The Holocaust changed our language. The word ‘holocaust’ itself has had, since 1945, no other meaning than that which conjures the unimaginable horrors of the death camps. Unimaginable because there is no need to imagine them; we have the testimonies of liberators, and survivors such as Primo Levi and now, Chil Rajchman, whose brief diary of his incarceration in Treblinka is all the more remarkable for coming out of the first camp which did not even make a pretence of being a work camp but was openly and solely dedicated to the mass destruction of Jews and other ethnic groups.
Rajchman’s language is utterly without ornamentation, which gives his account even greater power and authority. His memoir is almost unreadable. When you discover that the SS guards referred to Jewish children as ‘trinkets’, you have to turn away, but then you have to turn back again, to read on, to marvel at Rajchman’s courage, resourcefulness and true witness, and to remind yourself that, by giving us the language with which to describe it, the Holocaust seems to have ensured we carry on committing genocide because we have the terminology now. Rajchman’s example, however, also gives us a language of hope, and that is why everyone should read this book.
Treblinka also contains a rather dated, polemical essay by Vassily Grossman, written as his response to witnessing Treblinka after it was liberated by the Red Army in 1945.