The death of 93-year-old Holocaust survivor Samuel Willenberg marks the passing of the last known link to the notorious death camp of Treblinka, perhaps the most vivid example of Nazi Germany’s attempt to destroy European Jewry.
But the death of Willenberg, who was buried Monday, also symbolizes a looming transition in the field of Holocaust commemoration, as historians and educators prepare for a world without survivors and the challenge of maintaining the memory of the Nazi genocide without the aid of those who witnessed it.
Willenberg, one of just 67 men known to have survived Treblinka after a revolt, devoted his final years to preserving the memory of more than 875,000 people systematically murdered in a one-year killing spree there at the height of World War II.
He was a frequent public speaker, wrote a book that was translated into eight languages and led dozens of youth missions to the remnants of the destroyed camp in Poland. Later in life, he took to sculpting to describe his experiences, and his bronze statues reflected what he saw — Jews standing on a train platform, a father removing his son’s shoes before entering the gas chambers, a young girl having her head shaved, and prisoners removing bodies.
“It was his life’s mission. He saw himself as the echo of the murdered, as their loudspeaker. He lived it daily and in many ways he never left Treblinka,” said Gideon Greif, chief historian of the Shem Olam institute, who knew Willenberg well. “He was committed to making sure that the voices of the victims were not forgotten … and now that personal element is gone.”
Hundreds paid homage at Willenberg’s funeral in central Israel, including dignitaries from Israel and abroad who recognized the watershed moment of his passing. In his eulogy, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin called him a “symbol for an entire generation of heroic Holocaust survivors.”
More than 70 years after the war, the window is rapidly closing on the survivors’ ability to relay their stories. Some 180,000 elderly survivors remain in Israel, with a similar number worldwide, but more than a 1,000 die each month, and experts predict that within seven years none will be well enough to share anything of significance.
That prospect has become the central challenge of Holocaust institutes around the world. An “oral history” of testimonies has been collected and filmed, original items have been restored and exhibited, and descendants are receiving training on how to carry on their parents’ stories.
“There is a huge added value to hearing survivor testimony first hand,” said Naama Egozi, a trainer of teachers at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial’s International School of Holocaust Studies. “You can read a book or watch a movie, but there is just no substitute to someone who can say ‘I was there.'”
Willenberg was among the most powerful of these witnesses. With a booming voice and a storyteller’s charisma, he recounted his ordeal in detail in a wide-reaching interview with The Associated Press in 2010, tearing up on several occasions.
His two sisters were murdered at the camp and he described his own survival as “sheer chance.”
“It wasn’t because of God. He wasn’t there. He was on vacation,” he said.
Along with the lesser known Belzec and Sobibor camps, Treblinka 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.
Only a select few — mostly young, strong men like Willenberg, who was 20 at the time — were assigned to maintenance work instead.
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 Jews died in gas chambers or from starvation, disease and forced labor.
On Aug. 2, 1943, Willenberg joined a group of Jews who stole some weapons, set fire to the camp and headed to the woods. Hundreds fled, but most were shot and killed by Nazi troops or captured by Polish villagers who returned them.
The survivors became the only source of knowledge about Treblinka, because the Nazis all but destroyed it in a frantic bid to cover their tracks. All that remains today are a series of concrete slabs representing the train tracks and mounds of gravel with a memorial of stone tablets representing lost communities.
Willenberg was shot in the leg during the escape and kept running, ignoring dead friends in his path. He said his blue eyes and “non-Jewish” look allowed him to survive in the countryside before arriving in Warsaw and joining the Polish underground.
“It never leaves me,” he said in 2010. “It stays in my head. It goes with me always.”
