The IPN’s Janusz Kurtyka Educational Center "History Point" in downtown Warsaw is full of people. The representatives of the Jewish community along with Poland’s Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich, Polish Righteous Among the Nations and representatives of state authorities were present. Dr Barbra Radziejowska came on behalf of the President of the Republic of Poland , the Deputy Speaker of the Polish Sejm Małgorzata Kidawa Błońska, MPs Anita Czerwińska and Marek Suski, Deputy Minister of Culture and National Heritage Jarosław Sellin and Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Paweł Jabłoński were also present at the event
I think that Samuel’s dream of the sculptures finding their permanent home in Treblinka, the largest cemetery of Polish citizens ,will come true - said the President of the Institute of National Remembrance, Dr Jarosław Szarek, while presenting Samuel Willenberg’s biography and his sculptures.
In the neighboring room, the viewers can see the last work of the Polish-Jewish artist, the sculpture of John Paul II, which points to boards with the Ten Commandments and the Torah, i.e. the first five books of the Old Testament, fundamental for the followers of the teachings of Judaism.
- I think that what Samuel Willenberg wanted to tell us was how to make sure that such evil never happens again - said the President of the Institute of National Remembrance, referring to the sculpture of the Pope. - This is a return to the roots of Latin civilization, to its sources common for both Judaism and Christianity. The Decalogue. "Do not kill". This is a commandment which was broken so many times in the 20th century. Samuel Willenberg's sculptures are testimony to this. Today, we want to pass on this message to the young generation, to young Poles. Dr Jarosław Szarek finished his speech thanking Ada Krystyna Willenberg for permitting the Institute to present the sculptures and for her testimony.
- I met Samuel and Krystyna Willenberg quite unexpectedly when my husband was making a film about Samuel - said the Deputy Marshal of the Polish Sejm Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska. - Samuel was a very special person. He was a man who, despite everything he had experienced during his life, spoke only well of the past. He worried about his family and relatives, but he spoke well, he spoke cheerfully, he spoke positively. And the sculptures we can see here today are what he was constantly talking about, about the fact that we must remember. (...) The fact that it was possible to open this exhibition here today in Warsaw is a great source of happiness, because Samuel dreamed that these sculptures would reach Poland - emphasized the Deputy Marshal while sharing some personal memories. - I remember him - she said - for many years, on August 1, he was always at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (...) with a band on his shoulder speaking about the things which were important to him.
Deputy Minister of Culture and National Heritage Jarosław Sellin read out a letter from Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki: "The inauguration of the exhibition of Samuel Willenberg’s sculptures is a sign of remembrance of the unimaginable crimes of Treblinka, but is also the implementation of a testament of a witness to history, who out of concern for the truth, devoted his life to making sure that truth is known. Samuel Willenberg is a symbolic figure, a Polish Jew, citizen of the Republic of Poland, who as a 16-year-old in 1939 voluntarily joined the Polish Army. The wounds sustained at the hands of Soviet soldiers and the Order of Virtuti Militari, which he proudly wore, reminded us of his participation in the September campaign."
In the letter, the Prime Minister also thanked the wife of the Artist, Ada Krystyna Willenberg: "for the mission you have fulfilled for years as spokespeople for good Polish-Israeli relations, the builders of ‘bridges of reconciliation’, and as opponents of dividing the history of World War II into Polish and Jewish."
"I’m grateful for Samuel Willenberg’s work in preserving memory, being a guide for Israeli youth arriving in Poland. (...) I believe that this poignant exhibition (...) presented as a shocking testimony of the greatest civilizational catastrophe of the 20th century, will carry a message of opposition to chauvinism, anti-Semitism, and all types of hatred. I believe that the accompanying educational program, addressed to the younger generation, will co-create the mission of cultivating the memory of the victims of the Holocaust, but also the mission of preserving historical truth, which we still have to guard " Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki concluded in his letter.
