTI : We went to the end of the world and back. It didn’t take long for us to get there. It was just shy of a four hour drive from our apartment in Warsaw. Sergiusz drove. This was before we were married. He took us along lonely state roads and through simple villages. We passed stretches of desolate frozen farmland. Rundown shacks sat next to modern houses. Farmers stood on the corners conversing with their neighbors. Older women biked passed us and young kids chased their family’s chickens. 

We drove so far east in Poland that we were just a few kilometers from Ukraine. Just a few short miles from the border of the European Union. We went to the end of the world and back. We went to the site of their murder. We went to Sobibór. 

I’m Rachael Cerrotti. We Share the Same Sky.

I didn’t want to visit here. To call this place hell would be too kind of a word. This place of mass murder. Of hopeful extinction. Of intentional suffocation. If the trees could talk, they would tell you what they saw. They would tell you of the smell of ash and the sounds of gunshots. They would tell you that they saw my great grandparents being stripped and shot. They would tell you that they witnessed Hana’s younger brother dig his own grave. The trees would tell you that he was only thirteen. 

As Hana found refuge in Denmark, her family in Czechoslovakia was being conditioned for death. She explained the Holocaust like this. “You are slowly being peeled off like an onion. You are slowly losing first your privacy, your schooling, your income, your possessions. You are being conditioned to worse and worse situations. You are saying, this too shall pass. We can live with this, but you are being conditioned to live a subhuman life. And when you are looked at like subhumans, no one has trouble killing you. 

Sergiusz accompanied me to this place of death. Together we studied the dark facts of the Holocaust. We compared war stories. Sergiusz also came to Auschwitz with me. He refused to hold my hand when we were there. He only whispered to me, “these people, their grandchildren would have been my neighbors.”

We went to Sobibor on February third in two thousand and fifteen. We had just gotten engaged one week before. He drove with the utmost attention. He noticed every dip in the land, and navigated around the crumbling ground. I looked out the window as the car shook. The trees were void of life. Each sharp branch was bare. The jagged edges made space for the sun to shine through.

I recognized this forest. It was the forest I saw in the history books. The ones that played in black and white with each retelling of the Holocaust. 

“They were shot,” my grandmother told me. “In Sobibor, they had these trenches that they had to dig. They were undressed and they were shot. But maybe, it is so, that if they were shot 48 hours after they arrived, they saved themselves a lot of suffering.”

The men and women were separated upon arrival. But the children went with the women, so if they were shot, perhaps, my great grandmother watched her son die. But they also could have been gassed. And if they went to the gas chambers, they were beaten. Beaten and yelled at as they were forced inside. Around 500 Jews were poisoned at a time. It took 20 or 30 minutes for each round. Other Jews, the ones forced to stay alive, were ordered to take the dead bodies from the chamber and to pull out any gold teeth before throwing them in a mass grave.

For a Nazi extermination camp, Sobibor only functioned for a short time. But, in the 17 months between May 1942 and October 1943, about 250,000 Jews from Poland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union were killed there. Sometimes when prisoners would arrive, they would be forced to write letters to relatives to say that they were at labor camps. Once the letters were sent, they were immediately murdered. 

Sobibor was designed with intention and shaped like a rectangle and built in a thinly populated region. The barbed wire fence was woven with branches and then it was surrounded by trees. The same trees that let in the winter sunlight as Sergiusz and I drove. The Nazis knew that they must enclose the death.

Sergiusz and I emerged from the woods to a few simple houses and a set of train tracks. There were no cars. There were no faces. There were no sounds. It was quiet. But it was not empty.

We pulled the car over to the side of the road. There was a manicured path lined with a small exhibit that told about the death. Sergiusz’s footsteps haunted me. And my footsteps haunted him. With every step, we broke the perfect layer of undisturbed snow.

Small rocks lined a path, each intentionally placed in front of a pine tree. I am told that the Nazis called this the “Road to heaven.” Each stone bore a name. Some stones said “For the Unknown.”

I needed to get out of the forest immediately. I turned and walked back the way we came. But faster this time. Finding comfort by stepping in each of Sergiusz’s footprints. 

He followed me. We wanted to go home. I decided I didn’t need the pictures I planned. Then, from the right, I heard a dog bark. Its scolding echoed across the empty land before it reached us. She tracked us. Our every movement. Pictures flashed across my mind. Pictures of German Shepherds. Pictures of Nazis. Pictures of brutality. Pictures of fright. She barked at us. She told us that we had no reason to be here. The bark lingered. It sat in the air. The bark broke time.

Sergiusz touched my waist as he unlocked the car. We turned on the engine. The doors shut. I began to breath. We strained our necks to look behind, back towards a pale pink house that was not so far down the railroad tracks. The home had one small window near its triangular roof and a lone door carved into the side. 

The dog was satisfied with our decision. Her stiff tale became relaxed again and a young girl emerged from the door. Her body was protected by a warm winter coat and snow pants as she went to play. It was a glimpse of familiarity. In this place, at the end of the world, I was looking at a vision of love that only exists between a girl and her dog. I know this love. I have this love.

We drove off in silence. The only thought was let’s go home. 

When I went out to retrace Hana’s story of statelessness, I was deeply aware that unlike so many survivors, she never witnessed a murder. While others were hiding in sewers and attics, she walked free in Denmark and Sweden. While relatives were stuffed inside of cattle cars treated as if they were unworthy of life, Hana made her own decisions. While children watched their parents being murdered, their fathers disappear and their mothers dragged by their hair from their homes, letting out piercing screams to have pity on the young ones, Hana was spared from the sight. While young mothers watched as their newborns were thrown into piles of snow like plastic dolls or had their heads smashed against brick walls by men ordered to hate, Hana thought about what it would be like to have a child of her own. 

Because when the Nazis came for her parents in Czechoslovakia, their neighbors turned a blind eye. But, when the Nazis came for Hana, in Denmark, her neighbors saved her.

{ Hebrew Chanting - The Mourner’s Kaddish }

HANA DUBOVA : What I learned much later was my parents were eliminated almost immediately. And in a way, maybe if they were shot 48 hours or 76 hours after they arrived, they saved themselves a lot of suffering.

RACHAEL CERROTTI (outro) : We Share The Same Sky is produced by Erika Lantz and me. 

Every episode comes with photographs, videos, and a curriculum you can use in the classroom. Learn more at sharethesamesky.com.  

"Thank you to USC Shoah Foundation for making this podcast possible. My grandmother’s story is just one of nearly 55,000 testimonies in their archive from survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust and other genocides. This podcast is also supported by Echoes & Reflections, a program for Holocaust education throughout the United States."

I’m Rachael Cerrotti. Thanks for listening.


*This episode includes music by Blue Dot Sessions*