(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
There is nothing left of the Treblinka extermination camp other than the smell of burning that still permeates the air 72-and-a-half years after the August 1943 revolt. Samuel Willenberg, the last living witness to the revolt, died on Friday at his home in Tel Aviv. He was 93.
Willenberg, who was born in Czestochowa, Poland, was one of nature’s gentlemen with all the mannerisms of a Polish nobleman including the kissing of ladies’ hands. Despite his ordeals as a prisoner in Treblinka and later as a member of the Polish underground, he never lost his sense of humor, his charm or his sensitivity.
When he arrived in Treblinka at age 20, he came across an acquaintance who told him that if the Nazis asked about his profession, he should say that he was a painter and a builder.
That advice saved his life. Others who arrived on the same transport went to the gas chambers.
Willenberg was one of the instigators of the Treblinka Revolt, in which some 200 people escaped but only 67 survived.
It is estimated that in excess of 800,000 people were murdered in Treblinka.
Willenberg could never get Treblinka out of his head.
He drew an exact diagram of the camp for use by current and future Holocaust historians, and the book he wrote about his experiences, Revolt in Treblinka, has been translated into eight languages.
A copy of the diagram can be seen at Yad Vashem.
Willenberg’s haunting sculptures, which serve as permanent monuments to those whose lives were cut short in that hell on earth, are at Beit Lochamei Hagetaot – The Ghetto Fighters Museum, together with drawings and excerpts from his written testimony.
One of his sculptures was also placed in the garden of the President’s Residence in Jerusalem.
Willenberg would have been considered a hero for his role in the Treblinka Revolt, but he played an even greater part in Polish resistance against the Germans, and after the war he served in the Polish Army, before coming to Israel in 1950 with his wife, Ada, a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto. The Polish government awarded him the highest of accolades.
From 1993 onward, the Willenbergs often accompanied youth groups to Poland where Willenberg told his story over and over again. He was in demand as a lecturer not only in Poland but also in Germany and the United States – and of course in Israel.
The Nazis destroyed Treblinka ahead of the Soviet advance, but the Polish government acquired the site and put up small stones marked with the name of every city, town and village of the victims who had been deported to the death camp.
When Willenberg led youth groups and sometimes adults to Treblinka, he described in detail everything that had been there before.
Willenberg was also invited to accompany Israeli dignitaries on official visits to Poland.
In the final years of his life, Willenberg was the subject of a feature length documentary called Treblinka’s Last Witness by Miami filmmaker Alan Tomlinson.
It is one of several documentaries made about him, but this one was the longest.
Wlllenberg’s great dream was to establish a Treblinka Museum.
His daughter Orit, who is an internationally acclaimed architect who designed the Israel Embassy in Berlin, has designed a model for the museum and she and her mother, Ada, hope to turn Willenberg’s vision into a reality.
Willenberg also worked toward commemorating the Jews of his native Czestochowa and designed the memorial that stands near the place from which they were deported.
His funeral will take place at 3 p.m. on Monday at the cemetery in Moshav Udim, near Netanya.