The Deputy Minister of Culture and National Heritage added that the Polish state is and must be a custodian of memory. - We were forced into this role because there is something on Polish soil, which can be safely called "German heritage", namely, extermination camps. They were all located within the borders of today's Poland, except for one (...). That is why the Polish state is making further decisions in order to look after these places as well and as systematically as possible - he said.
Jarosław Sellin reminded the guests that Treblinka is currently under the care of the Polish state. - I think that in 2023 we will be able to invite everyone to visit the new museum building in Treblinka where the story of this extermination camp will be presented. I know that this was the will of Samuel Willenberg, (...) that the best place for displaying these sculptures is where it all happened, the place from which he managed to escape - Treblinka. And so it shall be - stressed Minister Sellin.
Referring to recent events, Deputy Minister Paweł Jabłoński, stated at the opening of the exhibition: - What we have been experiencing in recent days, shows how important historical memory is. This is not just the domain of schools, it is not only the domain of scientists, but it is something that will live on with future generations. Minister Jabłoński emphasized that "there is no guarantee, but if we want such things never to happen again, we must cultivate this memory." Referring to the recent examples of the falsification of history by the Russian Federation, he said: - There is a dispute about which historical narrative will prevail, whether the Russian or Polish historical narrative will prevail, or whether it will be another narrative. No, no narrative should prevail, the truth should always prevail.
Summing up the speeches, the widow of Samuel Willenberg, Ada Krystyna Willenberg, took the floor. - I did not expect so many people to come here today and to see with their own eyes the works of my late husband which required such great effort from him. I am very grateful to everyone gathered here, and I am particularly grateful to those who organized the exhibition, because I realize that it was not so easy (...) I know that many people cooperated in this project - emphasized the artist's wife.
Ada Willenberg also expressed her gratitude, referring back to the words of the Deputy Minister of Culture and National Heritage regarding Treblinka. – I’m very happy to hear that a new building will be built in Treblinka because this was Samuel’s last mission. He hoped that his sculptures would be permanently exhibited in the place where all of these atrocities took place (...) We have to talk about the things which happened here, in proper conditions (...) Finally, after many years I can see that something is changing, that we are moving things forward. Hopefully I will live long enough to see at least the foundations of the new building. In any case, I have a goal - to live a very long life - summed up Ada Krystyna Willenberg who persistently continues the mission started with her husband.
The artist's wife showed the guests around the exhibition, sharing insight into the individual sculptures and the scenes they portray. Particular attention was paid to the sculpture depicting the father unlacing his son’s shoes as this was one of the first things the Germans ordered Jews brought to Treblinka to do. First they had to take off their shoes and tie them together by the shoelaces because the German Reich wanted to use all of the belongings of its victims. During this act, Samuel Willenberg was saved by his friend from Częstochowa. Out of the whole transport of 6, 000 Jews brought in that day, Samuel Willenberg was the only one to survive. The sculpture portrays a particularly touching scene of a barefoot man kneeling on the ground, taking off his son’s shoe.
Ada Willenberg also explained the story behind the sculpture of a naked man without one leg, with a prosthesis placed next to him. He was a Jew brought in a transport from Germany, "an elderly man with a prosthesis , proudly presenting all of his medals. It turned out that he had taken part in World War I and lost his leg. He was sure that when he came to Treblinka he would receive better treatment as he was a German hero. Due to his problems with walking he was not directed to the gas chambers, but to the building with the inscription "Lazarett". However, this was not, as the name suggested, a military hospital, but a form of deceiving the people directed there. They were to expect to receive medical treatment there. In fact, the Lazarett was a place where the Germans shot those who were unable to reach the gas chambers on their own.
One of the sculptures depicting life in Treblinka II portrays a painter. To some extent, this sculpture refers to the scene from the "Lazarett. - The Germans tricked and lied to their victims until the very last moment - continues the author's wife – The painter had been ordered to paint a fake clock, false signs with the inscription "To Bialystok", 1st class, 2nd class in order to trick the newly arrived victims into believing that they had arrived at a regular station. The idea was to control thousands of people through lies so that they would not rebel.
