There are two types of Holocaust survivors, says documentary filmmaker Alan Tomlinson: “Those who want to push it out of their memory and those who embrace it and want to use their experiences to make sure the rest of us don’t forget.”
Samuel Willenberg, 93, was the second type. The last known living survivor of the Treblinka death camp, where 875,000 people were systematically murdered, died Friday in Israel.
“He was not only the last survivor of the tribe, he had dedicated his twilight years to telling his story so that the events that he witnessed there would not be lost to oblivion,” Tomlinson told the Miami Herald. In 2014, Tomlinson produced a feature-length movie, Treblinka’s Last Witness, which offered a first-hand account by the last known living survivor.
He described Willenberg, who had remained a “dear friend” until his last breath, as a “brilliant storyteller.”
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“When I found Samuel, not only was he the last living survivor, but he was such an astonishing person,” Tomlinson said. “He was a cocktail of emotions when telling his story. It was like it was a story from someone who survived yesterday.”
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 and were killed. 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.
“Only 67 people who survived Treblinka were alive at the end of World War II. There were only two survivors alive when I started filming, and one when I finished filming [Willenberg]. Now there are none,” Tomlinson said. “Survivors are dying at an exponential rate. In a few more years there will be no more living witnesses of any of the Holocaust events. Maintaining these kind of testimonies in films and in books is very important going forward because so much history tends to be rewritten.”
Willenberg spent about a month in Miami with his family when Treblinka’s Last Witness debuted in October 2014. Every year, Willenberg would visit the site of Treblinka.
“I learned that he goes there every year, including last year in August 2015,” Tomlinson said. “He takes parties of Israeli school students there, where he tells his story.”
In 2010, Willenberg told The Associated Press that “the world cannot forget Treblinka. I live two lives: one is here and now, and the other is what happened there. It never leaves me. It stays in my head. It goes with me always.”
After the war Willenberg moved to Israel and became a surveyor for the Housing Ministry. Later in life, he took up sculpting to describe his experiences. His bronze statues depicted 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.
The death toll at Treblinka was second only to Auschwitz — a prison camp where more than a million people died in gas chambers or from starvation, disease and forced labor. Treblinka holds a notorious place in history as perhaps the most vivid example of the “Final Solution,” the Nazi plan to exterminate Europe’s Jews. Unlike at other camps, where some Jews were assigned to forced labor before being killed, nearly all Jews brought to Treblinka were immediately gassed to death, according to The AP.
Willenberg is survived by his wife, Ada, his daughter and three grandchildren.
Tomlinson said Willenberg’s wife told him that she was there when he “died peacefully” and “closed his beautiful blue eyes for the last time.”
Treblinka’s Last Witness will be rebroadcast at 9 p.m Tuesday on WLRN.