Documentary filmmaker Alan Tomlinson’s first reaction to WLRN general manager John LaBonia’s pitch for a film about the Treblinka death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland was muted.
“Another film about the Holocaust? It’s kind of been done,” the Miami TV producer/director behind documentary features Nixon’s the One: The ’68 Election (2010), Muhammad Ali: Made in Miami (2008) and Plagues: The Ebola Riddle (2001), said of his initial feeling.
“As a filmmaker, what can I add to this? I’m not even Jewish. You’re kind of in tricky territory and it’s a delicate subject.”
But LaBonia, eager to continue WLRN’s mission as a storytelling channel rather than one completely reliant on public broadcasting’s national feed, felt he was on to something. Tomlinson’s resulting feature-length movie, Treblinka’s Last Witness, which offers a first-hand account by the last-known living survivor, premieres on WLRN-17 at 8 p.m. Oct. 28. The film will be previewed with a free public screening and discussion at 6 p.m. Tuesday at downtown Miami’s Olympia Theater at Gusman Center.
The journey from idea to opening began for the WLRN team in 2010, when LaBonia visited the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg. There, he spotted an exhibit that displayed a boxcar from the Treblinka camp, where an estimated 900,000 Jews were slaughtered over a period of 13 months at the height of World War II.
Wedged into the floorboards sat a little girl’s gold ring. Did it slip off or was it purposely wedged there for safekeeping by an innocent youngster who figured she’d return to claim the jewelry at a later date?
Who knows? But LaBonia was struck by the image and compelled to conduct research.
The story of Treblinka, he felt, would resonate with South Florida viewers, since many Holocaust survivors and their descendants have called the region home.
But finding a survivor to recount the horrors would be difficult. The Nazis went to great lengths to cover up their crimes at Treblinka. Bodies were exhumed and burned on pyres of railroad logs, and trees were planted on the grounds. Unlike work camps like Aushwitz and Dachau, where remnants of gas chambers revealed their ghosts, Treblinka hid hers for more than half a century.
“A lot of people, myself included, were not aware that the Nazis also constructed a bunch of death camps where there was no warehousing of Jews. No working Jews. No work plan. No factories. Just gas chambers. Just industrial killing machines to kill large numbers of Jews,” Tomlinson said.
That was Treblinka. Jews, by the thousands, were packed onto trains and deposited at Trelbinka in the morning. The people thought they were simply there to be recolonized. By lunchtime, they would be dead. Men first. Women and children next. Cold and efficient.
“The largest attempted cover-up of a mass murder in the history of mankind,” said Andrew Hall, 70, chairman of the Holocaust Memorial of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation and, as an infant born in war-torn Warsaw, a Holocaust survivor.
Tomlinson, who earlier served as a correspondent for the BBC in his native England, became excited when he heard of the existence of Samuel Willenberg, now 92 and the last known living survivor of the Treblinka death camp.
Thanks to the Internet, Tomlinson tracked Willenberg to the home he shares in Tel Aviv with his wife Ada. Two days after Ada answered his phone call, he was on a plane to meet Willenberg.
“During the Nazi occupation I met lots of people and I have learned to read people. Tomlinson is a person I could trust, and I had a good feeling toward him,” Willenberg said in a telephone interview through an interpreter.
Willenberg, who grew up the son of an eminent Jewish painter, helped ensure that Treblinka’s Last Witness would resonate.
“You see, in Holocaust films you have people sitting in round chairs, with a lamp in the back, telling this story with a huge emotional remove because it’s too painful to go there. For very good reason, interviewers treat these people with kids’ gloves because you are taking them back to a place where no one wants to be,” Tomlinson said.
“Samuel wasn’t like that. He’s a born survivor and a storyteller. I’ve been a journalist since I was 16 and I’m in my 60s now, so I’ve heard a lot of stories. My jaw fell open,” Tomlinson said. “It was such a staggering story. And not only was he able to illustrate his story verbally, but he told it with such a cocktail of emotions flowing through his body. One minute he was angry. One minute in tears. One minute laughing, telling some cynical joke about life in Treblinka. You couldn’t take your eyes off of him as he was telling his story.”
Willenberg and his family had lived in Czestochowa, Poland, when the Germans marched into their country in 1939. The family went into hiding, but his two sisters were captured in 1942. Willenberg fled to nearby Opatow but was herded, along with the town’s entire Jewish population of 6,000, aboard a cattle train bound for Treblinka. Within hours, all would be dead. Except Willenberg. A member of a nearby Jewish work camp recognized him and pulled him aside to join a labor force.
There, while sorting through clothes that once belonged to Jews and were to be sent back to Germany for the war effort, he recognized a pair of green velvet sleeves on a coat. He could never tell his parents, who survived the war, that he knew his sisters had been murdered.
Willenberg escaped and managed to make his way to Warsaw, where he took part in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. About 16,000 fellow members of the Polish resistance were killed, and the city was mostly destroyed.
Willenberg’s voice on the phone line tumbles out vibrantly in his native Polish. He attributes his survival skills to his plucky youth in pre-war Europe.
“This actually derived from my wild childhood. When I was a young boy I was a naughty boy. I’d sometimes run away and play hooky from school and take trains and even hid between two wagons and would travel through Poland.”
After the war, he fashioned a series of 15 bronze sculptures ranging in size from 18 inches to 3 feet that depict fellow Treblinka Jews. For years, the sculptures huddled in a basement in the couple’s Tel Aviv home. Daughter Orit, an architect who designed the Israeli Embassy on land once occupied by Hitler’s Third Reich in Berlin, has also designed a museum for a memorial on the Treblinka site. One of Willenberg’s goals is to raise enough funds so that the museum can be built and he can see his sculptures integrated into the site.
“It is an amazingly compelling story about personal courage and heroism,” Hall said. “The film will play an important role because it prevents us from forgetting and therefore from repeating. It’s an important message — the ‘bearing witness’ concept that is so important to Jewish people.”
Willenberg takes on the role of pleased film critic.
“They have made eight movies about me so far. I believe this movie is the best of them all,” he said. “This movie has reflected the true tragedy and what the world will gain is that people will learn the truth of this tragedy.”
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If you go
A complimentary premiere screening of ‘Treblinka’s Last Witness,’ with a discussion moderated by Holocaust expert Michael Berenbaum, will take place at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Olympia Theater at Gusman Center, 174 E. Flagler St., Miami. Check ticket availability at tickets.gusmancenter.org.
‘Treblinka’s Last Witness’ airs on WLRN-Channel 17 at 8 p.m. Oct. 28, 10 p.m. Nov.2 and 8 p.m. Nov.6.