Watch Sunday, May 1, 2016 at 4pm on WMH TV
Samuel Willenberg, now 92 years old, is the last living survivor of the Treblinka death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland where an estimated 900,000 Jews were murdered in a period of just 13 months at the height of World War II. Still haunted 70 years later by the horrors he witnessed as a young forced laborer, Samuel has immortalized the Treblinka story in a series of bronze sculptures of the tragic victims who dwell indelibly in his memory like ghosts.
The sculptures, together with archival footage and photographs from the period, illustrate Samuel’s riveting narrative, telling a singularly powerful and personal story of the annihilation of Polish Jewry in the death camps built by the Germans to carry out Hitler’s infamous Final Solution.
As a prisoner at Treblinka, Samuel witnessed the death in the gas chambers of his two beloved sisters, Itta and Tamara, among countless others. In his sculptures, the most poignant of these individual tragedies are brought back vividly to life. Like Polansky’s “The Pianist”, the film focuses on one man’s personal odyssey to reflect the enormity of the genocide inflicted upon Poland’s 3.5 million Jews, at the time the world’s largest Jewish community, seven times greater than the Jewish population of pre-war Germany.
The story begins in Czestochowa, Poland, where Samuel grew up as the son of an eminent Jewish painter. When the Germans marched into Poland in 1939, the family went into hiding, but when Samuel’s sisters were arrested by the Gestapo in 1942 he fled to nearby Opatow where he was rounded up along with the town’s entire Jewish population of 6,000 people and herded aboard a cattle train bound for Treblinka.
The Nazi death camps were very different from the work camps, like Auschwitz and Dachau. They were, in the words of holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer, “factories whose end product was dead Jews, a first in human history where people were exterminated on an industrial basis”. At Treblinka the devastation was complete.
Within hours of the train’s arrival, all 6,000 of Samuel’s fellow deportees were dead. By a stroke of unimaginable luck, Samuel was recognized by a member of the small Jewish work crew at the camp and selected to join the labor force. “It took me several days to realize where I was,” he says. “I was in hell.”
The sculptures tell the stories from the rest of his time at Treblinka. There is the disabled Jewish veteran of World War One whose German medals of valor could not save him; the mad girl from Warsaw who arrived at the camp in a ball gown and high-heeled shoes; a 19-year-old student named Ruth Dorfman whose flowing head of beautiful hair Samuel is forced to harvest for the Nazi war effort; the synagogue cantor reduced to overseeing the camp latrines; and the trio of Jewish violinists pressed by the SS guards to accompany the slaughter with classical music.
The largest of these sculptures depicts the prisoner revolt at Treblinka in August 1943 as the Germans, the tide of war turning against them, set about eradicating all evidence of their crimes by destroying the death camps. Samuel was one of about 100 inmates who escaped amid a fierce firefight. By the war’s end only 67 remained alive. The others have all since died in the intervening decades, leaving Samuel as the last witness.
After his escape, he made his way to Warsaw where he took part in the ill-fated Polish Uprising of 1944. Once again, he somehow managed to escape when the Polish resistance collapsed amid some of the bloodiest street fighting of the war.
Samuel’s story is one of survival against staggering odds and, though heart-rending and horrifying, it is ultimately one of triumph. At the end of the war, he met Ada, a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto whose mother perished at Treblinka. The couple married and went on to rebuild their lives in Israel where they reside today. Their daughter Orit is a successful architect and in the film the family visits Berlin to see the new Israeli Embassy which she designed on land once occupied by Hitler’s Third Reich. Orit has also designed a museum for the Treblinka memorial site and Samuel’s dream is to see it built with his sculptures on permanent display there before he dies.
Told without dramatization, “Treblinka’s Last Witness” is an unvarnished tale of extraordinary intensity, a true page-turner carried along on its own raw power.