'Last Witness' of Treblinka keeps camp's memory alive in film, art

Tue Oct 28, 2014 5:24pm EDT
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By David Adams and Zachary Fagenson

MIAMI (Reuters) - Samuel Willenberg, the last known living survivor of the notorious Nazi extermination camp Treblinka is nearing the end of a life's mission to tell of the horrors that he saw there.

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.   Continued...

Treblinka death camp survivor Samuel Willenberg with his mother Maniefa Popow. REUTERS/Courtesy of WLRN-TV/Handout via Reuters