Now 92, his remarkable story, featured in a documentary film
produced by Miami public TV channel WLRN, is spurring efforts to
fulfill that mission by building an educational museum at the
camp's site in a remote pine forest in eastern Poland.
"Treblinka's Last Witness," airing on Tuesday, tells the story
of how Willenberg, a Polish Jew, became a forced laborer at
Treblinka where his two sisters were among the 900,000 Jews sent
to their deaths. He later escaped during a camp revolt, one of
barely 100 Jews to survive the place.
A history professor he met in the camp told him: "You're not
like other Jews, you have blonde hair, you know how to survive,"
Willenberg recalled in an interview during a visit to Miami for
a premiere of the film last week before a packed audience, many
of them relatives of Holocaust victims.
"You have to run away from this," the professor told him. "It
will be your mission to tell people about what happened here."
Willenberg, who after World War Two moved to Israel, married and
worked for 40 years as a civil servant, has dedicated his
retirement to memorializing what happened by creating a series
of 15 haunting bronze sculptures, each capturing a scene from
the camp, as well as leading educational visits there.
On Tuesday Willenberg will also be a guest of honor alongside
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin at the opening of the main
exhibition at Warsaw's newly built Museum of the History of
Polish Jews, a project that sets out to recall not just how Jews
in Poland died, but how they lived.
Of Poland's pre-war population of 3.5 million Jews, only a few
tens of thousands remain, their place in the nation's history
and culture having been largely eradicated.
Only recently has Poland started to re-connect with its role in
history as a home for 1,000 years to one of the world's biggest
Polish Jews have also played a major role in American history,
with an estimated 80 percent of U.S. Jews able to trace their
roots back to ancestors in Poland.
Unlike other Nazi concentration camps such as Auschwitz, Dachau
and Buchenwald, where efforts have been made to educate
visitors, the Treblinka site has been left largely untouched
after the Nazis demolished it near the end of the war in a
desperate effort to cover up their deeds.
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All that exists there today are some railroad ties leading up to the
remains of a station platform set among large stones.
"It's a very moving place, but there's nothing to tell the story,"
said the film’s British-born director, Alan Tomlinson.
"I have heard a lot of stories in my career, but no-one has ever
told me a story like Samuel's," Tomlinson, 66, told the audience at
the premiere. "And Samuel is such a great story-teller," he added,
crediting Willenberg's lucid passion and vivid memory with providing
the film's powerful impact.
Experts say that much more could be done at the current site to help
visitors understand the monstrosity of Treblinka. Historians have
called it the Nazis' most efficient death camp which, operating like
a factory assembly-line, they killed almost 1 million people in
barely 13 months in 1942-1943.
"It's an intuitive, emotional understanding that concentrates
beautifully the sense of loss, but it's wordless and doesn't
articulate what was lost there," said Holocaust scholar Michael
"You experience the presence of absence and the absence of
presence," he added. "Treblinka is a place where a crime is not
Berenbaum said an anonymous donor has already committed $1 million
to the museum project. During his Miami visit Willenberg met with a
number of wealthy Polish immigrants who pledged to see the museum
"Thanks to Samuel's extraordinary persistence, the project now has
real life," said Tomlinson.
After the film airs on Oct. 28 on WLRN in south Florida, it will be
distributed nationally through the PBS network.
(Writing by David Adams; Editing by Eric Walsh)
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