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
Chris Roberts says
The sooner all the peoples of the world say “We don’t want or need politicians or any form of religion, which is nothing more than rubbish, we don’t need borders, we have better things to do with the obscene amounts of money that are squandered on armaments etc., the better.” When is the world going to unite against poverty? Irrigate the deserts with de-salinated sea water, creating vast ares to grow food and vegetable oils to drive motors, instead of the mineral oil from underground, thereby reducing pollution and keeping the sea levels down, eliminating the dreadful conditions that blight the lives of the world’s poorest people, and giving hope for the future of mankind. Will good prevail over evil? We can only hope, and unless the human psyche changes from greed and violence to a more caring society, where hate and violence and their promoters are eradicated, where having vast wealth is banned and treated with contempt, where the offer or threat of violence are offences that result in long terms of imprisonment, then that hope will never be realized. Maybe I am an idealist, but maybe, just maybe, one day it will catch on.
You are more than an idealist you are an idiot You have rose colored glasses on. The holocaust did happen and it will happen again unless we have learned something from it. Who is going to do all this you are speaking about. As long as there are dictators there will never be peace they exploit their own people and nations.
Your 100% right!!!
John potter says
Take away the guns then kill all who don’t believe as hitler did kill a million ?
You are STUPID
Mervin Hanawalt says
Your not idealistic, just naive!
I’m glad he will not have to see the same thing happen in America to those of faith (not muslim). It’s going to get bad and spark a very bloody revolution. May also spark a global war when our enemies think our guard is down and we are weak. Hold onto your socks folks it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
President Obama should have attended that! But, of course, he was playing golf!
Don’t blame his for stuff that happened before he was born. There’s already more than enough to blame him for since he gained office.
Mervin Hanawalt says
If Obummer didn’t play golf Michelle wouldn’t get hers and we would be hard pressed to get ours!
The idea of 6 million jews killed in the slave labor installations of the NAZI has been disproved. It is a myth that jewish folk used after the fraudulent land-grant of 1948 that was entitled, “Israel.” The 6 million myth created a wave of sympathy around the world, on the crest of which wave Judaism continues to surf; fraudulently.
This information is in no way intended to support either the dastardly destruction and murders by the NAZI. Nor is it intended to support the fraudulent myths that Judaism has created in its Apartheid against non-jews, whom Judaism lables “Goyim.” Israeli leaders have explained “Goyim” to be similar to barnyard animals and subject to slaughter.
Rabbi Henty Siegman explained that Ben Gurion initiated genocide against Palestinians in 1948. Ben Gurion had his army drive 700,000 Palestinians from their homes, villages and cities, murdering thousands. He did this in an attempt to force closure on the finalization ot the 1948 land-grant, entitled “Israel.” For details goto: http://beforeitsnews.com/economy/2014/08/prominent-jewish-leader-israel-intentionally-massacred-civillians-in-1948-to-terrorize-the-population-2647556.html
The genocide of Palestinians continues and Israeli leadership has extended its border into the Golan Heights, which is within Syria. Veteranstoday has reported that Israeli army officers have been captured among ISIL soldiers.
Ed Munson says
As is often said…..”a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.” You excel in that area. How’s the weather in the back woods of Idaho?
Prove what you say !
It is good that the evil done to the Jewish people is remembered. However, this article repeats an endlessly repeated distraction from the truth. This distraction is that the Holocaust was only about the murder of six million Jews.
Unfortunately, there is a huge intentional omission in that statement. While you and the world are remembering the six million, how many readers of this article remember the five million? Do you think that the Holocaust killed six million people? The answer is, “No.” Historians agree. But no one talks about the truth. Only the half-truth gets told.
In reality, the Holocaust killed eleven million people, not six million. The forgotten five million extra people were not Jews. They were the professors, the Seventh Day Adventists, gays, and the political opponents of the Nazi Party. They were all humans. They all deserved life, but they were killed in the Holocaust too. But, who remembers them? Five million forgotten.
Texas Mak says
You are absolutely correct! Our parish priest was a prisoner at Auschwietz. He was arrested for not giving the approved political ranting sermons that the Nazis sent out to all churches in Poland. He would have died, but was put on a work detail in the munitions factory next to the camp. He told us how he had to work long hours on his feet without food or water. Then to be matched back to the camp for a bowl of maggot soup and to sleep 5 to a bunk. He and one other priest from his diocese survived. As many as 25 others did not including Saint Maximillian Kolbe!