• Isaac Simon

Samuel Willenberg's Passing, 2016

On This Day in Jewish History: February 19, 2016


On this day in 2016 the world lost writer and artist Samuel Willenberg, a Polish descendant and Holocaust survivor who served as a Sonderkommando at Treblinka and took part in its revolt in August 1943. Willenberg was born in Częstochowa, Poland. Prior to the war his father taught at the local Jewish school and had a knack for painting and the visual arts. Willenberg, his father, and mother who was initially born a Polish-Orthodox Christian and converted to Judaism following her wedding, moved to Warsaw. In response to the Nazis invasion of Poland in September 1939, Willenberg fled to Lublin and enlisted as a volunteer in the Polish Army. A few days later Soviet troops, entering from the east, invaded the eastern part of Poland. On September 25th Willenberg was badly wounded following a confrontation with the Red Army close Chelm in eastern Poland and subsequently captured. He successively escaped captivity, fleeing the hospital where he was recovering for three months and headed back to central Poland where his family was now staying. Towards the beginning of 1940 Willenberg travelled with his mother and two sisters to Opatów to see their father who was contracting murals for the local synagogue. Their timing was terrible. With the establishment of the Opatów ghetto in the spring of 1941. Due to overcrowding and dismal sanitation policies, the conditions within the ghetto quickly became dangerous. This lead to an outbreak of typhus spreading throughout . Willenberg was able to survive through a bartering system of sorts, exchanging his father’s paintings for food and other materials necessary for survival. He was also fortunate to have employment at a steel mill in Starachowice for a few months, serving as one of the many hundreds confined to forced labor that were provided by the Judenrat. Beginning the in the October of 1941 and lasting until November of 1943 the Nazis carried out Operation Reinhard, its secret mission to exterminate all of Polish Jews within located within the confines of German-occupied Poland. The Willenbergs were somehow able to acquire fraudulent (Aryan) identification papers and flea back home to Częstochowa where a ghetto was established on April 9th, 1941. At its height the ghetto held around 40,000 prisoners. Willenberg’s two sisters were sent there and their mother, fearing for his safety, sent him back to Opatów as she tried to save them. But on October 20th 1942 things got worse. Willenberg, along with 6,500 people were forced on a train bound for Treblinka. What followed can probably only be explained by luck. Willenberg was imparted life-saving advice when exiting the train. A member of the Jewish Auffanglager, a prisoner, advised him to act like a bricklayer as a way of demonstrating his work capabilities. He happened to be wearing clothing that was stained with paint which was originally his father’s, already the perfect outfit for forced labor. Of the 6,000 prisoners he travelled with to Treblinka, Willenberg was the only one who escaped death that day. His official duties within the camp began with his assignment to the Kommando Rot with the duty of unpacking and sorting prisoner possessions, the owners (now prisoners) of which had already been entered into the camp system. It was there that he identified his sisters’ clothing, an observation which for him confirmed their deaths. Shortly thereafter he was reassigned, given the number 937 within the Sonderkommando. One of their many tasks, in addition to their main responsibility of disposing of dead jews after they had been gassed, was to make the camp and its activities less noticeable. This was achieved by lacing the barbed wire fences with tree branches. Willenberg took part in the famous Sonderkommando revolt at Treblinka on August 2, 1943 and was joined by between 200-300 of his colleagues. Afterwards, he was fortunate enough to escape. Given the scale of death and human destruction at Treblinka, Willenberg made it out relatively unscathed, with only a wounded leg. He hurried back to Warsaw and miraculously found his father, taking shelter on the German side. He joined the underground resistance movement, obtaining weapons for the Polish People’s Army. For such duties he assumed the name Ignacy Popow, his mother’s maiden name and managed to escape the chaos of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, hiding on Natolińska street in a safe house. Willenberg’s post war years were equally as active. He served as a lieutenant in the Polish Army from 1945-1946. In 1947 he assisted a Jewish organization in Poland, searching for Jewish children who had previously been sheltered and kept safe, spared certain death in the camps by families of Polish gentiles. He went on to marry Ada, who has survived the Warsaw Ghetto by fleeing over a wall. Willenberg, along with his wife and mother, moved to Israel in 1950. After retiring as Chief Measurer at the Ministry of Reconstruction, working as an engineer surveyor Willenberg graduated from Hebrew University with a degree in fine arts, sculpture still serving as his specialty. He soon made a name for himself for sculpting figures which represented past memories from his time at Treblinka. His work has been exhibited all over the world. Since 1983 he has helped organize the trips of Israeli students who go to Poland for March of the Living. WIllenberg spent 10 months at Treblinka. He was one of 67 to have survived and at the time of his death, the last surviving member of the Sonderkommando revolt.

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