“I looked for him but God must have been on holiday.”
Those are the words of Samuel Willenburg, now 89 years old, as he reflects on his memories as a prisoner in the Nazi death camp of Treblinka. On Monday, August 13, 2012, the BBC4 shared his story with the world as part of their program, Death Camp Treblinka: Survivors Stories.
The extermination camp of Treblinka was located in Poland, outside the quiet village of Treblinka, in a deeply wooded area designed to hide its grim purpose. The camp, which was constructed as part of Operation Reinhard, operated between July 23, 1942 and October 19, 1943. Operation Reinhard (German: Aktion Reinhard or Einsatz Reinhard) was the code name chosen by the Nazis for the murder of Poland’s three million Jews.
At its peak, Treblinka was killing 15,000 Jews a day, and, in its 15 months of operation, almost one million Jews were gassed, shot, tortured to death, and cremated along with uncounted Romani and political prisoners. To save the cost of expensive Zyklon B gas, the Nazis used captured Soviet tanks to suffocate their prisoners. Anyone who was too weak to continue working in the Treblinka 2 Labor Camp was simply shot through the neck and burned in a pit.
It is said that prisoners arriving at Treblinka had a less than one percent chance of survival during their first three hours in the camp. Out of the 1.2 million who arrived at Treblinka, only 67 prisoners survived. From that tiny handful, left among the millions of victims of the Nazi crimes against humanity, only two are still alive to bear witness to Treblinka: Samuel Willenberg and his good friend, Kalman Taigman.
Now elderly, the two survivors emigrated to Israel where they now live with the nightmares of their youth as prisoners in the insane world of Adolph Hitler and his cronies. In Israel, they raised their families and rebuilt their lives. Samuel worked as a surveyor in the Housing Ministry, and Kalman owned an import company.
Samuel Willenberg is familiar to Israelis as the artist who created drawings, painting,s and sculptures to commemorate his fallen friends from the camps. Kalman Taigman is also known to Jews around the world as the man who stood up in an Israel courtroom, and, while pointing his finger at the prisoner in the dock, condemned Adolph Eichmann as the architect of the Holocaust. Eichmann was convicted of crimes against the Jewish people, and, in 1962, he was the first and only man ever executed in the modern state of Israel.
To tell the story of their suffering for Death Camp Treblinka: Survivors Stories, Taigman and Willenberg made the one more journey back into their distant memories. Despite their age, the two friends share a determination to dedicate their remaining years to making sure the story of Treblinka is told and remembered.
We could tell you about thousands upon thousands of real, documented crimes the Nazis committed in their Concentration Camps. We could make the tears flow from your eyes at the horrors our Jewish brothers and sisters suffered as their lives were extinguished. But, instead, we will let you decide for yourself if the murder of literally half the Jews on the Planet Earth merits the attention of history. If you want to honor their memory, go to the website for the Holocaust museum, Yad Vahsem, and you can learn about one of the darkest, most evil periods in human history. You can also learn about the thousands of heroes who did everything in their power to save as many Jews as possible who are now commemorated as The Righteous Among the Nations.
Instead, we will share one story with you, as told by Samuel Willenberg. He was assigned the job of sorting the clothing that was stripped from prisoners who were to be gassed as soon as they entered the camp. This was done so the next group of prisoners wouldn’t see the clothes, realize they were about to be killed, and resist their fate.
Samuel tells the story in his own simple way:
“One morning a transport arrived. We ran in. There was a new system to remove clothes immediately, jackets, trousers, a production line. Suddenly I looked down. My sisters’ clothes.”
“I recognized Tamara’s coat – it was too small for her so my mother had lengthened the sleeves with bright green material. And my other sister’s skirt, navy with blue stripes… as if one was hugging the other. I immediately knew where they were, what had happened.”
“It was the worst day of my life. Even now it makes me cry. I live two lives, one is here and now and the other is what happened there. It never leaves me. It stays in my head. It goes with me always.”
His friend, Kalman Taigman, speaks for everyone who suffered at the hands of the Nazis, when he says, “There are only the two of us left. Soon there will be no-one left to tell. The world cannot forget Treblinka.”