Lived: February 16, 1923 – February 19, 2016
Known for: The last survivor of the 1943 revolt at the Treblinka death camp in Poland, Willenberg went on to become a renowned Israeli artist, sculptor, and memoirist.
Why you should know him: Born to a Jewish family in Poland, Willenberg’s father taught at a Jewish school and was a talented painter who decorated Polish synagogues before World War II.
When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, Willenberg set off to join the Polish Army. But when the Russian Army also invaded Poland, he was severely wounded and captured. After three months in a hospital, Samuel escaped and returned to his family in Warsaw. The Willenberg family were herded into the Opatow Ghetto. There, typhus broke out, and the family survived by trading Samuel’s father’s paintings for food and other necessities to survive.
After Samuel’s two sisters were sent to the Czestochowa Ghetto, Samuel was sent with other Jews of the liquidated Opatow Ghetto to the Nazi extermination camp at Treblinka.
The Treblinka death camp was only open from July 1942 until October 1943. But in this short time, nearly 1 million Jewish men, women, and children were murdered there.
When Samuel arrived on a train at Treblinka, he was wearing one of his father’s paint-stained smocks. On the unloading ramp, another Jewish prisoner advised Samuel to claim he was a worker. Because of his stained clothing, Samuel passed as a bricklayer. He was the only person from the entire train not to be sent directly to the gas chambers.
Samuel was assigned to unpack and sort the belongings of the Jews who were murdered on each incoming train. One day, he recognized the clothing of his own sisters, both of whom had been murdered in Treblinka’s gas chambers.
On August 2, 1943, Samuel joined with 200-300 other Jewish prisoners in a revolt. Unlike most, Samuel escaped. He had been wounded in the leg, but made his way back to Warsaw, where he found his father, still in hiding. Samuel soon became involved in the underground resistance, and took part in the Warsaw Uprising.
After the war ended, Samuel helped find Jewish children who had been rescued from the Nazis by Christian families. And then in 1950, he made aliyah (immigrated to Israel) with his wife and his mother, escaping the communist regime that had now overtaken Poland.
In Israel, Willenberg worked as an engineer and surveyor, spending his career as Chief Measurer in Israel’s Ministry of Reconstruction. But he also continued to make art, much like his father, and became known for his sculptures depicting the Holocaust, with his bronze casts, maps, and drawings exhibited around the world.
One of Samuel’s works, a Holocaust monument to the 40,000 Jews who were held in the Czestochowa Ghetto – including his two sisters – and murdered afterwards was unveiled in 2009. He was also the main subject of the above film, the award-winning documentary, The Last Witness.
Samuel Willenberg passed away in 2016 at the age of 93, survived by his wife, daughter, and three grandchildren.Tags: Israelis You Should Know