The Memory of Treblinka Foundation

Samuel Willenberg’s biography (source: Wikipedia)

Samuel Willenberg was born in Częstochowa. His father, Perec Willenberg, was a teacher at a local Jewish school before World War II, a talented painter and visual artist himself, who used to work on assignments decorating synagogues. His mother, Maniefa Popow, was an Polish-Orthodox Christian before converting to Judaism after their wedding. The family lived in Częstochowa before relocating to Warsaw.

In the course of the Nazi German invasion of Poland, on September 6, 1939 Willenberg set off in the direction of Lublin to join the Polish Army as a volunteer. Within days, the Soviets invaded from the east. He was severely wounded on September 25, in a skirmish with the Red Army near Chełm, and captured. Three months later, he escaped from the hospital back to central Poland to reconnect with his family in Radość (now a part of Warsaw). They went to Opatów including his mother and two sisters at the beginning of 1940 to meet his father, who worked there on murals for the synagogue. However, at the same time the Nazis began herding Polish Jews into ghettos all across the country. The Opatów Ghetto (founded in the spring of 1941) although without the fence, quickly became hazardous. The Jews expelled from Silesia were brought in. An epidemic of typhus broke out. Willenberg traded his father’s paintings for the necessities of life, but also worked at a steel mill in Starachowice for several months, along with hundreds of forced laborers supplied by the Judenrat.

Operation Reinhard—a secretive Nazi extermination action in the semi-colonial General Government district—began in 1942, marking the most deadly phase of the Holocaust in Poland. The Willenbergs managed to obtain false “Aryan” papers, and escaped back to their hometown. The Ghetto in Częstochowa was set up on April 9, 1941. At its peak, it held around 40,000 prisoners. Willbenberg’s two sisters, Ita and Tamara, were taken there. His mother tried to rescue them and sent Samuel back to Opatów. On October 20, 1942, Willenberg boarded the Holocaust train along with 6,500 inmates of the then-liquidated Opatów ghetto, and went with them to the extermination camp at Treblinka.

The camp, which was built as part of Operation Reinhard (the most deadly phase of the Final Solution), operated between July 23, 1942 and October 19, 1943. During this time, more than 800,000 Jews—men, women, and children—were murdered there. Other estimates of the number killed at Treblinka exceed 1,000,000.

Upon his arrival at Treblinka, Willenberg received a life-saving piece of advice at the unloading ramp, from one of the Jewish Auffanglager prisoners. He posed as a seasoned bricklayer. Luckily, he was wearing a paint-stained smock-frock of his father’s (an outer garment traditionally worn by rural workers), donned in Opatów in preparation for slave labor. Willenberg was the only person from his transport who escaped death in the gas chambers that day.

At first, he was assigned to the camp’s largest Kommando Rot, unpacking and sorting the belongings of victims already “processed”. He later recognized the clothes of his own two sisters there. With time, he was assigned to other squads as number “937” in the Sonderkommando camouflaging the camp’s purpose with tree branches woven into barbed-wire fences. On August 2, 1943 Willenberg participated in the revolt at Treblinka with about 200–300 others. Unlike most of them, he escaped successfully.

Wounded in the leg, he journeyed back to Warsaw where he managed to locate his father who was hiding on the “Aryan” side of the city. He became involved in the underground resistance including the acquisition of weapons for the left-wing partisan Polish People’s Army PAL (Polska Armia Ludowa PAL). He used his mother’s maiden name, Ignacy Popow. He was hiding at a safe-house on Natolińska street, when the Warsaw Uprising erupted. In his autobiography, Revolt in Treblinka, Willenberg wrote that on the first day of the Uprising he joined Batalion Ruczaj of the Armia Krajowa Sub-district I. He fought in Śródmieście along Marszałkowska Street and Savior Square. At the beginning of September 1944, he transferred to the Polish People’s Army with the rank of cadet sergeant. After the surrender of Warsaw, he left the city with the civilian population. He escaped from the prisoner train in Pruszków and hid in the vicinity of Błonie until the Soviet liberation.

In 1945–1946, Willenberg served in the Polish Army as a lieutenant. In 1947, he helped one of the Jewish organizations in Poland find Jewish children rescued from the Holocaust by non-Jewish Polish families. In 1950, during the peak years of Stalinism in Poland, together with his mother and wife, he emigrated to Israel. Willenberg took up training as an engineer surveyor and obtained a long-term position of Chief Measurer at the Ministry of Reconstruction.

After retiring, Willenberg completed formal studies in the field of fine arts. He graduated from sculpture at the University of the Third Age in Jerusalem and quickly became known for his work on the Holocaust. He created mainly figurative sculpture in clay and bronze. His series of fifteen bronze casts depicting people and scenes from the Treblinka death camp, as well as several maps and drawings of the camp, were exhibited internationally.

In 2003, the Warsaw National Gallery of Art “Zachęta” held an exhibition of his work.[1] His sculpture was also shown at the Museum of Częstochowa in 2004. He is the author of the Holocaust monument to the 40,000 victims of the Częstochowa Ghetto, unveiled there in October 2009. In 1986 Willenberg first published his memoir Revolt in Treblinka (English translation by Naftali Greenwood, Oxford 1989), which he later published in Poland with the preface by Władysław Bartoszewski (1991 and 2004). Since 1983 he was the co-organizer of regular visits of Israeli youth to Poland.

On 19 February 2016, Willenberg died in Israel. He was survived by his wife, Ada, their daughter and three grandchildren.