The exhibition, under the National Patronage of the President of the Republic of Poland Andrzej Duda to mark the Centenary of Regaining Independence, presents sculptures, drawings, and excerpts of Willenberg's testimony, describing figures and scenes which he remembered and wanted to commemorate. In spite of the perpetrators’ efforts to destroy all traces, the sculptures provide direct evidence of their deeds.
The sculptures portraying the author's personal experiences as both a prisoner and a participant of the revolt in the Treblinka German death camp is accompanied by the screening of "Treblinka’s Last Witness", a documentary film produced and screened courtesy of WLRN Public Television for South Florida, which is a first-hand account of Samuel Willenberg’s life as a Jewish prisoner of the death camp.
The aim of the IPN’s nationwide project is not only to educate about the tragedy of the Holocaust, but also to familiarize the younger generation with the author of the sculptures, a Jew from Częstochowa, a soldier of the September campaign, a prisoner of Treblinka, a participant in the camp rebellion, a Warsaw insurgent, and an advocate of reconciliation between Polish and Jewish nations.
After the ceremonial opening of the exhibition in Warsaw on 28 January 2020, with the participation of Ada Krystyna Willenberg, the widow of the artist, the sculptures were presented at the IPN branches in Lublin, Cracow and Kielce, as well as in Gdańsk (at the Museum of the Second World War) and Częstochowa (at the Częstochowa Museum). The Institute of National Remembrance has also prepared a virtual tour of the exhibition supplemented by a voice-over both in Polish and English, as well as touching artistic photographs by Sławomir Kasper (IPN). Quotes from Samuel Willenberg's book Surviving Treblinka in English and Polish were used as descriptions of the exhibits. This has allowed the author’s voice to reverberate fully. It is available at:
Samuel Willenberg was among 200 inmates who on 2 August 1943 succeeded in escaping from the German extermination camp in Treblinka. At the moment of his death in 2016, he remained the last survivor of the rebellion in Treblinka.
Samuel Willenberg became the spokesman for good Polish-Jewish relations, speaking openly about both the tragic and beautiful events, linking these two groups of Polish citizens during the criminal German occupation.
For his activities during and after the Second World War Samuel Willenberg received the highest national honors of the Republic of Poland, including the Virtuti Militari, the Cross of Merit with Swords, the Cross of Valour, the Warsaw Uprising Cross, the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland, the Order of Polonia Restituta, and the Polish Army Medal.
As a prisoner at Treblinka, Samuel witnessed the death in the gas chambers of his two beloved sisters, Itta and Tamara, among countless others. In his sculptures, the most poignant of these individual tragedies are brought back vividly to life. Like Polansky’s “The Pianist”, the film focuses on one man’s personal odyssey to reflect the enormity of the genocide inflicted upon Poland’s 3.5 million Jews, at the time the world’s largest Jewish community, seven times greater than the Jewish population of pre-war Germany.
Samuel’s story is one of survival against staggering odds and, though heart-rending and horrifying, it is ultimately one of triumph. WLRN
As an expression of respect for St. John Paul II, after the Pope's death, Willenberg made his sculpture. The Institute of National Remembrance, in cooperation with the “Dobry Grunt” Foundation, added the work devoted to the Holy Father to the exhibition during its presentation in Poland.
For more information on the travelling exhibition:
The official opening of the “Treblinka in the eyes of Samuel Willenberg” exhibition – Warsaw – 28 January 2020
The exhibition of Samuel Willenberg’s 15 bronze sculptures depicting life in the German death camp in Treblinka, can be seen at the IPN’s "Przystanek Historia" Educational Center in Cracow until 13 September 2020.