With the death of Samuel Willenberg on Friday at 93, the last surviving witness of the horrific crimes committed by Nazi Germany at Treblinka has gone.
I met Samuel in Tel Aviv four years ago when WLRN asked me to produce a television documentary about the infamous death camp. It was an assignment I accepted with trepidation. After all, what else was there to say about the Holocaust? And how does one ask the last survivor of Treblinka to revisit the horrors on camera?
My fears evaporated when Samuel and his wife Ada, who escaped the Warsaw ghetto, welcomed me into their home, and Samuel, who witnessed the death of his two beloved sisters at Treblinka, began to recount his story.
During 50 years as a journalist and filmmaker, I have heard hundreds of gripping stories, but none ever captivated me as much as Samuel’s. He was a brilliant storyteller who took a mesmerizing hold on any listener. I felt like the wedding guest in The Ancient Mariner. Spellbound.
This was not the tale of a man who was solely a victim. Far from it. He told me of his early life in the bosom of a loving family in Poland, home to the world’s largest community of Jews until the Nazis began to murder them. Of his part, after escaping Treblinka, in the Warsaw uprising, for which he became a decorated war hero. Of his post-war role as a surveyor in the building of the state of Israel. And of his daughter and grandchildren who were with him, as was Ada, at the end.
But it was the story of his year in the death camp as a forced laborer that held me transfixed by the telling. For Samuel was not only a builder, he was an artist. He wrote two books about his experiences, and in his retirement turned to sculpture to bring to life the people and the episodes that continued to haunt his memory throughout his life.
When his story was done, he invited me to join him in Poland where he traveled every summer to revisit the places of his youth, and to see the Treblinka site to which he often accompanied Israeli schoolchildren as a guide and witness.
Samuel dedicated his twilight years to educating anyone who would listen about the tragedy of Treblinka. His words, in books and in several documentaries, as well as his amazing sculptures, remain vivid and enduring testaments to the otherwise unbelievable atrocities that happened there.
But nothing can replace the man himself, now passed like so many of the aging survivors of the Holocaust. It will not be long before all of them are gone and it will be left to others to re-tell their stories. I was lucky. Samuel handed me his story on a plate and the film I made is really his film. To watch it is to sit with him and Ada, as I did, and be spellbound.
In Samuel’s memory, WLRN will broadcast an encore presentation of “Treblinka’s Last Witness” tomorrow night (Tuesday) at 9 p.m.