Samuel Willenberg was among 200 inmates who on 2 August 1943 succeeded in escaping from the Treblinka extermination camp. Today at age 91, he is the sole living survivor among the 70 who survived.
Samuel Willenberg was born in Czestochowa, Poland, the son of Perec Willenberg and Maniefa, nee Popow; he had a sister, Itta, his elder by four years, and another sister, Tamara, 13 years his junior.
In October 1942 he arrived at the Treblinka camp in a transport of 6,000 Jews deported from the Opatow ghetto. Most were put to death immediately; he was among the few who remained alive.
On his first night in the camp, Willenberg heard “a familiar voice, as if from a great distance;” this was Professor Merring, his elementary school history teacher. That night Merring urged him, “You’ve got to escape from here and tell the world what you’ve seen. That will be your duty.” “I looked at him in disbelief,” wrote Willenberg in his memoir, “What was he talking about? What did he want from me? Escape, from here? I, who had just arrived that day…” he looked at Merring uncomprehendingly.
Willenberg was in Treblinka until the outbreak of the rebellion on 2 August 1943. He saw with his own eyes the arrival at the camp of hundreds of thousands of Jews and thousands of Roma (Gypsies) and how they were sent to their extermination in the gas chambers; his two sisters Itta and Tamara were killed there. Willenberg himself suffered humiliation, violence, cruelty and extreme viciousness dealt by the German SS staff and the Ukrainian "SS-Wachmann" guards.
Inmates in the camp organized for rebellion with the objective of avenging the murders and destroying the extermination apparatus. Willenberg took part in the uprising and was shot in the leg. Wounded and under gunfire, he managed to escape from the camp and reached Warsaw. He joined the Polish underground, using the assumed name Ignacy Popow (“Igo”), and took part in the Polish uprising of August 1944. At the war’s end he remained in Poland. In 1950, following his father’s death, he emigrated to Israel with his mother and his wife, Ada.
Professor Merring was killed in Treblinka and Samuel Willenberg has been carrying out his teacher’s behest ever since. Willenberg wrote his memoir of the camp and the uprising and commemorated them in his book, “Surviving Treblinka” (1984). He made pencil drawings and bronze cast sculptures from his memories of the murder site. He and his wife have accompanied youth delegations and tours to Poland, and he returns to tell and give testimony on what he saw and heard in Treblinka.
This exhibition presents sculptures, drawings, and excerpts of his testimony, describing figures and scenes that Willenberg remembered and wanted to commemorate. They provide direct evidence of a deed whose perpetrators destroyed all traces.