‘He was more than just a brave man’: On 76th anniversary of Treblinka Uprising TFN talks to wife of last surviving escapee of horror death camp
Under patchy, overcast skies, a diverse group of dignitaries were earlier joined by members of the public for a low-key but touching ceremony marking the 76th anniversary of the Treblinka Uprising.
A forced labour camp created by Nazi Germany, Treblinka I had been in operation in the area since September 1st, 1941, and whilst its harsh conditions were notorious, they were to be surpassed when a neighbouring camp, Treblinka II, was opened the following year. Built for the express purpose of extermination, it was here that an estimated 700,000 to 900,000 Jews (as well as approximately 2,000 people of Romani ethnicity) were gassed to death within a space of 15 months – in the crude statistical language of the Holocaust, only Auschwitz-Birkenau touted a higher headcount of victims.
Exiting the cattle wagons on which they had arrived, the sight of a prim, provincial train station would have been interpreted by some as a source of comfort. Likewise, the Red Cross flag that fluttered outside a building to which the elderly were ushered. But it was all a deceit. Instead of medical aid, the infirm were shot. The others, cajoled by whips and rifle butts, were rushed down a narrow, wooded pathway named Himmelstraße and into the gas chambers.
Having been plucked out from the throng to work in specialized work units, a select few however escaped immediate death, and instead found themselves plunged into a living hell that involved sorting plunder and burning bodies. It was these prisoners that would form an underground resistance whose ultimate aim envisioned a bold escape.
With many of the German and Ukrainian garrison choosing to cool down from the summer heat by visiting the nearby River Bug for a swim, the prisoners saw their long-awaited chance. Using a duplicate key, the camp’s armoury was raided and grenades and small arms distributed. Later, on a pre-arranged signal, the 700 prisoners launched their uprising. Though the majority were cut down by machine gun fire, around two to three hundred are believed to have made it over the fences – of these, 67 survived to see the end of the war.
Among those was Samuel Willenberg, an artist who journeyed to Warsaw 80 kilometres away and would later fight with distinction in the capital’s own insurgency the following year. Emigrating to Israel in 1950, he went on to become an acclaimed sculptor as well as a huge figure in the world of Holocaust education and awareness. When he passed away in 2016, he was the last-known survivor of the deadly camp.
Still, his presence looms large. Acting as a bridge between the past and the present, it was his wife, Ada, whose speech earned the greatest applause. Having escaped the Warsaw Ghetto herself, she met Samuel after the war had ended and their courtship blossomed despite her early reservations about his cavalier spirit.
“He was more than just a brave man,” she told TFN following the ceremony, “he was full of energy and ideas – he always had plans, even right up until the day he died. Through all the suffering he endured, he was always an optimist. As a family, the Holocaust was always with us, but even so it was such a happy house that we had – we knew how to love. How to appreciate life.”
“He was lively and charismatic, always the centre of every gathering,” agrees Orit, the couple’s Israeli-raised daughter. “Even though he never stopped talking about Treblinka, he didn’t let his soul die there.”
If growing up in an environment dominated by the Holocaust was a challenge, it’s not something that Orit openly shows. “It took me a while to understand it, and in my younger years I sometimes built barriers so as not to let it touch me, but I’ll always remember one of my father’s stories about the escape. His best friend had been shot and was lying on the ground. He knew he wouldn’t make it so he asked my father to kill him. “But,” he told him, “you have to survive yourself, you have to tell people what happened.” My dad did just that. It became his reason for living. Later, I started coming here with him and, nowadays, I come here with my mother. As time has passed, Treblinka has become my mission in life as well.”
Asked what returning to Poland means to her, Ada is emphatic. “When I escaped the Warsaw Ghetto it was a Polish family that sheltered me even though doing so put their own lives at risk. I’ve been here 40 times or so since leaving – you’ve got to realize, that I was very happy here before the war, and I was very happy here after it.”
As she speaks, it is with warmth and confidence, yet also with the faint hint of a tear. “Israel is my first house, but Poland is my second.”