kochav yair, israel | Alex Werber calmly strode toward a patch of black stones, pulled up his sleeves and opened a plastic bag to dump out its contents.
“Goodbye, Mom,” he said, scattering her ashes at the former site of the Treblinka death camp in Poland, where the Nazis murdered 875,000 Jews during World War II.
It was Lucy Werber’s final wish: to have her body cremated, her ashes taken to Poland and sprinkled at the death camp that killed her entire family, a fate she narrowly avoided when she was a young girl.
“She remained a child who just wanted to be with her parents,” Werber said. “She never made it to Treblinka, but she probably felt that was where she needed to go.”
The ceremony capped an emotional journey that forced Werber to explore his family’s history and vividly illustrated Treblinka’s notorious place in the Jewish psyche.
The camp is perhaps the most blatant example of the Final Solution, the Nazi plot to rid Europe of its Jews. It was designed with the sole intention of exterminating Jews, as opposed to others that had at least a facade of being prison or labor camps. Treblinka’s victims were transported there in cattle cars and gassed to death almost immediately upon arrival.
In all, the Nazis and their collaborators killed about
6 million Jews during the Holocaust. The death toll at Treblinka was second only to Auschwitz — a prison camp where more than a million people died in gas chambers or from starvation, disease and forced labor.
Only a few dozen prisoners managed to escape Treblinka.
Thanks to her parents, Lucy Werber managed to avoid being sent to Treblinka. But the camp haunted her until her final days, her son said.
Born in Poland, she spent the bulk of the war in the Warsaw Ghetto. Her son called her a “natural survivor” who knew how to sneak out of the ghetto and smuggle in food for her parents and baby brother. In 1943, just before the family was deported to Treblinka, Lucy’s parents paid a Polish family to hide their 9-year-old daughter in a cellar. Of her parents, brother and extended family, she alone survived the war.
After the war, Lucy was put in an orphanage in southern Poland. Later, she married a fellow survivor, became a teacher and had Alex in 1955. Two years later, the family moved to Israel, where Lucy had another child and worked in a library and in book publishing.
Raising her family in Israel, Lucy spoke little of her own childhood experiences. It was only when she became ill that Werber, a 55-year-old accountant, learned of her unusual will. A longtime smoker, she died of lung failure in May at the age of 77. Her husband died 38 years ago and is buried in Israel.
“She was a very stubborn, opinionated person who knew what she wanted,” he said.
At first he said he was “insulted” that she did not want to be buried in her home in Israel, close to her grandchildren. After she died, when he was sorting through her belongings, he began to understand. Inside her leather wallet he found a single black-and-white photo of her father as a young man.
“That explains everything,” Werber said, tears welling in his eyes. “She was probably ridden with guilt, feeling that she should have died there with her family. A child who loses her parents at age 9 is traumatized for life. I suppose she felt this intense need to join them.”
With a heavy heart, he executed her will. First he negotiated the release of her body and had it cremated by a private company that keeps its crematorium’s location secret because the act is so taboo in Israel — it violates Jewish law and also conjures up images of the Holocaust ovens.
Then, along with his sister and his son, he departed to Poland, packing the ashes in his suitcase. It was a tricky operation. He wasn’t sure about the legality of traveling with human remains and was afraid he would be turned back if he made his intentions clear upon arrival in Poland — so he told no one from start to finish.
During the five-day trip — his first time back in Poland since he departed as an infant — he returned to his home town of Bielsko-Biala. But the highlight was the private ceremony at Treblinka, where he retraced the path of the incoming prisoners.
Before shutting down the death camp, the Nazis attempted to destroy all evidence of their atrocities. The structures were destroyed and the ground was plowed and planted over. Today, all that remains are a series of concrete slabs representing the train tracks, and mounds of rocks and gravel with a series of memorials and stone tablets representing lost communities.
Access to the site is open, so Werber didn’t draw attention.
On the September day he scattered the ashes, skies were clear and sunny.
“It was quiet and beautiful and that bothered me,” he said. “I expected it to be dark and dreary and to project death, but it didn’t.”
Regardless, he said he felt “sadness, but also relief” to have fulfilled his mother’s last wishes.
A German television crew recorded his actions, and he doesn’t intend to ever return to Poland.
In lieu of a real grave, Werber called the footage his mother’s true “tombstone.”
“I’m at peace with myself. It’s an unusual, creative tombstone and it suits her,” he said. “She was definitely a special person.”