Haunting sculptures from death camp survivor depict horrors of Treblinka
A survivor of the Treblinka death camp has created a series of sculptures depicting the harrowing scenes he witnessed.
Samuel Willenberg was sent to Treblinka in October 1942 and was the only person in his transport not to be murdered in the gas chamber immediately on arrival because he lied about being a bricklayer.
He worked in various commandos during the eleven months he was at the camp. His jobs involved cutting the hair of arrivals before they were sent to their deaths and also sorting through the clothes and personal belongings of those who had been murdered.
While doing this he saw the clothes of his two sisters, who had been murdered there before his arrival.
When Willenberg was 70 years old and living in Israel, he enrolled on a sculpture course and turned his experiences into art by creating 15 sculptures that show traumatic events that he either witnessed or was directly involved in at the German extermination camp.
The sculptures have now come to Poland for a year and are on display at the Institute of National Remembrance’s Education Centre in central Warsaw.
IPN president Jarosław Szarek said “These almost photographic images of everyday life from Treblinka speak as strongly as if their creator were among us.
“He started to sculpt them when he was 70 years old. He was fulfilling the will of his fellow prisoners who asked him to tell the world about this hell on earth if he survived.
“He did not give up, and together with other prisoners he grabbed a gun to fight for a worthy death, for a chance to survive. And he survived, in order to bear witness.”
The widow of Samuel Willenberg, Ada Willenberg, who travelled from Israel for the opening of the exhibition, said: “He cried over each of these sculptures when he was working on them.”
One of the sculptures shows a 19-year-old girl, Rut Dorfman, with half of her long hair shaved off. Willenberg cut her hair just before she went to the gas chamber.
She asked him how long death would take and whether it would be painful. He replied that it would only take a few minutes.
Another sculpture shows a father helping his son remove the shoelaces from his boots after being ordered to do so.
“When he sculpted the father who was helping his son take his shoes off, knowing that the two of them were about to go to the gas chamber, he also cried,” Ada Willenberg said.
A large sculpture that takes central stage in the exhibition shows a scene from the rebellion at Treblinka, which Samuel Willenberg took part in.
On August 2, 1943, Willenberg was part of a group of around 800 prisoners who rose up and rebelled when a number of the camp guards were away at a nearby river relaxing.
The prisoners seized weapons and ammunition from the SS armoury fired at the remaining guards in the camp. Others fought with iron bars and hammers.
Most of the rebelling prisoners were shot from a guard tower when they tried to escape over the barbed wire fence.
A group of around 200 managed to escape but most were rounded up by the SS and shot straight away.
Willenberg managed to escape. He made his way back to Warsaw and a year later fought in the Warsaw Uprising.
The Institute of National Remembrance’s exhibition of Willenberg’s work has been prepared as part of the International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
The exhibition will be displayed throughout Poland over the next year.
After closing in Warsaw on January 29, it will go to Lublin, then Białystok, Szczecin, Gdańsk and Częstochowa.
It will also be shown in Sobibór and Treblinka, fulfilling a dream of Willenberg, who died in 2016.