The last two of the exhibited sculptures depict scenes from the rebellion in Treblinka. Ada Willenberg told us how the prisoners made a second copy of the key and obtained weapons from a German warehouse. Today we also know that Jewish insurgents had previously received some weapons through the Home Army from Sokołów Podlaski. The sculpture depicts the prisoners firing rifles and throwing grenades. Several of them have already been hit by enemy bullets. The last scene is the escape. - The first group of inmates started to run (...) they were killed. The rest began to climb over the bodies of those killed and onto the other side of the barbed-wire fence - said the artist's wife. That was the price of freedom.
The last part of the gala evening was devoted to the screening of Alan Tomlinson's documentary: "Treblinka’s Last Witness" courtesy of WLRN Public Television for South Florida. The film not only tells the story of Samuel Willenberg, but also his wife and the motivation behind the creation of the sculptures. The film is available on the internet, but undoubtedly it was a true honour to watch it together with Ada Willenberg herself.
The Institute’s project aims to commemorate Holocaust victims. The opening of the exhibition of Samuel Willenberg’s fifteen sculptures depicting everyday life in what can be described as hell on earth, has been prepared by the Institute of National Remembrance as part of the celebrations of the International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The event took place one day after the celebrations of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the German extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, the place symbolizing this tragic crime committed by the German Third Reich.
The sculptures will remain under the care of the Institute of National Remembrance for a year. From 29 January 2020, they will be available to the public at the Institute’s "History Point" Educational Centre on Marszałkowska Str. in Warsaw. The exhibition will further visit Białystok, Częstochowa, Gdańsk, Kielce, Kraków, Lublin and Szczecin. The sculptures will also be the subject of educational workshops for both teachers and students.
Blanka Kamińska-Pienkos: Samuel Willenberg’s sculptures – when a dream becomes reality
My work at the Institute of National Remembrance involves, among others, browsing through international social media. One June day I came across a short film entitled “Ghosts of Treblinka” on haaretz.com. My attention was drawn to the face of a lady who emanated incredible positive energy. She told the story of her late husband, a survivor of the Treblinka death camp. He let the world know of his traumatic experiences there through a series of bronze sculptures, each depicting a particular scene or person encountered during his 10-month stay at the camp.
I was struck by one of the final scenes of the film when the camera rolls down, showing the viewer that all these wonderful sculptures are standing in a mini gallery in the basement of the Willenberg family house. Meanwhile, as Ada Willenberg emphasizes in the film, her husband's dream was for them to find their place in Treblinka, being a testimony of the unimaginable scale of human suffering which took place there during the war. I felt that I would really like to contribute to making the artist’s dream come true, to show Samuel Willenberg’s works to the world, even if it were to be a single exhibition.
My idea of bringing sculptures to Poland was approved by the management of the Institute of National Remembrance.
While preparing the project, I turned to a documentary about the author of the sculptures, Samuel Willenberg produced by WLRN Public Television for South Florida entitled "Treblinka’s Last Witness". At the beginning of the film there is a snapshot of pre-war Poland with Jewish and Polish children carelessly playing football together. This picture is illustrated with the artist's memories. During the film, I realized that Samuel Willenberg's struggle for freedom and memory actually began during the prisoners' rebellion in Treblinka. A few months after escaping from the camp, he took part in the Warsaw Uprising, and after the war, together with his wife, Willenberg became a tireless educator of youth, both in Poland and Israel.
During the preparation of the project, my first personal meeting with Ada Willenberg – made possible thanks to the Director of the Treblinka Museum Edward Kopówka - during the anniversary of the rebellion in Treblinka turned into a life adventure. The fact that Ada Willenberg gave my idea the thumbs up brought on numerous preparations. My friends from the Division of International Relations and colleagues from the whole Institute joined in the preparations. The decision of the Institute's management that the exhibition will travel all over Poland, exceeded my expectations.
When Samuel Willenberg organized the first press conference on the creation of his sculptures, no journalist appeared. Thanks to the persistence of the artist, today these works are known all over the world. The sculptures are undoubtedly of great historical, aesthetic and emotional value ... I would like to invite everyone to personally see this extraordinary testimony!